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Some reflections on a day at Occupy LSX at St Paul’s Cathedral

I spent most of the day yesterday around St. Pauls’ Cathedral visiting the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp there. With hindsight I probably didn’t pick the best day. November 9th was also the day of the student protests and the police presence in the city was the biggest I think I have ever seen in my life. From the moment I left St. Pauls’ tube station, there were ranks of police, policevans, dogs, horses, all kinds of different police units all over the place. During the day I was often reminded of ‘Apocalypse Now’ or ‘Boyz in the Hood’, given the constant noise of helicopters overhead, which at times, even made conversation difficult.

The student march had been refused permission to march past St. Pauls, and the police were keen to prevent that from happening, as well as also to stop a repeat of the rioting that was seen at the same protest last year. Shortly after I arrived, many of the people at the camp set off on a march to meet the student demonstration. I set off with them for a while, but knew I had to get back to do my talk, and was separated from the main demonstration by deep rows of police who blocked the road. It was a pretty scary scene I must say, very heavy.

It all meant that when it came to giving my talk back at the OccupyLSX camp there were only about 20 people. Shaun Chamberlin, author of ‘The Transition Timeline’ was there too, so we co-presented the session. I talked about peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis, and how Transition weaves them together. I ran through a number of different projects that Transition groups are doing and how they are starting to take the step across into creating social enterprises and enabling inward community investment. Shaun talked about the different cultural stories we tell ourselves, and how Transition represents a new one. The talk was hard on the tonsils, trying to make myself heard above the helicopter noise (!), but there were some interesting questions and discussion afterwards.

Later in the afternoon Billy Bragg, a long-time hero of mine, played in front of St Pauls’ which was a delight for this old fart who first saw him back in the 80s doing miners’ strike benefits and who WAS ‘The Saturday Boy’.

Some voices of Occupy LSX

During the day I tried to gather some voices from the camp. Why were people there? What were they getting out of it? What was it all about? I hope the following short audio pieces, from interviews with an unscientifically chosen sample, capture the atmosphere there and a diversity of voices. Firstly I talked with Chris, who has been there since the start. Why was he there? (audio in original article

I met Esther, from Spain, who had also seen the demonstrations there during the summer, and who reflected on how they were similar, and how they were different… (audio in original article)

Frannie Owen, from Bridport, had come up to visit for the day and found herself manning the Information Tent all day! (audio in original article)

Nathan Cravens from Texas was running the Occupy LSX library (to whom I donated a copy of ‘The Transition Companion’: (audio in original article)

Some reflections

In my first while at Occupy LSX, I confess to feeling a bit disappointed. On first impressions, opening a space for people to voice their discontent and their disquiet with what is happening means that in rush all sorts of assorted issues, campaigns and disaffected voices. There were 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the Zeitgeist movement, Socialist Worker, all manner of single issue groups as well as just some very angry people with a lot of chips on their shoulders. I had been expecting, from what I had read online over the past few weeks, a very focused and cogent common take on the economic crisis, but many of the people I spoke to, while they had a strong sense that the economic system is broken and needs fixing, weren’t able to really explain why, or what an alternative vision would look like other than being fairer and more equal. There was also clearly, as has also been observed at other Occupy camps too, a problem with people with drink and mental health issues who had become involved with the camp.

However, as the day passed, it all started to make sense. What Occupy is doing that matters so much is that it is holding a space. It is holding a space where the discussions can take place on their own terms about what is broken and what needs fixing. It is underpinned by a realisation that this is a crucial time of change where everything is on the table, where business-as-usual is no longer an option. It isn’t making demands because that would put the power in the hands of the people in power to decide whether or not to respond to them. It is holding the space for the conversations, and is doing so on its own terms. I admire that.

As with the roads protests I was involved with in the early 90s, keeping a gathering like that together through inclement weather, public scorn, harassment and so on takes people with a lot of guts. Personally I have never lived through a revolution, and I’ve never seen one, but there was a taste there, for me, of what the beginning of one would feel like. Everyone I spoke to felt that the camp was there to stay, and that every day more and more people arrive to offer their support (and their money, and vegetables, and socks, and cakes…). This creation of a sense of possibility, of not waiting for permission, is one of the things that Occupy and the Transition movement have in common it seemed to me.

