A New Year is a natural time for reflection and planning for change. Time magazine’s choice of ‘The Protestor’ as person of the year owes much to the gallant struggle of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Northern Africa – but here in the west, we too have witnessed civil disobedience on a scale not seen for a generation or more.
2011 will be remembered as the year that the people finally stood up to oppressive governments and financial systems the world over. That struggle will continue into 2012 and beyond.
There is no doubt that the Occupy movement has already achieved a great deal. Though some try to dismiss that claim, they often do so on false pretences. Is it the responsibility of an embryonic social movement to provide all the solutions for society? If the problems are caused by the ideologies people hold, sometimes the answer is to pose those individuals a problem of their own. Merely asking the right questions – something modern day politicians seem unwilling to do – is a beginning. But Occupy has already achieved far more than this.
For decades the ‘left’ has struggled to put equality at the centre of the political debate. Now, even those who do not identify with traditional progressive politics are calling for a fairer world, one in which resources are less dominated by the 1 per cent. Mainstream media around the globe have been forced to engage with Occupy’s agenda and, slowly, politicians and governments have taken notice of a movement doing what they ought to.
We must resist any urge to think of Occupy as belonging to 2011 while there is still so much work to be done. But, just as we make New Year’s resolutions for ourselves, we can take this opportunity to think about how we can be more successful in future; what our strengths and weaknesses are; and how we should grow to meet the challenges ahead.
In the US, the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park on 15th November brought tens of thousands out onto the streets of New York. But this was not its most important result.
Crucially, that eviction triggered a period of self-examination about how the Occupy movement might best move forward, beyond its signature tents and into communities, enacting the movement’s core message through practical action rather than symbolism. It is a journey that has seen American occupiers leave tents behind in favour of defending the homes of those about to be foreclosed.
This journey – one that very much mirrors that of the indignados several months previously – was well encapsulated by Noam Chomsky a week ago when he encouraged occupiers: “Don’t be obsessed with tactics but with purpose… Tactics have a half life.”
Thanks to equal measures of adroitness and serendipity, Occupy London’s initial encampment at St Paul’s Churchyard has now far outlived Zuccotti Park in duration. We have, in the main, enjoyed the fair exercise of the rule of law. It would be a bitter irony – and a failure of enormous proportions – if we allowed our comparative security to stop us seeing some of our more distinctive tactics for what they are: a tool to be employed only for as long as they remain useful.
Useful tactics generate change. They inspire others to act. To do that we must look outwards.
We have spent much time looking inwards, without tackling some of the very real problems we face across our four Occupy London sites. These are hard things to see in print, but we need to be honest with each other if we are to move on.
Our sites are not the safe spaces we would like them to be. Many who used to stay overnight at St Paul’s – women in particular – no longer feel able to do so. We need to be honest about the causes of this – and we also need to be honest about the consequences.
That Tranquility find it necessary to wear stab vests in order to carry out their duties is a sad indictment on the state of wider society, but it is also a reflection of our own failure to set ground rules. We have struggled to find an effective counter to challenging behaviour, and, in the process, have become somewhat insular.
The determination to hold on to something that is no longer working properly has created something of a siege mentality and – unlike the problems themselves – the dangers of this have not been properly recognised.
Perhaps we are wasting energy that would be better projected outwards in clinging on to spaces? When our spaces begin to cost us more than they provide, it’s time to be courageous. A movement must move in order to inspire. It must change itself to change minds. We’ve come a long way since we began but it’s now time to be brave and ask the question: where does the future for Occupy lie?
We can all identify problems, but in our present situation, it might be worth looking instead for what we should be working hard to retain. Our General Assemblies, when they work well, bring a wide number of voices together, giving all concerned a real stake in decisions reached. Let’s take this further: a network of people’s assemblies across the country taking politics into their own hands could transform perceptions of what representative government should be doing.
Our working groups are centres of expertise. Some of those networks could move beyond their roles within the occupation and begin to see themselves as cells working towards the betterment of society, standing up to socio-economic injustice and forging their own links with groups in our wider community who are doing similarly.
As a movement of individuals, we draw our strength from our shared convictions. We can stand tall because we know that others stand with us, even when things are difficult. After two and a half months out in the cold, noone can doubt our resilience and tenacity: and nothing will do more to move others out of their comfort zone and into the realm of action than by taking that leap ourselves.