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Laurie Penny on the Occupy movement, three months on

The protest has become a network of mutual support for the lost and destitute.

The protest has become a network of mutual support for the lost and destitute.

The Bank of Ideas is almost empty. It's midnight, and on the roof of London's financial district a serious discussion about the future of the Occupy movement has been interrupted to allow two stray humans to chase after one stray cat.

"We found him in a scrapyard," says a young man called Spiral, cuddling the rescued ginger tom into his hoodie. Spiral is homeless, having left Essex to live in the London occupations last October. "He didn't seem to have any owners, so now we all take care of him," Spiral says. He's talking about the cat, which purrs like a happy engine as more dart-eyed young people approach to offer it some of their dinner -- homemade vegetable soup supplemented by hunks of fish they found in a skip.

Three months on, this is what the Occupy movement looks like: a network of mutual support for the lost and destitute, with anti-capitalist overtones. The Bank of Ideas, an abandoned building owned by the Swiss banking giant UBS and transformed into a space for art sessions, lectures and late-night discussion on the future of the free market, is one of four sites squatted by London's branch of the movement. The occupations began with the encampment on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, which has just lost its battle against eviction at the Royal Courts of Justice, and branched out to Finsbury Square, and an empty magistrate's court on Old Street. As other world cities have seen similar protests violently evicted by local police, the occupiers of London have clung on through a winter that has seen the nature of the camps change profoundly.

"I came here for the community," says Declan, 29. "Before this I was living in Galway, essentially trying to get together enough weed to get through the day. It's better here." He passes a glowing spliff around the other roof-dwellers. The tranquility group, with its strict policy against drugs and drunkenness, would not approve this gesture of friendship. Muriel, a french artist in her forties, is excited and a little stoned, examining the walls daubed with murals, slogans and lovingly pasted pamphlets. "If bird catcher comes, occupy the sky," she says, reading off the brickwork. "That is truly beautiful. I feel that something beautiful is happening here."

As the winter drags on, many of those who have stayed are those, like Spiral and his cat, who can't or won't go home. They are the waifs and strays and nuts and eccentrics, the wide-eyed young men with theories about how computers can calculate the perfect democracy, the straggle-haired women with bags full of paintbrushes and dirt in the creases of their cheeks. For the more media-savvy organisers of Occupy London, this has created something of a public relations dilemma.

The people who live full or part-time in the camps can now be divided into roughly three categories: those who were homeless before the occupations, those who will shortly be homeless, and those who merely look homeless. Three months of sleeping in tents, washing in the bathrooms of nearby cafes and working around-the-clock to run a kitchen feeding thousands with no running water and little electricity will transform even the most fresh-faced student into a jittering bundle of aching limbs and paranoia. Even those who haven't been living here full-time have an air of righteous exhaustion about them.

This is the part where the noble adventure of political resistance becomes a straightforward slog.

There are many for whom the unglamorous parts of maintaining an honest counter-culture do not fit into the narrative of presentable protest. Last week in New York City, activists from the original occupation in Zuccotti Park were turned away at the door of an event being held in their honour, because they looked and smelled precisely as if they had been living in tents and abandoned buildings since September. In London, at St Paul's, City workers in smart suits stop to snap pictures of the camp's battered marquees, but shy away when a man dressed entirely in pillowcases offers to take a shot with them in it. They're not going to let these people anywhere near their smartphones.

The struggle to keep a polite face on the movement can slip into censoriousness. At the late-night cabaret at Occupy Justice, the empty magistrates' court on Old Street, the burlesque dancers have been forbidden to expose their breasts. "There were some people who didn't think that was a good way of furthering the cause of the Occupy Movement," says Naomi Colvin, a long-time organiser who has become one of the unofficial spokespeople of Occupy London, regularly appearing on panels and in media coverage of the protests. The walls of the courthouse are plastered with signs instructing the heaving crowd of tramps, activists and trendy young Shoreditch hipsters not to smoke, not to write on the walls, not to leave rubbish. "This is a nice place," says one of the working group leaders. "We're nice people here."

Nice, however, has rarely trembled the walls of power.

