Monday, 7 November 2011

Occupying themselves

I work around the corner from ‘Occupy London’, or ‘#OccupyLSX’, if you want to give it oxygen via Twitter. The protesters have been encamped outside St Paul's Cathedral since October 15th. I snapped the above picture on my phone a few days later. You may well ask whether passing taxis or other motorists beeped for change. They did not.

The main problem, as I see it, is the lack of any coherent message from the protesters. What is their objective? Judging from their placards, they have a whole myriad of aims.

Some signs oppose “The War”. Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya? Iraq – fair enough five years ago but we withdrew already. Afghanistan you can argue over – but would they surrender Afghan women’s rights to the Dark Age treatment of the Taliban? Oh, that’s got them stumped. Libya – that one went surprisingly well, surely?

It’s “a demonstration against economic inequality, the lack of affordability of housing in the United Kingdom, social injustice, corporate greed and the influence of companies and lobbyists on government”, according to the protest’s entry page on Wikipedia.

End the bailouts read other signs. Yet these were enacted by politicians of different stripes to those in office: the Republican Bush administration in the US (almost universally reviled); and Tony Blair’s Labour government in Britain. Steady on, you’re not telling me these young vegans are Tories.

Stop corporate greed. I won’t be trapped – Gecko-like – into saying that unchecked greed is anything else but a bad thing. Too much of it contributed to the financial crisis –from over-adventurous mortgage borrowers as well as greedy lenders, bankers and eager-to-please governments.

There can be no doubt that unregulated, unsupervised greed also leads to nasty corruption. That also tends to be a barrier to fairness in open markets (now there’s a slogan lacking in signage). But yes, making money is rather the point of commerce. I think we can presume many protesters are socialists – they usually are – but still, no matter how deeply they suspect private enterprise, if they want to get anything done, they might at least want to gun for something a bit more specific.

Let’s not kid ourselves the image of ‘Che’ Guevara represents Che’s murderous struggle for Castro-Communism: probably just a naive label for youthful rebellion? Some protesters wear Jamaican Rastafarian clothes and colours. There is an arrow pointing to Mecca. A Buddhist shrine has even been erected. Some of my fellow office workers have milked free vegetarian lunch from these sops. It all makes me feel nauseous.

Then there's that cheeky Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament logo sneaked into the "O" in "Beeeeep [sic] For Change". What does that have to do with anything? Are these the same people that picketed RAF bases during the Cold War? Or let me guess, do they embody the revolutionary spirit of the 1968 protest movement? I think I just threw up in my mouth.

It would appear that some of these signs might have been used before. Could it be that these are the same repeat protesters who regularly turn up for climate change demos, student fees protests, pacifist rallies and anti-G-20 marches? The phrase professional student has come into use in recent years, for dilettante students too lazy and lackadaisical to get real world jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal today described himself as a “professional revolutionary” in a Parisian court. I would say that the Occupy London campers are professional protesters

Some of them probably take their role as professional protester seriously; they travel far and wide to campaign against the status quo; they sacrifice comfort by camping on cold paving slabs to raise awareness; and earnestly believe they are doing something worthwhile to get a message across – rather than trying to climb the rungs of jobs and housing ladders, like the rest of us. 

But if the message is diluted, and we begin to see the same agitators again and again, surely their impact is lessened. Then there are those others lacking in true revolutionary steel. I suspect that many of the Occupy protesters retire at night to the warmth of their parents’ leafy North London semi-detached family homes, just a few avenues away from the Milibands. Perhaps they get home in time to catch Downton Abbey. If not they can catch up on their iPads.

If a single Occupy message exists, it has become hopelessly muddled by the protest’s link to the cathedral. What, you may also query, does Christopher Wren's seventeenth century masterpiece, have to do with the aims of the protesters?  Sod all, you might answer. It is close to the London Stock Exchange, from which the "OccupyLSX" moniker arises, but you won't find any money lenders residing in the temple. The London Stock Exchange (commonly abbreviated to LSE, not LSX), just around the corner in Paternoster Square, has successfully insulated itself from the grubby protesters at the gates. Entering Paternoster Square requires a ticket and a reason to be there, keeping agitators at bay.

St Paul's on the other hand, has suffered to those camping below its steps. Its churchmen took a liberal stance that won many plaudits: showing some early tacit support for the protesters' occupation of its frontage; even keeping the police from making an intimidating presence by standing on the cathedral's steps. Then the church played central counterparty (to use a City term) between the protesters and those they seek to influence. The analogy works because neither side knows who they are talking to, and the middle man assumes the risks. Once drawn into the politics of protest, the churchmen duly fell like nine-pins. The cathedral's Dean, Graeme Knowles, resigned saying his position had become "untenable". His departure followed those of the Canon Chancellor of St Paul's, Giles Fraser, and part-time chaplain, Fraser Dyer.

Still, in choosing their location, the protest has picked a choice spot. St Paul's symbolism for the City of London and to Britain are immeasurable. Even if it is nothing to do with finance, the building itself has resonance. Talismanic, surrounded by smoke and flame, the cathedral defied Luftwaffe bombs to survive Hitler's Blitz. In the context of all that genuine global struggle, whether this protest dies quickly or slowly, nobody is going to remember these muppets a few years from now.

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