A night out with the Occupy London protests - Part Two

Posted on: 04 November 2011 by Alexander Hay

[The second part of our night out continues...]

No riots or fighting, much to the chagrin of the right wing pressNext to trade union posters were fliers care of David Icke believers, sincere missives handwritten on lined paper sat next to abstract modern art, and quotes from Abraham Lincoln were found quite casually sharing space with demands for Marxist revolutionary change.

This is actually the protest's strong point. By having an overall theme, rather than an ideology, it could appeal to as many people as possible and not alienate the public. Being forced to come up with a concrete manifesto would be like describing the colour orange to someone who can only see in blues and yellows. Explaining defeats the point. It just is. Even 'anti-capitalist' is a misnomer. The overall demand was for restraint not abolition, though capitalism's many sins were made all too clear.

Naturally, we then went to Starbucks.

It wasn't crowded - as said, nowhere in the City on a Tuesday night is. But it was interesting to see how the protesters and city workers mingled quite happily. The toilets, somewhat inevitably, were closed, but otherwise it was business as normal. While there, We met an eccentrically dressed but matronly old woman protester - a Christian - who carried a large crucifix and waved an Israeli flag, in-between blessing her friends. Curious about us, she asked what we were doing. I said we were bearing witness. She nodded appreciatively and I wished her good luck.

After we'd finished our drinks, we went outside to see what was going on. A general assembly had been called on the steps of the Cathedral (in part because of the amazing acoustics it granted) so we went and joined the throng but as observers and not participants. In practice, it was very well behaved, orderly and - well - civilised. In fact, it resembled a sort of school assembly, with protesters patiently sitting cross-legged as the organisers politely moved through the agenda in a schoolmarm-like fashion. Votes for were cast by by putting both your hands up and waving them side to side. The other options were dissent (where you sort of disagreed) or blocking, where you quite literally gave the motion a thumbs down and so invoke a power of veto.

It seemed this was the weak point of the protest. All it would take was a determined blocker to scupper any agreement. A particularly dogmatic protester, of the kind they were trying to discourage, could paralyse the protest or split it. Likewise with an infiltrator.

This was a major problem on the night as there was a big motion on the table. The organisers wanted some continuity in the team that liaised with St. Paul's, so wanted a core of four or so negotiators that the clerics could recognise and relate to. There would be two extra rolling positions that were open to everyone, ensuring some diversity of views in the liaison and keeping the process transparent. A reasonable enough proposition, you might think. It would also work for if or when the protesters start dealing with the City of London, the banks and the government. Indeed the majority of the protesters voted for it. But it wasn't good enough for everyone.

One dissenting protester said that all the positions on the liaison committee should be open and temporary, regardless of the practicality. Another angrily blocked the motion altogether. Putting a brave face on it, the committee delayed the decision to the following morning's assembly. Paralysis loomed. I couldn't help but be reminded of how POUM stitched itself up during the Spanish Civil War or how anarchist communes often descend into the wrong sort of anarchy.

Which was a shame, as it was otherwise a well-run, well-organised affair. There were also cheers when the committee announced an anonymous Goldman Sachs banker had sent his best wishes and sympathies. The only conflict, outside of the voting, came in the form of a protester's dog and a passer-by's dog barking at each other, and three Stop The War protesters putting up a banner without prior permission, and getting politely pulled aside for a mild telling off by an organiser.

It was getting cold and had been dark for a long time. We decided to go home. Would the protests succeed? If not, it would not be for want of trying. They were disciplined, civil and reasonable. But as I saw, once again, the scale of the city that surrounded and dwarfed them, I still couldn't help but wonder if they could still prevail.

[Click HERE to read Part One]

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Alexander Hay

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