By Peter Brown
At one point on Sunday afternoon, the facilitator of Occupy London’s General Assembly was overcome with the enormity of what the occupation was trying to achieve.
“Just let me think about this for a minute,” she said, lowering the loudspeaker and covering her face with her hand. The group of several hundred protesters on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral was trying to agree a process for drafting a statement to release to the media that evening, and it was not easy.
Visibly concentrating, the facilitator stood still as the crowd fell silent. Right on cue, the bells of the massive cathedral began to peal.
“OK, this is what we’re going to do,” she said, and the crowd buzzed into life again. She suggested that each group nominated a representative to collaborate on the statement, which would then be brought back to the General Assembly for its approval. This would mean that everyone present had a chance for their voice to be heard.
The Assembly showed its agreement with this proposal by waving its hands in the air. It had been a struggle, but finally the drafting of the statement could begin.
Occupy London’s first day at St Paul’s was full of painstakingly inclusive moments like this. Everywhere you looked, there was an exhilarating sense of people figuring out from scratch how they wanted their fledgling community to function.
After the discussion about the media statement, the General Assembly moved on to other practical matters. Someone got up and read out a list of the occupation’s various working groups – kitchen, cleaning, tech, legal, outreach and so on – and issued a general plea for more volunteers.
More cleaners were desperately needed, in particular. The occupiers were well aware that they would only be allowed to stay at St Paul’s as long as they kept the church onside, and that meant respecting the area and tidying up after themselves.
The call was heeded: as soon as the Assembly was over, the information point was flooded with people offering to help, and extra litter collections were soon underway.
Other people offered to help with printing and distributing leaflets. Around the site, small discussion groups were breaking out, offering everyone a chance to have their say in what the occupation did next.
Children were playing and tourists were posing for photos in front of a huge banner that read ‘Capitalism Is Crisis’, despite a sign that exhorted them to ‘Take Action Not Pictures’. Families eating lunch in the Pizza Express across the road looked on with bemused fascination.
The police watched all this activity but, having already negotiated a deal with the protesters not to erect metal barriers around the camp if it stayed within agreed boundaries, showed little interest in moving anyone along.
A passerby asked the police if the protesters were allowed to drape banners over the statues outside the cathedral. Queen Anne now sported a sign declaring herself to be one of the 99%.
“The church have said they’re OK with it, so there’s nothing we can do,” came the reply.
Asked how long they intended to allow the occupation to continue, another officer said that decision would be taken much higher up the chain of command. “So far, it’s a peaceful protest, so there’s no problem,” he said.
As people pitched their tents and got ready for a cold night, the mood was peaceful and optimistic, but determined. At the General Assembly earlier, there had been plenty of anger. Speaker after speaker had railed against catastrophic economic inequality, against the British government’s austerity measures making life harder for those who had done least to cause the financial crisis, and against a political class that many feel is in the pocket of the corporations.
No-one at St Paul’s was under any illusions that the occupation was about to solve any of those problems. But it was providing a space for potential solutions to be discussed and, as the numerous camera crews around the site demonstrated, it was drawing attention to a growing global movement of protest against the status quo.
As the sun went down a young girl danced around the camp chanting “We are the 99%,” a slogan popularised by the Occupy Wall Street protests. The phrase emphasises how broad-based the Occupy movement is becoming, welcoming people from far beyond the traditional protest community. When it comes to dealing with this mess, we’re all in it together, as David Cameron might say.
Later that evening, Occupy London’s first statement was released to the media. Point 9 read: “This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us!”
Inclusive, exciting, optimistic and genuinely democratic, this fragile alternative community is a fascinating phenomenon. If you want to go along and add your voice, you will be heard.