. From Wall Street to St Paul's | Ceasefire Magazine

From Wall Street to St Paul’s Special Report

Recently returned from a week in New York, Stefan Simanowitz explores the similarities between the London occupation and Occupy Wall Street.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, October 19, 2011 4:35 - 0 Comments

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Photos: Dome Vereczkey

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“I’ve had enough” says Tim Saunders. “Enough of this grotesque greed and fraud on a massive scale. Enough of spiralling education costs and watching my mother scrapping by on a meagre pension. Enough of the claim that the banks are too big to fail.”

Forty-five year-old chartered accountant Saunders is not your typical protester. He has joined the occupation outside St Paul’s Cathedral in his lunch-break and his discussion with other protesters has drawn a small crowd. As a middle-class father of two, his eloquent anger strikes a chord and people cheer him enthusiastically as he finally heads back to the office. “I only came down for a sandwich” he shrugs. “But be back tomorrow.”

As the sun came up on the fourth day of the occupation bleary-eyed protesters emerged from the hundred-or-so tents huddled in the shadow of one of London’s most iconic landmarks and made their way to the pop-up kitchen for a cup of tea and a hearty vegan breakfast. Overnight rain had done little to damped spirits, and the mood on the site with its home-made placards and colourful bunting is festive .

A handful of police unobtrusively skirt the perimeters whilst passing city-folk look on with interest and journalists and camera crews weave among the tents. It may look a little chaotic but the organisation of the occupation is impressive. In a few short days and with no formal leadership, the occupation has set-up structures to try and ensure that it can be both effective and enduring.

Small working groups have been established to support specific initiatives ranging from food, medical, and legal committees to media and technical support. A generator provides power to ensure events are filmed and ‘livestreamed’ and a charging station enables protestors to recharge their i-phones, cameras and computers.

Volunteers circulate, picking up rubbish, and there is even a library – nicknamed ‘Star Books’ – in front of the local Starbucks. An open-air canteen serves up free food prepared by a rota of six trained chefs, its menu constantly replenished with donations from local shops or well-wishers or bought with donations.

There is clearly a long way to go before the London occupation gets to the same level of organisation and support as the occupation in New York’s Zuccotti Park. In New York ‘stations’ around the park provide information and services including sleeping bags, clothing and tooth paste and the movement even publishes its own broadsheet newspaper – the Occupied Wall Street Journal. It nevertheless early days for the London occupation which draws much of its inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement, using similar strategies and methods.

As in New York, protesters have successfully occupied a central site which provides a crucial practical and symbolic focal point for the movement. Many slogans used – such as “We are the 99%” and “Bankers got bailed out, we got sold out” – are the same and as in New York, and the two General Assemblies held each day mirror those held in Zuccotti Park.

The General Assembly, described as “a horizontal, autonomous, leaderless, consensus-based system”, allows anyone present to propose an idea or express an opinion. Decisions are reached by a show of hands. The method does not make for quick decision-making but, as shown in Tahrir Square and Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, it can nevertheless be effective.

Over the past month the movement in America has spread across the country, garnering massive support. Fifteen of New York’s biggest unions have come out in solidarity, and support expressed by respected celebrities and key political figures including Joe Biden, Al Gore and Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. In terms of high-level support, the best the London occupation could muster over the weekend was Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and musician Billy Bragg.

As in New York, the vast majority of those camping overnight in London are young but, like Occupy Wall Street, the London occupation is also attracting people of all ages and backgrounds. “Since my grandson was born I’ve been forced to think about the sort of world he is going to grow-up in” sixty-six year old pensioner Julie Wright from Coventry tells me. “I am angry but this movement does give me some hope.”

A criticism regularly levelled at the movement, both in America and in Britain, is that it lacks “focus” and concrete goals. Indeed, ask each person outside St Pauls why they are there and you will get a different answer. You will hear talk about unemployment and welfare cuts, healthcare costs and environmental destruction, student loans and unfair taxation. But despite the multiplicity of issues raised there is an underlying cohesive sense of anger at corporate greed, government mismanagement and inequality.

So far, the movement has not attempted to offer a clear set of solutions nor a list of demands. Whilst these may emerge, there is no sense of urgency to focus on anything other than growing the movement. Addressing the General Assembly in Zuccotti Park on 9th October, the political philosopher Slavoj Zizek acknowledged that “[t]here are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want?” But Zizek is nevertheless energised by the movement. “The central message of is a clear one” he says. “We are allowed to think about alternatives.”

For those involved in the early stages of the movement on both sides of the Atlantic the air is filled with optimism. But as the unseasonally warm October weather slips away and tactical differences become more pronounced there are dangers. “Don’t fall in love with yourselves” warned Zizek. “We have a nice time here. But remember: carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after.”

In New York there is much discussion around the question of what a “win” would look. Some argue that they have already ‘won’ whilst others believe that the movement has only just begun. In some ways both are true and Occupy Wall Street has clearly succeeded in altering America’s political topography. Time will tell whether the occupation in London, and others around Britain, will manage to do the same.

Stefan Simanowitz

Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist and campaigner. He is Amnesty International's Media Manager for Europe, Turkey and the Balkans. He's on Twitter at @StefSimanowitz.

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