Stephen Ginn: Occupy London

Stephen GinnEstablished on 15 October outside St Paul’s and watched over by a statue of Queen Victoria, the Occupy London Stock Exchange (LSX) camp continues its controversial settlement in central London. 

Paul, a doctor whose day job is as a sexual health specialist in South London, shows me around.  For a movement with no apparent leadership, lurking somewhere must nevertheless be an effective organising team. The camp is clean and alongside the accommodation are larger tents with information, welfare, first-aid, and “university” roles. 

Paul tells me of the chaotic establishment of the camp: “The police were stopping us from going into Paternoster Square,” he says. Corralled, the protestors’ current spot was chosen by default.  “There were a lot of police,” he continues. “When I woke up in the morning, I was really surprised we were still here.” The police eventually withdrew the following morning. 

We drop into the university tent where Professor Ted Honderich, UCL professor emeritus of the philosophy of mind and logic, is hosting a discussion; an erudite debate is underway concerning the nature of capitalism. Immediately outside the disparate aims of the Occupy movement are clear from the posters that now adorn the pillars facing M&S on the north side of the camp. “More to life than money,” reads one, whilst others variously call for defence of public services, Julian Assange’s release, as well as more niche concerns. 

Defending the NHS is a motivating factor for some protestors for whom the recent takeover of Hinchingbrooke hospital by Circle augurs future unacceptable developments. David stays in the camp, doing his job remotely via a laptop from the nearby Starbucks.  He’s also first aid trained and works shifts in the camp’s first aid tent. “I’m here to put pressure on the government to look seriously at the Robin Hood (aka Tobin) tax,” he says. “I’m concerned about the cuts in public services and especially the NHS.” He sees the Tobin tax as avoiding cuts that would otherwise be inevitable.

A large sign outside the mediation tent reads “No drugs” and suggests concern that some camp visitors might mistake Occupy LSX for the Glastonbury Festival. “There’s a problem about having a thing like this in the centre of a city,” explains Paul. “It attracts people who are homeless or have addiction problems.”

As a consequence, a welfare tent was established with the involvement of two consultant psychiatrists. Paul says this required some consideration. “There was part of me that said we are not about caring for people, we’re here for a political purpose,” he says. The welfare tent’s presence is not entirely altruistic to my mind. The camp’s continued existence remains precarious, and a responsible, civic-minded community is harder to demonise and evict.  Asides medical involvement in the welfare tent, a medical team also wrote a report on site safety, hygiene, and sanitation. 

In Starbucks I meet Simon, a part time nurse also involved with the first aid tent. A target at past protests, Starbucks is in fact warmly regarded by all I meet at Occupy LSX. As well as Occupy’s de facto common room, early on the café allowed the protestors use their toilet before alternative portable ones were sourced.

“We do have two facets to the organisation. There’s the progressive widespread attempt to verbalise certain issues and get them fed into the media, and then there’s the occupation and the collaboration of people living together and trying to maintain a site,” says Simon. By chance at an Arab Spring protest earlier in the year, Simon had been impressed by the protestor’s medical facilities and sought to bring similar facilities to Occupy LSX.  

These from scratch facilities may be laudable, but what is the actual message of the camp? “It’s pro-activism here” says Simon. “There are very few groups that are excluded. I’ve yet to meet anyone down here who thinks that we shouldn’t make our corporations pay more tax or that services should be cut over sourcing additional sources of income.”

What I hear the loudest from the protestors is that Occupy LSX is about creating a space for people to articulate arguments about the government’s economic policy and its consequences:  unemployment, increasingly expensive education, and the privatisation of the NHS.  The vague sense of unease many of us feel is here, amplified and expressed. 

The criticisms are obvious.  The camp has no manifesto and articulates no alternative. In focussing on bankers it victimises a small part of society, when the true causes of the current crisis are less straightforward. Contrary to their claims, the activists have no mandate to represent the “99%.”

But I’m inclined to be generous. Expecting protestors to have a fully developed alternative before they raise their voices represents an unrealistically high expectation. But whatever I think, they have no inclination to pack up their tents yet. At the time of writing a third camp is forming in an abandoned UBS building in the City. 

Paternoster Square remains closed indefinitely. When I stood by the security barrier peering in, armed only with an iPhone, a security guard approach menacingly. Curiously, here’s a press release from Mitsubishi Estate – Paternoster Square’s owners – describing the square as a “public space.”

Some names and identifying details in this post are changed by request.

Stephen Ginn is the BMJ editorial registrar.

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