Occupy London: a photo essay

What can we do today so that tomorrow we can do what we are unable to do today?
– Paulo Freire

When I was in London last week I visited the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s, then established for more more than four months but under threat of eviction.  I wandered through the camp, listening to conversations and taking photos with the idea of creating a photo essay that would give some sense of the camp and its daily routine (see below).  There were still a hundred or so tents pitched in front and to the side of the cathedral, along with the larger tents that housed the library, kitchen and other shared facilities.  It was a quiet day: some protesters were chatting in their tents, some were engaged in cleaning and other chores, while a couple of guys from Anonymous were in discussion with passers-by at the foot of the cathedral steps.

Last night, activists were told by bailiffs that they had five minutes to pack their tents and leave or they would be obstructing the court order. The eviction began shortly after midnight and the area had been cleared peacefully by the early hours.  There will be much debate, now, about the extent of the Occupy movement’s achievement, now that most of the camps here in the UK, in the US and elsewhere have been cleared.  Last night, Giles Fraser, former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s whose famous intervention of 16 October when he asked the police to leave and recognise our right to assemble, was prevented from crossing the police lines to reach the Occupy camp.  His first reaction this morning was to say:

Occupy does not herald the beginnings of a world revolution. But it has given many world leaders a good kick in the pants and made them know, in no uncertain terms, the degree of frustration that exists about an economic system that, among its many other crimes, rewards the rich with huge bonuses and penalises the poor with cuts to welfare.

But to St Paul’s, the existence of the camp has been seen too much in terms of a little local difficulty – graffiti, hassle, problems with income and visitor numbers. This is a mistake of perspective that comes about through years of ingrained thinking that the building is the purpose of the cathedral. After a decade-long fundraising campaign to find £42m needed to clean the building, it may be inevitable that the cathedral’s whole administrative infrastructure is bent towards this end. Thus it becomes just too easy to worship Christopher Wren and not the God who spoke of the rich having to give up all their possessions. Which is why the forcible eviction of Occupy will be far more a failure for the church than it will be a failure for the camp.”

Just last week Naomi Colvin and Ronan McNern, two members of the St Paul’s Occupy camp, wrote in The Guardian about the significance of the last four months:

Four months on and we’ve had the world come to visit. Christians, investment bankers, homeless people, trade unionists, Conservative MPs, Jesse Jackson, students, pensioners, Thom Yorke, rightwing thinktanks, Jarvis Cocker, the great and the good, ordinary Londoners, Vivienne Westwood and many more. All have come to Occupy London to explore what they know to be true – that, no, this system is not right – and that we need to talk about the elephant in the room.  We’ve forced a political debate about inequality – previously one of the great unmentionables. More than that, we’ve opened up a physical and metaphorical space for conversation in a way that hasn’t happened in decades.

This morning, George Barda, who had been camped outside St Paul’s for the duration, said:

The main thing to focus on is the reasons we are here and not the drama of what happened last night. Millions of people are already suffering from the cuts and they have barely got going. And these cuts are entirely unnecessary, they’re economically illiterate and there is money to pay for the things we need, it’s just in the hands of the people at the top.

Earlier, Barda had argued:

It is gratifying to see all major parties now being forced to engage at least rhetorically with the Occupy agenda, but we have a long way to go for ‘moral capitalism’ to become more than a cover for a subservience to vested interests that so many of the cabinet themselves epitomise.

John Christensen, head of the Tax Justice Network and member of the OECD taskforce on tax and development has called the City of London, ‘the money-launderer’s destination of choice’, saying the Corporation was responsible for extraordinary damage to the interests of democratic society. Occupy had, he said, already had a provable positive national impact by stimulating a debate about the unaccountability of the City and the perilous and immoral state of the economy.

Alex Aldridge writing in The Guardian, asked whether Occupy ‘transform itself from a thrilling five-month PR stunt to a lasting political movement championing the end of profit obsession’?

Yesterday in The Guardian, Gary Younge, assessed the significance of the Occupy movement, particularly in the country where it originated:

The legacy of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is still in the making. Those who believe it came from nowhere and has disappeared just as quickly are wrong on both counts. Most occupiers were already politically active in a range of campaigns. What the occupations did was bring them together in one place and refract their disparate messages through the broader lens of inequality. The occupations were less an isolated outpouring of discontent than a decisive, dynamic moment in an evolving process. [...]

The trouble is (as London’s St Paul’s protesters, whose appeal against eviction was denied last week, can testify) that while this home offered space for debate and organisation … vulnerable to harassment and eviction by the state, it was only a matter of time before they were moved on. [...]

Younge quoted on of the founding organisers of OWS as asserting that the movement was always about values and about reconfiguring the relationship between people and profit so that people are privileged, not profit.  Younge concluded his piece:

Its importance doesn’t lie in what it means, but in what it does. It started by changing how people think about the world they live in; now it’s strengthening their confidence to change it.

