Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Occupy LSX: The Stone In The Stockpot

This is a piece I wrote for the fantastic Pea Soup magazine, a publication which prides itself on first-hand journalism and comes an antidote to sensationalist, headline grabbing news stories. Each month the team address a new issue effecting London. If you don't already, follow Pea Soup on Twitter and Like them on Facebook. 


Given the number of column inches they’ve taken up of late, you’d think that we’d already know all about the Occupy London Stock Exchange protestors. Actually, we know very little.
The fact that much of the media is more preoccupied with the ones who aren’t there, than the ones who are doesn’t help. And obviously headlines about drug use, HIV and defecation are more attention grabbing than stories exploring the real reasons behind the camp.
Having acknowledged all this, and played the familiar ‘sensationalist media’ and ‘political bias’ cards, it’s time to turn our attentions back to the protestors. They have achieved worldwide publicity on a scale that would make PRs and promoters dribble into their pants, but what have they actually done with it.

Ambiguous buzzwords such as ‘corporate greed’ aside, I reckon that few people could succinctly describe exactly what the protestors are fighting for. Could you? If not, why not? As much as there are excuses which could be brandished, the responsibility – in my opinion – has to fall with the Occupy camp. To use an appropriately capitalist metaphor, it doesn’t matter how many people see a television advert if it doesn’t explain what the product is. It’s a bad advert. In the same way, if nobody knows what the protest is really about, it must be categorised as a poor effort.

With a full portion of cynicism, a wide open mind and some social lubrication in the form of a couple of bottles of wine (I left the loaves and fishes behind), I head to St. Paul’s. I want to find out the true reason for the protest, but more importantly I want to find out why I don’t already know the answer.

First, I put my theory to the test, just to check it’s not only me who’s confused about things. I stick to the local area and head into some pubs and restaurants. Ye Olde London pub on Ludgate Hill, a few minutes’ walk from the camp, is my first stop. Appearing – I assume – like a somewhat confused tourist, I ask the bar staff about what’s going on. ‘Anti-capitalist’ is what’s said. Which I’m not really sure is completely accurate. It’s the best I’m getting though – the rest of the conversation merely revolves around the protestors’ use of the pub’s toilets. A temporary cordon across the doorway, which means people can walk straight in and down the stairs to the toilets without entering the main pub area shows that it’s a problem that’s preoccupying the owners.

The waitress I speak to at GBK across the road from the Cathedral has pretty much the same to say: “They come in to use the toilets, but I don’t know any more than that. It’s about the bankers, but it’s all got a bit boring”. And what about the security guards who surround Paternoster Square? “God knows!” answers a friendly guard outside Sainsbury’s when asked about the aim of the protest. I don’t think he saw the irony of his blaspheme on the site of St. Paul’s, but it made me smile nonetheless.

Into the camp

As I head into the camp feeling a vague vindication of my initial cynicism, I spot the “information tent”. Perhaps finding out what it’s all about would be easier than I thought. In the information tent, they must know. Right? Well, if they do they’re not letting on. The man staffing the tent shows just about as much enthusiasm to any of my questions as a sloth in a coma would, merely gesturing to the abundant literature and notices piled on tables and plastered over the walls. Fair enough it’s late and he’s probably tired, but it’s the kind of service that could get you fired as a member of EasyJet staff.

Flyers for camp events and information on your rights if questioned by the police suggest community spirit but little else. A print-out of the camp’s initial statement, which is available online, is also pinned up. The camp ‘stands in solidarity with the global repressed’, it states. They want a ‘sustainable economic system’, too. And they’re also worried about climate change. I entirely agree, but whilst we can all sit in a tent and imagine a utopian future free from the things we dislike about the real world, it doesn’t help us figure out how to get there.
It’s lucky that just as I’m about to sink into the acceptance that no one here knows what’s going on, someone comes up and starts talking to me. Not about anything in particular, the twenty-odd year old protester just thought he’d say hi. Twenty minutes later, I’m sitting with a group of five camp members. As we drink the wine, they share their own beers, crisps and cigarettes as well as countless stories. They’re incredibly generous, and make me feel at home in what has become theirs.

They’re keen to rebut media assertions that the tents are mostly empty at night, and they’ve assured me that none of them have ever seen someone take heroin on the site before it’s even crossed my mind to ask.  As conversation turns to one man’s experience on the central London march which accompanied the recent public sector strikes over pension schemes, I suddenly realise why I don’t know what the protest is about. It doesn’t actually exist.

Yes, the tents are real and the people are genuine, but a quick look around reveals a poster demanding we “Save Assange” alongside a propped-up placard from an Iraq themed anti-war march of some kind and something else about global warming, all set against the backdrop of numerous and humorous anti-cuts posters which make use of David Cameron’s not uncharacteristically smug grin. Occupy LSX is not a protest, but an umbrella covering many protests: a melting pot of disgruntlement.

I notice that the camp kitchen is serving up stone soup, and there could be no dish more appropriate. The recipe for Occupy LSX sees individuals protesting against all number of social situations, economic issues and government policies form the potatoes, carrots and onions that give the soup its substance. The Occupy movement itself is merely the stone that lends its name and its premise.

The question, then, isn’t about the meaning of Occupy London Stock Exchange, but rather the ingredients which occupy the stockpot. Will they come together in the boil to create a dish that packs a powerful punch, or simply simmer into one bland and indiscriminate flavour? Only time will tell...

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