Happy Birthday Occupy

Occupied Times co-founder Jack Dean and Occupy legal aid Matt Varnham discuss the movement on its first anniversary

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Exactly a year ago in New York, protesters took over the Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan's financial district. At first no-one knew what was going on; this was a new way of protesting, a different way of making an alternative voice and lifestyle heard. Soon the movement had spread all over the world, with people from all backgrounds and ages getting involved. In London, the protesters set up camp outside St Paul's Cathedral and moved on to Finsbury Square once they had been evicted. Although many of the actual occupation sites have been cleared, the ethos behind Occupy lives on. To mark the first anniversary, we spoke to Occupied Times co-founder Jack Dean and Occupy legal aid Matt Varnham about the situation today...

Dazed Digital: There's marches and protests going on in NYC as I type - is there any activity in London?
Jack Dean:
There doesn't seem to be anything happening today, but our anniversary isn't for a few weeks. There are certainly things planned in the near future, and people involved in Occupy have been involved in a number of demonstrations recently.

DD: A year on, is there any Occupation still ongoing in London? Rest of the world?
Matt Varnham: Yes. Occupy London supporters are currently engaged in an occupation of Friern Barnet library which has a huge amount of support by local community who, like many others in London and across the country and reeling from the cuts to their essential public services. Whilst it is very different from Occupation at St Paul's, occupation itself is a tactic - it is not all that the Occupy movement is about. Occupy is about creating a platform which is being done still across London and cities across the world.

DD: What do you think the movement has accomplished?
Matt Varnham:
What we have achieved is to introduce values and ideas into the system which were not there before. To quote my friend who gave an interview to Channel 4 a few days back: [Our] 'main achievement is changing the way we talk about the current social, economic and political system – standing up for the rights of the 99 per cent to express themselves. Concrete change was never on the cards this soon'.

We can speculate to what extent the movement has helped direct the debate around the crisis and financial greed or corporations and the banks, but consider the FT writing about 'Capitalism in Crisis' - much of it giving recognition to the movement. Then there were the debates on executive pay and the Prime Minister talking about introducing a more ethical form of capitalism. More practically there was the stakeholder revolution which is a very direct form of action Occupy had been calling for.

DD: Were there any major surprises to you, in terms of support, resistance, attitude etc?
Matt Varnham:
Scepticism is, I think, natural given the enormity of the issues that are continuing to be addressed by the movement. What surprised me was the broad nature of the support Occupy was receiving. Not everyone understood why occupation was at that point necessary, and many people were confused given that there was no single message, but I think this did not detract from the overwhelming support the movement still receives. This is reflected by the broad make-up of supporters. We have people from all ages, backgrounds, experiences still committing themselves to this movement.

I believe the support is still strong because the people in this country are not buying the party political line anymore. I think there is a growing awareness that there is much wrong with this countries financial and political systems and that, for Occupy, it is about waiting for enough people to realise the true potential of their voices before a critical mass for the movement develops. This may not be today, or tomorrow, but I think Occupy need only wait.

DD: What's been your highlights throughout the Occupation movement, so far?
Matt Varnham: There have been so many highlights, but May 12th, a global action that took place in over 300 cities worldwide, was a particular highlight for me. It showed that hundreds of people were willing to return to St Paul's after much of the press has dubbed the movement over. It demonstrates the power that a critical mass of people demonstrating peacefully have - and I think that this is exactly how the movement will succeed. People need to have the confidence to peacefully engage in direct action knowing that what they are doing is right.

Jack Dean: For me the highlights have been things like the current occupation of the library in Barnet and the resistance in Leyton Marsh, where locals were opposing the construction of a basketball court as part of the Olympics. I think Occupy should be about supporting people in their struggles and helping to offer resistance, rather than just symbolic protest and platitudes. When they started to defend the homes of people threatened by foreclosure in the US it was a  really positive step. People are scared and need genuine help, I think seeing strangers helping people in their very real struggles is what inspires and builds solidarity.

DD: And low points?
Matt Varnham: Incidentally a low point was also May 12th given the police response to the peaceful protest. I'm actually currently outside the courtroom as a defence witness for five of those arrested that day. It is perhaps a sad reality of protest policing that the bronze commander who gave a Section 14 Public Order Act 1986 notice for the crowd to disperse was in part motivated by his concern to the Royal Exchange building and the repetitional damage to the City and the UK's financial interests that an Occupation (which was not an objective for that day) would have. He is currently being grilled for this point, as it suggests unlawful use of police powers and infringement of right to legitimate protest (the trial continues) - but this is symptomatic of what peaceful protesters are currently facing.

Jack Dean: Various attempts at co-option. It's something which always happens and needs to be guarded against. The commodification of protest has become a big issue as protest has become increasingly 'trendy'. It was very upsetting to see so much of the work put in by some turned into something ugly, to be used to self promote.

It's great that more people are being inspired to take action, but we need to guard against political demonstration being hollowed out and sold back to us as something symbolic but toothless by the very institutions we are fighting against. There are always people and organisations who want to divert energy and use movements to their own ends, and that’s always disappointing.

DD: Is this the way we will protest from now on?
Matt Varnham: Protests needs to be creative, and Occupation is merely one tactic amongst many. The case law will make it much harder for another Occupation to exist as the St Paul's one did. What is happening behind the scenes is a lot of skills share and network developing. The success of the movement is largely dependant on the infrastructure it is built on: Twitter, Livestream such as Bambuser, citizen journalism, social media networks and support groups such as Anonymous all have their part to play. It is important to remember that the success of a movement is not dependant on the success of a particular protest or tactic- the movement is borne from an idea, and an idea cannot be defeated by a kettle or court order.

DD: What's in the pipeline for Occupy?
Jack Dean:
The Process Working group have continued to spend time refining consensus decision making based on the skills picked up throughout the occupation. The Economics Working Group is attempting to produce simple literature explaining the complexities and vagaries of the Economic system to people who claim not to understand it. The Occupied Times continues to print monthly, with the group slowly expanding in numbers. Some Occupiers are working on contributing to the Global Noise initiative, and as mentioned before, others are currently liberating a library in Barnet. The hope is, to build a stronger network of communications and activities between these groups, to develop a more diverse and expandable set-up across London, UK and globally.

Read K Punk's Occupy essay from the October issue of Dazed & Confused HERE

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