Last Saturday, some 3,000 thousand people gathered around Saint Paul’s cathedral in London to “Occupy the London Stock Exchange” (or LSX). Two days later, the camp is still up, as several hundred people sleep in tents each night and many more gather in the day to decide actions. Yesterday the Cannon of St Paul’s gave the occupiers his blessing to allow them to stay, after the police tried to force them out. I interviewed two of my friends and fellow activists, Mark Boothroyd and Jeremy Dewar, the day after the event.
Tell me about the atmosphere. What kinds of people were there? Was it a very mixed crowd? Or were most of the people the regulars we’ve seen over the past year out in the streets?
Mark: The crowd was overwhelmingly young, most in their late teens or twenties. There were older people there in large numbers, but it was a very youthful action. There was not a noticeable union presence, no banners or flags, although I noticed some trade unionists from London who are active in the anti-cuts movement.
There was a contingent from Anonymous with Guy Fawkes masks and several banners. There were lots of homemade banners and signs which people had brought, and as I arrived I saw people making more with bits of cardboard and marker pens, drawing inspiration from what was happening to come up with new slogans and ideas.
The protest was very international with people from all over the world attending. I met activists from Spain, America, Slovakia, Poland and many other countries. Some of the Spanish activists became active around the M15 movement earlier this year and had formed the Real Democracy movement here in the UK, which occupied outside the Spanish embassy for several weeks in solidarity with the protests in Spain. Others were various activists from around the world who lived in London and wanted to take part in the protests in solidarity with all the others protesting around the world.
Jeremy: When Mark and I arrived, an American woman told us the police had blocked the route from St Paul’s to Paternoster Square so we ended up all staying in front of St Paul’s as the square was blocked. Paternoster Square is private, unbelievably. It’s kind of fitting that we were denied that space for this protest.
The police constantly bullied people throughout the day, kettling in few hundred people in, then letting them go, demanding names and taking photographs of people. Then they weren’t letting people in and there were a few arrests.
But despite all that, there was a great atmosphere and I’m very excited about the turnout. The gathering swelled to about 3,000 people and 500 stayed overnight the first night.
As I interview you, occupiers at LSX are currently writing demands, so we don’t know them yet (they are now up, you can find them here). But regardless, one of the criticisms from the mainstream media and the ‘left’ has been this movement doesn’t have concrete demands. What do you think about that? Does it matter? Or is the fact that people are coming together just important at this stage, in order to figure out where we go from here?
Jeremy: The fact that we don’t have clear demands is a weakness, but it is not a debilitating weakness, especially at this stage. How could the organizers of this event come up with some pre-prepared demands? They wouldn’t be speaking for the people. But we need do need demands, to win. The clearest demand that we should have, I think, is to cancel the debt. The other question is how do we achieve what we want to achieve? We have start somewhere and St Paul’s good place to do that.
Mark: I do think the movement needs to develop demands, but I want to differentiate between the criticisms of the mainstream media and those of “lefties”. The mainstream media is trying to mock the protestors as naïve and tries to portray them as not dealing with the issues properly, hence the lack of clear slogans. But anyone who attends the protests knows, they are motivated by a number of issues: massive and growing inequality, huge bail outs for the banks and tax cuts for the rich while working people suffer, growing environmental destruction and continuing devastating wars. I think everyone on the protests around the world is united in opposition to these issues.
Those of us on the left who criticize the lack of slogans do so not because we want to belittle the protest movement – we in fact want more than anything for it to grow and develop – rather we do it because we think if it is to keep growing and have a bigger impact, it must develop clear slogans to guide its action and who it is targeting, and so it can clarify its political message for the hundreds of millions of people watching the protests, and draw them into action alongside those already mobilized.
If the movement does not develop clear slogans then the media and the right-wing will be able to distort its message much more easily and implement a divide and rule strategy against the movement. It is understandable that with this protest movement we are seeing many new people join it who have never taken part in protests before, so their lack of experience is understandable, and should not be condemned. I speak as someone who wants to engage with those new layers and assist them developing their consciousness of what is happening and what we need to do to win.