It should be noted that no amount of scrupulous cleaning stopped the police in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and other major cities from using the excuse of "unsanitary conditions" to evict protest camps calling for banking regulation -- it's infectious ideas, not infectious diseases, that really have the authorities worried. In London, some of the cleaner activists I meet, including those who have been involved in organising the camps from the start, quietly express the opinion that eviction might now be the best thing that could happen to the occupations. But not everyone agrees.

In the back room of the courthouse I meet Tom, 24, who describes himself as "tramp liaison". Like many members of the movement with less reliable access to showers, Tom has a lot to say about the way "sociology students in jumpers" are setting the agenda. "They talk about 'the homeless problem' at general assemblies, and I stand up and say, 'I'm homeless, are you talking about me?'," he says, sipping from a can of cheap Polish lager. "Yeah, there's definitely tension. All the camp beauraucrats will come up to you and say, 'oh, you can't roll a spliff in the uni tent', and I'm like, 'fuck off man, I'm an activist. I've been out fighting the EDL in Barking all morning'."

The main bone of contention is not drugs, but direction. Some activists are unhappy that Occupy London has chosen to work so closely with the Church on whose ground they have been camped for three months. The St Paul's occupation, which now describes itself unconfrontationally as a "guest" of the Cathedral, has without doubt had its radical bite dulled by the Church of England's grudging, eventual decision to work with the protests. Religiosity seems to ooze out of the flagstones here: ministers and police officers wander unopposed through the camp, which is festooned with signs asking "what would Jesus do?". Three months on, those signs have lost all their irony.

Others believe that movement has been taken over by external lobby groups with their own agenda, and still others are concerned that the general assemblies are choosing to focus, in Tom's words, on "the legal thing". Much of the camps' energy has indeed been directed towards fighting running battles to keep the sites open, and occupiers in the legal working groups hope to set a precedent in English case law to protect protesters' rights to free expression under Article Ten of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This explains some of the anxiety about keeping the camp clean and presentable. "We're really trying to keep the occupation fluffy," says Anna, 31. "There are some people living here who just aren't very used to being listened to." Anna, showing me around an impromptu pro-Palestine photography exhibition in the courthouse, describes the camp's internal conflicts with a generosity that is typical of the Occupy movement at its best. "It's been a massive learning curve for all of us here," she says. "Although, yes, the drinking can be a problem. I think if Occupy achieves anything at all, it'll be a whole load of people getting their voices heard for the first time."

There is a stubborn percentage of the 99 per cent who will never be able to communicate their message politely on Newsnight. Back at the Bank of Ideas, an overweight old man called Boba cannot make it up the stairs because he uses a wheelchair and the lifts are out of order. Throughout the night, the younger and sprightlier occupiers ferry the makings of sweet tea and pieces of food on scrupulously clean plates up and down the stairs to him, and are rewarded with conversation. All of this gives the lie to Orwell's axiom that "serenity is impossible to a poor man in a cold country".

On the roof, the talk turns to meditation, and to the spiritual toxicity of the banking sector. A young Romanian man called Valentin will not stop grabbing my hand and demanding my phone number. Subtle and then decidedly unsubtle hints about personal space do not put him off, and eventually Muriel invites me to sleep beside her; I observe, not for the first time, that there are far fewer young women here than there were in November. When I wake in the morning, someone has put a borrowed sleeping bag around my shoulders. There is a dawn chorus of hippies and homeless teenagers coughing up last night's tar, and the kettle is on.

There are different ways of being on the streets, and all of them are political. As the recession immiserates more and more of us, resistance will increasingly become a process of negotiating trauma, of developing economies of care that include the lost, the destitute, the down-and-out, those who cannot be "fluffy" because they have become crusted over with the debris of desperation. When these occupations are evicted, not everyone involved will be able to go home, scrub the dirt out of their hair and go back to work. Those who have lost their jobs and homes, those who left them to protest, and those who never had them in the first place attract disapprobium from their own side as well as from those determined to slander the anti-capitalist movement as filthy and unkempt. Useful activism, however, usually involves getting your hands dirty.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Why the past 12 months have been the worst of my lifetime

We desperately need a return to calm and moderation.

