On my first day hanging around Finsbury Square, the 2nd London manifestation of the #Occupy movement, I met a young guy named James. James handed me a couple folded pieces of paper and asked me to write down why I was there and put it in his carboard box. So I did, having been intending to describe some of my thoughts on the #Occupy movement for the better part of a month. Below is a slightly extended version of the story I gave him…
I’m here for the possibility of something different. For the first time in my lifetime, I feel like something is emerging – though still a long way from being realised – that has the potential to bring us to a better global situation than the one we’ve been stuck with.
I’m sure its lineage could be traced back through countless forms of social change and human organisation throughout history, but I can see a clear link between #Occupy and the anti-globalisation movement ten years ago, where I first ‘learned’ to be an activist.
In Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa, we were getting to know each other; discovering that not only was there a significant group of us who saw the systemic problems in the world, but that we could be in touch with more-and-more of them via the still relatively crude version of the internet we had going back then.
For a decade, a massively distributed (if still niche) global network has kept a conversation going, percolating in a range of more issue-specific campaigns, but drawing the links between the vast array of social problems we are collectively facing.
…Then social media happened and the scale and quality of the conversation began to shift in ways few of us could have imagined possible. A few things happened in the following years that I’ve been thinking about lately:
- The discovery, via MoveOn.org, Avaaz.org and a range of other ‘clicktivist’ websites, showed us that not only could we connect with each other on the issues we believe in, we could also demonstrate our shared belief (and crowd-fund that belief!), in only a few seconds, with literally millions of others around the world. But most of it stayed online.
- The emergence of the environmental direct action movement, captured most effectively (but by no means exclusively) by Climate Camp, began to bring together relatively small, but still big enough to be viable, groups of people to put their bodies on the line (in the tradition of Trident Ploughshares and many others), but also to model the Ghandian notion of ‘being the change you want to see in the world’. Small temporary villages were erected on the sites of some of the UK’s worst climate crimes, and began to model what it might look like for a few hundred people to live more sustainably than we tend to in the West. But they remained a very niche and short-term presence.
- Then in November 2010, Britain saw unprecedented student protests – over 10,000 in London alone – but remarkably, without the NUS or any other traditional student organisations to back it. Facebook events and Twitter hashtags took the devastating implications of the proposed education cuts, and spread them like wildfire, connecting with a massive section of the student body, without any of the infrastructure that tend to keep these protests within certain (non-threatening) parameters. Like many protests before it, it raised the level of debate on the issues far above where it would have been without them, but it didn’t actually get in the way of the Government’s plans to make education unattainable for the vast majority of young people in Britain.
- This spring, UKuncut emerged. The direct action of Climate Camp, with the distributed leadership of the student protests coming together, keeping tax dodging corporations from doing business until they paid their fair share of taxes. What took UKuncut a step further, was its ability to practically ‘get in the way’, at a lot of different times, in a lot of different places, essentially regulating (albeit on a small scale) the offending companies that Government has refused to regulate themselves. But it didn’t offer a positive longer-term alternative to corporate tax evasion, beyond better Government regulation.
- Many won’t like this next piece, but I see this summer’s UK riots as part of the same continuum of ‘leaderless’ events; if as a warning of the destructive potential of mass self-organisation, but also as an expression that those with the least to lose in our society are still involved in the same networked world of the (broadly) middle class activists. Ugly as much of what happened those days was, there was a clear expression of power that came out of a place many least expected it would or could. And the spread and breadth of that was new, spread through handheld technologies, person-to-person, as much as through the media. However, it stayed mostly isolated from ‘the mainstream’ (an issue which needs a lot of unpicking in its own right).
(To be clear, this is a UK-centric perspective, though you can tie very clear links and inspiration with and from recent liberation movements in the Middle East and workers occupations in Latin America. As these are not areas I feel especially qualified to write on, I’ve focussed on my local examples.)
All of these stages are still critical at every emerging moment of change; different people are ready to be involved in different ways, and Avaaz, Climate Camp and Facebook-initiated protests are all providing in-roads to newly-aware members of ‘the 99%’. What makes the #Occupy movement feel different to me is how much we are beginning to bring all of them together. And then some.
What we’re starting to see now:
- Drawing together of these themes – a harder core of activists at forefront (a la Climate Camp), massive informal ‘infrastructure’ of donors, supporters, messengers (a la Avaaz), a direct disruption of the system (a la UKuncut) and a large scale self-organisation via web platforms (captured during the student protests, the summer riots and elsewhere around the world).
- The beginnings of a more inclusive space, even if it is fraught with tension and is bringing broadly-middle class activists’ relative privilege to the uncomfortable surface. Some of the difficult conversations about difference and discrimination are beginning to be had, as they invariably rear their ugly heads when a bunch of people are living in close quarters together. It will likely be messy, but it’s important that it is happening. I get the impression there has been greater inclusivity amongst particular American occupations thus far, particularly on Wall Street, where people who really never would otherwise cross paths are starting to do so, and are starting to make sense of difference within the group, rather than ignore, or actively dismiss it.
What we haven’t seen yet:
- The inclusion of or connection with a wider range of communities. I’ve heard several examples from a range of #Occupy cities, of non-white/straight/male/middle-class activists being told they are ‘being divisive’ for highlighting the range of inequalities they have faced, that make their positions very different from those of much of the rest of the 99%. This is something we need to address, and need to have addressed for us by those who are very much more likely to be the victims of police violence, job discrimination, street harassment and a range of other kinds of oppression as this movement grows, if we want to have a movement that truly begins to represent the 99%.
- The resilience of the movement to sustain and expand itself as a viable ‘alternative to Government’. There are better and worse examples of groups operating independently of an official government, within an existing state. Hizbollah, for example, have at many times been the de facto government in a range of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, offering essential services to those in need. In the 1970s the Black Panther Party began to operate on a similar basis in primarily Black neighbourhoods in California and elsewhere in the US. Hizbollah and the Panthers both represent some of the better and worse elements of the ‘state-within-a-state’ paradigm, but both managed to forge a space outside of that controlled by Government, which could address a range of basic human needs in the process. What excites me about #Occupy, is the potential to create something functionally parallel to Government, without the rigid hierarchy and likelihood of violence associated with the above examples. Perhaps this is the next challenge for the movement?
I think #Occupy is the first baby steps of a true alternative to the broken system we currently share, emerging with each new occupation and each new practical answer to a basic human need; from toilets, to democratic processes; recycling, to education; food provision, to communications channels.
I feel that the ‘alternative’ to capitalism that the media keeps patronisingly asking us for, will not be able to be summarised into a single ‘ism’ or sound-bite, but will grow differently in an infinite number of places around the world, connecting with the successes of other ‘occupations’, while remaining independent and distinct from what they have achieved. We really are becoming the change we want to see in the world… so for better and worse, the only thing we can guarantee is that it won’t happen without us.