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Tuesday, November 01, 2011 

What is to be done about Occupy London?

There are many things that have been exceptionally strange about the response from the Church of England, or at least from those in charge at St. Paul's, to the OccupyLSX protesters setting up camp on the doorstep. Their immediate recourse to health and safety, the connivance with the City of London corporation and the subsequent outrage that anyone could suggest they were breaking bread with Mammon rather than God, the absolutely unnecessary resignations (with the possible exception of Giles Fraser's), and the belief that shutting down the cathedral, when everyone is only too aware of its association with surviving the Blitz, would be acceptable to anyone. All of these pale into insignificance though with the even more curious belief that everyone has regarded the position they've taken as disastrous, with criticism, according to the Graun's Andrew Brown, "unanimous".

This seems to me to be mixing up St. Paul's definitely cack-handed attempts at asking the protesters to move on with the notion that they should instead be welcoming the guests on their courtyard with completely open arms, something that has most certainly not been unanimous. I for one have been utterly bemused by the almost completely uncritical approach taken by the left in general towards OccupyLSX, with the most searching questions asked not whether taking over the front of what is probably Britain's best loved building, with the end result being the resignation of decent men, is a good thing, but instead whether the message coming from the protesters is coherent enough. Probably the biggest indictment of the camp is that it seems to mean something different to every single writer moved to comment. Certainly this isn't cleared up by the group themselves, who in the best doomed micro-community traditions vote on everything and so end up agreeing only on platitudes.

This though is hardly surprising when the group is so clearly and inextricably linked with UK Uncut. Those who like me have a similar penchant for inflicting great pain on themselves will have noticed that one of the spokespeople for OccupyLSX is a certain Lucy, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Lucy Annson who appeared on Newsnight back in March following the hijacking of the March for the Alternative by both UK Uncut and the black bloc. Annson distinguished herself then with a performance so vapid that any remaining sympathy I had for Uncut evaporated immediately, a very special feat when the group's aims are on the surface highly admirable. Targeting Vodafone following the sweetheart deal they struck with HMRC was a masterstroke, as was then going after the banks and other tax dodgers. It wasn't achieving anything tangible, but it was bringing attention to the tax gap. Then they struck on the wizard idea of going after Fortnum and Mason. F&M themselves are not tax avoiders, instead UK Uncut's accusation was that the group's owners themselves own a 54.5% stake in another group that were involved in avoidance. To get hundreds of young people arrested for aggravated trespass for protesting in a store only very nominally connected with tax avoidance seemed an act of truly phenomenal stupidity and vanity.

The occupation of the outside of the cathedral seems then a natural follow on from that outbreak of folly, the difference being that this time, in line with the other Occupy groups, they intend to stay there semi-permanently. As alluded to before, rather than having any backup plan should they fail to gain control of their actual target, it seems Occupy not knowing what to do decided to just sit as near to it as possible, regardless of whether they were being a spectacular inconvenience to those other than bankers and stockbrokers. Incredibly for them, for now it hasn't been a complete unmitigated disaster. Two weeks later they're still there, they're still in the news and the Church has all but agreed with their aims. It must be a success then surely?

Except, not really. Away from the bubble in the Graun and on blogs, like Flying Rodent I haven't detected a single murmur of anything approaching approval. Over in the States, helped along by the police's predictable brutality, the movement does seem to have struck something of a chord, chiefly because their message highlighting the huge gap between the 99% and the 1% is both so profound and because it's been so rarely dwelt upon at such length. Back here, we do talk about inequality and the gap between rich and poor, even if we don't do anything about it. Moreover, our welfare system as yet has not been decimated as it has in the States, where it quickly leaves those down on their luck without unemployment benefits or healthcare. Things are not quite as bleak, even if there will always be those who slip through the cracks.

Without a clear achievable cause, any long term protest is doomed. The difference between OccupyLSX and two of the most cited examples is obvious. Last year's protests against the rise in tuition fees, in which Paul and others participated may not have resulted in a change in policy at the top, but they made individual universities and others take notice and have to in some cases make extra provisions for poorer students. Scarlet Standard additionally raises Brian Haw's long-term protest in Parliament Square, although she regards him as a failure for not stopping the war. Haw in fact began his protest before the September 11th attacks, in opposition to the continued sanctions and bombing of Iraq. His camp was not so much about stopping the wars as bearing witness to those suffering as a result of them. More than anything, he annoyed MPs and those with the bumptious view that his protest was an eyesore rather than something that should be a part of life around the heart of our democracy, always serving as a reminder that there were some consequences to their actions.

OccupyLSX would at least be achieving something if it was annoying those that put us in this mess. Instead it's playing havoc with those already sympathetic to the cause while the adherents to Mammon either ignore them or openly mock their presence. They might have provided a wake-up call to the clergy, but everyone else seems distinctly unmoved. Movements need leaders, those prepared to make a case direct to camera about what is to be done. Prancing about in masks only works for a time, and indifference or slight interest quickly turns into outright hostility. If nothing else, they should at least try and keep Lucy away from the cameras.

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