The systems for managing people with drink, drug and mental health issues began to come into focus, with the Welfare Tent, trained people keeping a look-out and the ‘Love Police’ who deal with drunks and difficult people at night. In the free newspaper being distributed at the camp there was a story about a suicidal man being rescued from a suicide attempt a few nights ago. I spoke with Alison Clayford who was setting up the Welfare tent, and has been at Occupy LSX from the beginning: (audio in original article)

I was disappointed not to have been able to stay long enough to see the General Assembly which is the key forum for making decisions and which I would have loved to see in practice. What I tried to get across in the talk I gave, and what feels to me to be a missing part in the discussions, at least in so far as I could tell from a short visit and in what I have been reading online, has been an awareness of the wider energy limits that are underpinning the economic contraction that we are seeing, and also the arguments around how, when combined with the unravelling debt crisis (the Evening Standard headline as I headed home was “Descent into chaos begins”), it means, to all intents and purposes, the end of economic growth.

In this context, calling for the creation of jobs and no cuts is somewhat futile. But then it’s easy for me to sit and say “what Occupy should be discussing is this and this”, but the fact is I’m not actually prepared to go and camp in the middle of London for 3 weeks in the cold to make those points. Those who are will form their own conclusions, and will rightly resist other people attributing beliefs to them. All I can do is keep doing what I’m doing in trying to make Transition happen, accelerating that, and creating some models and stories that they will hopefully find inspiring and useful.

In a recent piece that Shaun wrote for the Transition social reporting project, he made the point that it may be that it is the moment where Occupy recognises “the inherent problem of protesting against the system your lifestyle depends on” when the conversation can go to a much more interesting places. You can’t, after all, just base deep change on an analysis of what is wrong. This identification of solutions has to happen in its own time, and OccupyLSX has many people going there to give talks from a range of solutions-type initiatives, and I was honoured to be able to contribute to that.

I hope that as that conversation unfolds, the learning of 5 years of Transition initiatives and some of the really exciting developments (community energy companies, local currencies, local food systems, social enterprises and so on) will feed into those discussions. I’m not going to wait for them to figure it out, but it’ll be fascinating to hear when they do.

I chatted with Shaun, and asked him about what he saw as the overlaps between Transition and Occupy: (audio in original article)

In his article he quoted Sharon Astyk as saying:

“the reality is that the growth we’ve lived with is going away whether we like it or not – I’m hoping that this new emergent consensus that we’ve been screwed comes with a collective response to the end of growth – or the solidarity won’t last as the system pits people against one another”.

I feel privileged to have seen and spent time at Occupy. While protest culture isn’t for everyone, and there are aspects of it that personally make my toes curl, it struck me that what everyone can do, in a time when it is increasingly clear to anyone who thinks about it, that business as usual is no longer a runner and that new thinking is needed and soon, is to occupy, in their own lives, that sense of possibility, that space for asking the questions that matter.

That’s something we can take into businesses and councils, as well as into our families and our communities. When I give talks to councils these days, I start by saying “for the next 40 minutes, let’s say that no-one can say ‘when we get back to growth in 2 years’, because I know that if I talked to you on your own, very few of you actually believe that”. It creates a space where we can have those conversations. We can all occupy that space, the one that embraces the possibilities these times present rather than shutting down in the face of uncertainty.

It struck me that Transition says to people “take this model and do it where you are”, whereas Occupy suggests coming together to suspend your life while you explore, with others, the question of what’s the best thing to do now. Transition is about building that into your own life, right now, drawing on the experience of many others. You might say that Occupy suggests occupying, for example, Wall Street, while Transition suggests occupying your own street, putting up runner beans and solar panels rather than tents. There is great richness in this diversity of approaches. I was left mulling the question I should have asked Frannie from the information tent, when people arrive and say “I don’t have the time to be here at Occupy, but what can I do in my own life, at home, in my street?” It would be fascinating to know the answer they receive.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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