There’s a long and thoughtful piece on the Open Democracy site, An Excess of Democracy,  written by Hilary Wainwright, veteran of struggles from the 1970s onwards.  In it, she quotes John Maynard Keynes:

To convert the businessman into the profiteer is to strike a blow at capitalism because it destroys the psychological equilibrium which permits the perpetuance of unequal rewards…The businessman is only tolerable so long as his gains can be held to bear some relation to what, roughly and in some sense, his activities have contributed to society.

That may, indeed, be the great success of the Occupy movement – to at least begin to transform cultural attitudes so that  the businessman is regarded as the profiteer.  Highly relevant on the morning we learn of tax avoidance by Barclays bank so outrageous that even a Conservative government has had to take action.  Wainwright concludes:

In the 60s and 70s, we began to lay the foundations in democratic civil society of an alternative political economy – including a different kind of state. You could say we were rudely interrupted in our work.  If we can recover what was potentially powerful and join with new generations with capacities and visions way beyond our own, we can collectively be stronger.

These are the photos I took last Tuesday at Occupy London:

See also

Signs Of Occupation – Occupy London

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5 thoughts on “Occupy London: a photo essay

  1. Wealth Destroyers
    October 31, 2011

    The Corporation of the City of London has harmed you more than you know.

    By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 1st November 2011

    It’s the dark heart of Britain, the place where democracy goes to die, immensely powerful, equally unaccountable. But I doubt that one in ten British people has any idea of what the Corporation of the City of London is and how it works. This, at last, could be about to change. Alongside the Church of England, the Corporation is seeking to evict the protesters camped outside St Paul’s cathedral. The protesters, in turn, have demanded that it submit to national oversight and control(1).

    What is this thing? Ostensibly it’s the equivalent of a local council, responsible for a small area of London known as the Square Mile. But, as its website boasts, “among local authorities the City of London is unique”(2). You bet it is. There are 25 electoral wards in the Square Mile. In four of them, the 9,000 people who live within its boundaries are permitted to vote. In the remaining 21, the votes are controlled by corporations, mostly banks and other financial companies. The bigger the business, the bigger the vote: a company with ten workers gets two votes, the biggest employers, 79(3). It’s not the workers who decide how the votes are cast, but the bosses, who “appoint” the voters(4). Plutocracy, pure and simple.

    There are four layers of elected representatives in the Corporation: common councilmen, aldermen, sheriffs and the Lord Mayor. To qualify for any of these offices, you must be a freeman of the City of London(5,6). To become a freeman you must be approved by the aldermen(7). You’re most likely to qualify if you belong to one of the City livery companies: mediaevel guilds such as the worshipful company of costermongers, cutpurses and safecrackers. To become a sheriff, you must be elected from among the aldermen by the Livery(8). How do you join a livery company? Don’t even ask.

    To become Lord Mayor you must first have served as an alderman and sheriff and “must command the support of, and have the endorsement of, the Court of Aldermen and the Livery”(9). You should also be stinking rich, as the Lord Mayor is expected to make a “contribution from his/her private resources towards the costs of the mayoral year.”(10) This is, in other words, an official old boy’s network. Think of all that Tory huffing and puffing about democratic failings within the trade unions. Then think of their resounding silence about democracy in the City of London.

    The current Lord Mayor, Michael Bear, came to prominence within the City as chief executive of the Spitalfields development group(11), which oversaw a controversial business venture in which the Corporation had a major stake, even though the project lies outside the boundaries of its authority. This illustrates another of the Corporation’s unique features. It possesses a vast pool of cash, which it can spend as it wishes, without democratic oversight. As well as expanding its enormous property portfolio, it uses this money to lobby on behalf of the banks.

    The Lord Mayor’s role, the Corporation’s website tells us, is to “open doors at the highest levels” for business, in the course of which he “expounds the values of liberalisation”(12). Liberalisation is what bankers call deregulation: the process that caused the financial crash. The Corporation boasts that it “handle[s] issues in Parliament of specific interest to the City”, such as banking reform and financial services regulation(13). It also conducts “extensive partnership work with think tanks … vigorously promoting the views and needs of financial services.”(14) But this isn’t the half of it.

    As Nicholas Shaxson explains in his fascinating book Treasure Islands, the Corporation exists outside many of the laws and democratic controls which govern the rest of the United Kingdom(15). The City of London is the only part of Britain over which parliament has no authority. In one respect at least the Corporation acts as the superior body: it imposes on the House of Commons a figure called the remembrancer: an official lobbyist who sits behind the Speaker’s chair and ensures that, whatever our elected representatives might think, the City’s rights and privileges are protected. The mayor of London’s mandate also stops at the boundaries of the Square Mile. There are, as if in a novel by China Miéville, two cities, one of which must unsee the other.