Twitter is a weird phenomenon: a deeply selective, wholly unreliable Survation or YouGov in your pocket, with an even bigger margin for error. I’ve been tweeting for a year now, but I’m still useless at guessing what is likely to attract attention; so I was taken completely by surprise at the end of last week when a comment I jotted down received thousands of Likes and retweets. “It’s a year since Jo Cox was murdered,” I wrote: “the worst year for Britain in my lifetime. We badly need a return to Jo’s concept of moderation now.”

Fairly anodyne, you would have thought, but it seems to have touched a nerve. Clearly many other people feel that the past year, with its violence and disasters and wholesale political instability, has been a bad one. For days afterwards, my phone kept buzzing as more people retweeted it. There were, as always, a few contrarians who objected that other years since 1944 must have been worse; some said “much worse”. But that isn’t really true.

After D-Day, we knew the war was going to be won. Despite the bombs, the country was proud of itself and pulling together, and the likes of my father were hoping for a better world as soon as it was finished. The year of the Suez crisis, 1956, was pretty bad, but Anthony Eden was gone directly, and Harold Macmillan’s phoney self-confidence convinced people that things would be all right – and anyway the economy was growing impressively.

The period of the Heath government had awful moments: 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday and IRA attacks, was especially bad. Yet there was nothing like the appalling Grenfell Tower fire to divide the nation. And 1974 was humiliating for the government, but our membership of the European Economic Community offered a certain stability. We had a different, more forelock-tugging relationship with our political leaders then. The news bulletins used to talk reverently of “the prime minister, Mr Wilson”; now they just say “Theresa May”.

Today we have a prime minister who is held to have been mortally wounded by a series of personal failures and miscalculations; a governing party that has been self-harming for years over the question of ­Europe; an opposition that, until just recently, was regarded as hopelessly incompetent and naive; an economy that could be damaged by an ill-judged Brexit agreement; and a new vulnerability to terrorism, in which one atrocity quickly overlays the memory of the last.

There’s a newly hysterical tone in British society, which had always seemed so reassuringly reliable and sensible. The crowd that stormed Kensington Town Hall as though it were the Bastille or the Winter Palace mistook a man in a suit for a Tory councillor and beat him up. It transpired that he was an outside contractor who had spent much of the week helping the Grenfell Tower victims.

Above all, what was until recently the world’s fifth-largest economy has suddenly found itself on the edge of a trapdoor in the dark. “Back to the Thirties”, some people are saying. “Venezuela”, say others. Even Brexiteers who feel liberated and excited at the prospect of getting out of the EU can’t know if it’s going to work. Friends of mine who voted Leave because they were fed up with David Cameron or thought things needed a shake-up now show a degree of buyer’s remorse. Perhaps, like Boris Johnson in the BBC2 drama Theresa vs Boris, they thought the country was so stable that nothing bad would actually happen.

We’ve entered a period of sudden, neurotic mood swings. The opinion polls, unable to cope, tell us at one moment that Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as dangerous and useless, and at the next that a growing number of people see him as the national saviour. The Prime Minister’s “safe pair of hands” are now deemed too shaky to carry the country’s china. Ukip polled over 10 per cent in 450 seats in 2015, and in only two seats in 2017.

If any further evidence of neuroticism is needed, there is the longing that people have to be enfolded in the arms of a comforting authority figure. For some, it was the Queen, calming everyone down with a message of unity, or Prince William, hugging a grieving woman after the Grenfell Tower fire. For others, it was Corbyn doing the right human things while Theresa May walked past the tower ruins awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

It feels like being back in 1997, with the huge crowds in the Mall or outside Kensington Palace demanding to be comforted after the death of Diana. Then, the Queen was blamed for not being the mother figure we seemed, disturbingly, to want. Tony Blair had the right words at that time, and no doubt he would have had the right words after Grenfell Tower. But is it merely words and gestures we need?

It’s a bad sign when countries feel that they need an individual to sort them out. It’s because of its system, based on openness, inclusiveness and the rule of law, that Britain has grown strong and wealthy. Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in June 2015: “While we celebrate our diversity, what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She was murdered by a fanatic who screamed, “This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!” The year that those words ushered in has indeed been the worst in my lifetime. The government slogan “Keep calm and carry on” was invented in 1939, when all-out German bombing seemed imminent. It is easy to lampoon but when it was rediscovered a few years ago it became popular, because it spoke directly to our national consciousness. We’ve never had more need of calmness than now.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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