Some languages have a word for the wisdom that comes with looking back at an event. The nearest equivalent in English is ‘hindsight’, but the meaning in this context should be clear: Occupy London is no longer what it set out to be. A liberal wave has washed out the contents of what bore so much potential, leaving a hollow cave in which future explorers may still find a space of curiosity and radicalism. But first, we have to let it die – so that Occupy may live on.
When Occupy London first began, we all fell in love at the steps of St Pauls. We felt it was something that had never happened before. Something new, buzzing, and real. For the younger generation, it was our 1968, our delayed Spring of Hope that finally addressed the discontent brewing amid global recession and recurrent collapses. Spring was coming. A spring that would address the hike in student fees, the massive unemployment, and the reasons underlying the august riots. A spring that would create a radical alternative. For those slightly older, it seemed a chance to redeem a slumbering generation whose material safety had lulled them into the belief that economic growth, combined with “development of third world countries” was the best way to secure a good future for us in Western Europe, and – hopefully – for those not quite as fortunate as us.
It was global. Or, at the very least, international. We felt the unstoppable tide of the Arab Spring reach the shores of the Thames, after it had travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to make waves in downtown Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street spread to the world, and London jumped on board with curiosity, enthusiasm, and determination. On the very first day, in an attempt to occupy the London Stock Exchange, over 2,000 people came down to join. Several remained overnight. Hundreds of tents were pitched, in changing configurations over the course of a few weeks. A Tent City was born, complete with a kitchen tent, a university, a library, an information point. It was real, it was alive, and it was enthralling.
We had meetings, we organised, we debated, and we challenged the system. We wanted to address not just bankers’ bonuses and executive pay, but the very logic of capitalism itself. To prove alternatives do exist and are feasible. There were those who did not like us, and who scorned us for our lack of “demands”. We claimed they “did not understand” us. Mainstream press, drunken City workers on a Thursday night, and liberal right wingers were no longer the only ones with the right to speak. We made powerful a statement of demands on our second day, and we made sure it was heard.
We saw camps pop up across the globe. We had traveller-pilgrims, visitors from other movements. Some of us went on overnight bus rides to visit them. We felt alive, and we felt connected. Change was in the air. Inequality and justice back on the agenda. This, we felt, was our moment.
We were listened to, we were in the press, and much more importantly, we were on people’s lips. The possibilities of questioning the system and talking politics with strangers became legitimate, even necessary. People came to visit, they joined, they were radicalised. Enchanted. And we fell in love. With the movement. With the potential for change. With the buzz of voices. And, unfortunately, with ourselves. We had found a space, and we decided to occupy it, despite legal threats and police repression. After all, everything was civil here in England.
But perhaps the comfort of our legal status steered us onto the wrong track. Over winter, many remained indifferent, or became disenchanted, and the constant bickering over petty issues drained the remaining few of the energy they had mustered. Resuscitating the camp until the end of February left plans for May unclear, and plans beyond in an uncertain state. International bonds receded as other camps seemed to disappear off the grid. People remained active, but they no longer took the name in their mouth. The mainstream media systematically under-reported, or misreported, any activity. The police were no less systematic in their power policing. Some actions were in the pipeline, but in the eyes of the public, Finsbury Square clung onto a brown patch of what was once a lawn whilst the rest of the movement had vapourised. May came and went, but neither Mayday flowers nor the May12 rent-a-crowd gave the necessary lift. Occupy London, it seemed, was going into a lull.
At the time of writing, it is June 2012. A winter’s cold summer’s day in London. The city is buzzing with life, with tourists coming to visit Oxford Street, Covent Garden, Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. But there is no longer an Occupy camp at the steps of St Paul’s. And though tents pop up every now and then, in various locations, there is no longer an Occupy London. Press statements targeted at the corporate media gain few responses, if any. Actions have become such a common sight that the public have become blind to it. Call-outs for people to “get involved” become fewer and fewer, and the occupiers showing up are ever more sparse and familiar. Whilst small fractions of working groups debate how to connect with people, initiatives spring up that have nothing to do with the name of Occupy.
And maybe that is the way forward, for all those who saw their hopes raised on 15 October, later to be vanquished somewhere over the course of a very harsh winter. Our initial statement says it all: this is where we work towards it. We did. But the space had to transform into a metaphysical space to reach all those places where discussions were held, newspapers read, action taken, and life choices made.
We started to work towards a different society. But we never said that Occupy would be the solution. The solution was not our tents, the general assembly, the free food or working group meetings. It was not to provide a homeless shelter or a spiritual retreat. The solution was never within our reach – it lies beyond, behind, and on the side, bigger than our tents. This does not mean our efforts were futile. Changes take lifetimes, and much is yet to be done. Occupy was not first, nor shall it be last. It sounded an alarm bell, and it gathered more attention on those already highlighting injustice and working for fairer, greener alternatives. But Occupy was only a temporary community, and it must learn, not teach, when it interacts with others.
We may not be able to save the movement, but we can save its legacy. Most people have already abandoned ship, or are floating around an unstable core. The liberals that still cling on to the name of Occupy London should honour the hard work of others and let their own egos go.
Anyone who makes a name for themselves on the back of Occupy London should carefully question their own motives. And we should not be afraid to scrutinise them. Horizontality and accountability were, after all, at the core of the society we agreed, by consensus, to work towards. Rather than plug in a gas burner to temporarily reignite a beacon that is fast running out of wood, let us return to the embers and tend them, until we have added enough logs to the pile to light it anew, this time with a glow that will warm us for decades to come. There may not be any glory or stardom in this work, and those who were in it for their own CVs will find their interest dwindle. Humility and patience is needed for the movement to grow again and develop – not just as “Occupy London”, or even necessarily in London, but as a global construction for far-reaching, deep-rooted change.
We had no captain, only a temporary autonomous space of free thought in action. It is time to let go, and leave the space for new groupings and radical alternatives to grow and breathe with oxygen, without being suffocated by what has become of the Occupy London “brand”. If we stop mourning the dying phoenix, and instead remember all that was beautiful in it, the new phoenix rising from the ashes may still fly as an idea that promises new beginnings.
By Ragnhild Freng Dale (@ragnhildfd)