    Several governments have tried to democratise the City of London but all, threatened by its financial might, have failed. As Clement Attlee lamented, “over and over again we have seen that there is in this country another power than that which has its seat at Westminster.”(16) The City has exploited this remarkable position to establish itself as a kind of offshore state, a secrecy jurisdiction which controls the network of tax havens housed in the UK’s Crown dependencies and overseas territories. This autonomous state within our borders is in a position to launder the ill-gotten cash of oligarchs, kleptocrats, gangsters and drug barons. As the French investigating magistrate Eva Joly remarked, it “has never transmitted even the smallest piece of usable evidence to a foreign magistrate”(17). It deprives the United Kingdom and many other nations of their rightful tax receipts.

    By undermining the standards set elsewhere, it has also made the effective regulation of global finance almost impossible. Shaxson shows how the absence of proper regulation in London allowed US banks to evade the rules set by their own government. AIG’s wild trading might have taken place in the US, but the unit responsible was regulated in the City. Lehman Brothers couldn’t get legal approval for its off-balance sheet transactions in Wall Street, so it used a London law firm instead(18). No wonder priests are resigning over the plan to evict the campers. The Church of England is not just working with Mammon; it’s colluding with Babylon.

    If you’ve ever dithered over the question of whether the UK needs a written constitution, dither no longer. Imagine the clauses required to preserve the status of the Corporation. “The City of London will remain outside the authority of Parliament. Domestic and foreign banks will be permitted to vote as if they were human beings, and their votes will outnumber those cast by real people. Its elected officials will be chosen from among people deemed acceptable by a group of mediaevel guilds … “.

    The Corporation’s privileges could not withstand such public scrutiny. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons why a written constitution in the United Kingdom remains a distant dream. Its power also helps to explain why regulation of the banks is scarcely better than it was before the crash, why there are no effective curbs on executive pay and bonuses and why successive governments fail to act against the UK’s dependent tax havens.

    But now at last we begin to see it. It happens that the Lord Mayor’s Show, in which the Corporation flaunts its ancient wealth and power, takes place on November 12th(19). If ever there were a pageant crying out for peaceful protest and dissent, here it is. Expect fireworks – and not just those laid on by the Lord Mayor(20).

    http://www.monbiot.com

    References:

    1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/oct/28/occupy-london-city-st-pauls

    2. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Council_and_democracy/Council_departments/whatis.htm

    3. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Council_and_democracy/Councillors_democracy_and_elections/Voting_and_Registration/appointment_proccess.htm

    4. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Council_and_democracy/Councillors_democracy_and_elections/Voting_and_Registration/appointment_proccess.htm#appointing

    5. https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/1953CCDF-210C-467F-AFBE-F180A7ADF70D/0/AU_VT_CoCoguidancetoqualification.pdf

    6. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/5BFA46D8-B7E8-47C8-B18E-9CB16C3E0B9A/0/AU_VT_Guidancetoqualificationgeneral.pdf

    7. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Council_and_democracy/Councillors_democracy_and_elections/Voting_and_Registration/appointment_proccess.htm

    8. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Leisure_and_culture/Local_history_and_heritage/sheriffs.htm

    9. http://217.154.230.218/NR/rdonlyres/20F89B51-17E9-413B-84FC-D5587E17F96F/0/AU_CG_lordmayor.pdf

    10. http://217.154.230.218/NR/rdonlyres/20F89B51-17E9-413B-84FC-D5587E17F96F/0/AU_CG_lordmayor.pdf

    11. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Council_and_democracy/Councillors_democracy_and_elections/The_Lord_Mayor/Biography.htm

    12. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Council_and_democracy/Councillors_democracy_and_elections/The_Lord_Mayor/international.htm

    13. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/CA0F09D8-783D-4D62-8B49-095DE11E6A88/0/PromotingtheCity.pdf

    14. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/CA0F09D8-783D-4D62-8B49-095DE11E6A88/0/PromotingtheCity.pdf

    15. Nicholas Shaxson, 2011. Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World. Random House, London.

    16. Clement Atlee, The Labour Party in Perspective, Gollancz, 1937, p179, quoted by Nicholas Shaxson, as above.

    17. Quoted by Nicholas Shaxson, as above.

    18. Nicholas Shaxson, as above.

    19. http://www.lordmayorsshow.org/

    20. http://www.reclaimthecity.org/

    “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”

    ‘Nuff said.

  2. Hi Gerry
    I went past St Paul’s yesterday and the area was fenced off for “deep cleaning” as it said on the notices! Shades of ethnic cleansing I thought.

    • Yes, as Giles Fraser says in his postscript, ‘the purpose of the fence was to allow urgent cleaning to take place. And that says it all. It never was an issue of access – that was a convenient legal argument. Occupy was just too messy, too in your face’. Thanks for reading.

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