Last night I saw a rough cut of a fascinating documentary by filmmaker Chloe Ruthven. It was an insider’s view of the Occupy movement – Ruthven lived in the tents by St Paul’s and gained the trust of the activists living there. We saw how idealism clashed with ego and how fragile some of the people who were drawn to the camp actually were.
I was genuinely intrigued to see the film as I used to visit the St Paul’s camp quite a lot. I was there the day it was set up back in October 2011 – initially the plan was to Occupy the London Stock Exchange – but the protesters took sanctuary by St Paul’s Cathedral.
The camp was huge news – here was a new type of demonstration fit for the social media age. We were glued to our Facebook and Twitter feeds for news of the camp and it also proved to be a magnet for conventional media – news crews from around the world flocked to the strange makeshift camp in in the heart of the City of London.
I was very excited by Occupy. It felt so fresh and so exciting and the issues it outlined – tax avoidance, the role of bankers in the economic crash and the idea of the 1 per cent – seemed so spot on. I had more time than I usually do in the Autumn of 2011 – I was on maternity leave – and used to go and take the protesters food. They had an amazing kitchen there with donations from both members of the public and businesses. There was a lot of love for Occupy in the beginning.
However, as Ruthven’s film rightly documents, there soon was trouble in paradise. The camp became a magnet for vulnerable people from all over London and tension broke out between the activists who were there to make a point and the rough sleepers who were there for food and shelter. The camp became a microcosm for society’s problems; tensions arose over drinking and drug use and some of the women in the camp experienced sexual assault. In the film we met a young girl called Emily who described the reaction to her reporting a sexual assault. I winced as I heard her tell the age old story – she should keep it to herself, she was making a fuss, reporting it wouldn’t help. I wanted to tell her to get the fuck out of there and wondered why her friends and/or family allowed her to hang around in such a toxic environment.
And then there was George. Ah yes, George. What a peculiar character he was. George (his surname was not revealed) was one of the self styled leaders of the camp who ended up as one of the defendants in the final court case. George was very well spoken, good looking in a grubby way, and incredibly confident. White male privilege oozed out of his slightly unwashed body. He was obviously clever and knew his stuff but I am afraid I wanted to slap him. We had a long discussion after the film about George – most of us didn’t like him at all – but he was a good talker (as we used to say in the telly years) and he helped the film hang together. You got the impression that quite a lot of the other people at the camp felt deeply ambivalent about him, yet his sheer force of personality allowed him to push himself to the front. And this is in a movement that allegedly had no leaders. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on!!!
The camp was moved on in February 2012 and obviously the movement still exists – largely in name alone. I still get updates on Facebook from Occupy London and obviously there are more things to get angry about than ever before – our current regime is far more aggressive than the watered down Coalition of 2011. The issues highlighted by Occupy have not gone away – is it time for Occupy 2:0?