Mark, you’ve been really involved in the student movement, how does this movement compare with that? Were there many students there?
There were hundreds of students at the protest, many people I recognized, and many that I did not. These protests are drawing in hundreds of new people who will be the next generation of activists to take the struggle forward.
I think it is quite different from the student movement as that was a reaction to a specific attack (the raising of fees to £9000), which just affected students. This movement is against the breakdown of the entire system and the fact we are being made to pay for it. This movement can and will involve everyone, whereas the student movement just really involved students although it was supported by lots of people throughout society.
Jeremy, you’re a trade unionist, you were around during the big strikes and protests of the 1980s. After one year of struggle here, leading up to this day, can you talk a bit about where we’re at now and any similarities or differences you can think of.
What’s similar is the Tories’ strategy, and the bosses behind them, which is mass unemployment and inflation to devalue what we’ve got and what labour has; cuts in services, privatization, all of that is very similar to the 1980s. The anger and the hatred are tangible. Also the uprising of the youth in August, whilst people can be distracted by the criminal events, these were youth charging police, stopping stop and search. It was very similar to the 1980s.
What’s different is, the Labour government has done nothing for the bottom third of society. And what it has done for the middle of society has eroded in past few years. The Labour party is very different today than it was in 1980s it was left then, you could vote for Tony Benn, for example. Now they’re lucky if they’d get 3 mps together.
The trade unions have lost a lot of their members. Maybe half sine the early 1980s. They lost some of their key battles in manufacturing and in the mines, so we’re left with weak trade unions, except in the public sector. But they’re not the same kind of workers – they won’t go on all-out strikes.
There used be strong radical youth movements as well that has been banned. If this movement gets people talking about form and content of political protest and alternatives then it’s good. People will always struggle against oppression and injustice. The starting point is learning from the past. I wouldn’t look back to 1970s and 1980s as a time we got it right. We didn’t. We lost. We’re all still learning.
Finally, the fact that some 3,000 people showed up here (vs. 200,000 in Rome for example). how do you interpret that? (I think we didn’t publicize it enough, personally!) But do you think that perhaps we’ve all been involved in so many different struggles for a year now (students, UK uncut, local anti-cuts, etc.), is this like seen as just another thing next to all we’re working on? or can, for example, this occupy LSX broaden the movement, and take us to a place where all of our struggles are linked? how do you see that?
Jeremy: I think 3,000 out of nothing is significant. I think we’re moving back into a phase where people feel the need for generalization and unity across a number of different struggles, linking the economic crisis to other problems we’re having – democracy, welfare services, pensions, etc. And there’s a rising awareness that you’re struggle is my struggle is our struggle.
Mark: In Rome the economic situation is much worse and has been for a long time. Many young people have been experiencing unemployment and precarity for longer than they have here, and they are much better organized than we are here. Italy has a much strong radical and revolutionary tradition than Britain. The Italian Communist Party received 37% of the national vote in the 1970s, the children and grandchildren of these people are the ones protesting in the streets now.
As well in America the economic crisis has been going on for longer and affecting many more people as they do not have the same welfare system we have in Britain. This means there is a much larger layer of people to draw into the protests than in Britain. That’s not to say things are not bad in Britain, we have over 1 million young people unemployed, 200,000 people denied places at university and the public sector is about to get slashed massively. But those unemployed are not as well organized as on the continent, or as connected to the left as they may be in the US. I think that’s partly why it has not had such a big turn out.
I think actions like LSX have the potential to unite the various forces in the movement if they draw in a critical mass of people, and if they transform themselves into organizing centers for the struggle where not only debates over what to do can take place, but also concrete actions can be planned and decided upon which take the movement forward. My fear is that is the occupations do not become more than occupations where people can discuss and debate, and they do not become focused around organizing further resistance to the crisis then they will peter out. Thankfully they do not appear to be declining anywhere yet so there is still time for this to happen.
Check out this great video of the first day: