Protesters wearing masks at the Occupy London protest outside St Paul s Cathedral in London
Photo: David Pearson / Alamy Stock Photo
Ten years ago the world stood on the precipice of the age of austerity and a decade of disruption.
Kicking off on October 15 2011, Occupy London was not only a manifestation of the anger felt at the time, but it was also an iconic movement with words and imagery that are still felt to this day. Many of the issues protesters spoke about during the eight months of occupations are still with us too.
The Occupy movement never went away, its tendrils extending into environmental campaigners Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. The battle against the mega-rich, the bankers and the corporations of the one per cent still rages on. But has Occupy made a difference?
‘It created this moment where people felt like they wanted to change it’
Sam Burgum, lecturer and author of Occupying London, Post-Crash Resistance and the Limits of Possibility
Occupy London was inevitable. Almost as soon as the Occupy Wall Street protest began in New York’s Zuccotti Park in September 2011, eyes turned to London – the world’s next biggest financial centre.
Three years had passed since the 2008 financial crisis, the banker-driven crash that had brought the global economic system to its knees. Under Prime Minister Gordon Brown the UK government had paid out £500bn to bail out the banks, but austerity measures quickly followed as the recession bit the people at the bottom of the ladder.
That caused anger around the world that would spill into principles of direct democracy, moulded by the ideas of anarchist intellectual David Graeber.
Graeber is credited with coming up with the slogan that would define Occupy: “We are the 99 per cent.” It’s an idea that’s synonymous with the occupations but has also transcended them.
It connected in London too. Kai Wargalla, now a politician in her native Germany, set up the Facebook page on October 10 calling for an occupation of the London Stock Exchange.
An injunction prevented action directly outside the financial centre but, by October 15, tents were appearing at neighbouring St Paul’s Cathedral. Around 3,000 people flooded the square to protest, with at least 250 bedding down on the first night, according to reports at the time. They would be there for the long haul.
A second site followed at Finsbury Square and a third – at a disused UBS office complex – became the Bank of Ideas, which protesters termed “a space for political discussion”.
“There was an Occupy London that was always going to happen. That was very clear. To me, it’s like the momentum behind it was enormous,” says Naomi Colvin, a friend of Wargalla who became a press spokesperson for Occupy. “It had to happen. A lot of people wanted it to happen. A lot of people expected it to happen.”
The Occupy movement attracted activists from different movements and perspectives against the enemy that stood tall against environmental, political and societal change: the system itself and the idea that profit could be put above people.
Hacktivists Anonymous were part of the movement. The group had exploded in popularity in the years ahead of the protest, adopting the Guy Fawkes mask made famous by the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta . The mask would go on to be commonplace at Occupy movements and become a part of the protest’s mythology.
Other disenfranchised members of society were also welcomed by the protesters, including rough sleepers, with the group creating a welfare tent as part of the infrastructure on the St Paul’s camp (see page 24).
The union of activists old and new was a key part of Occupy, according to Birmingham City University academic Sam Burgum, who went on to write the book Occupying London, Post-Crash Resistance and the Limits of Possibility.
“What we should recognise is that Occupy was a meeting of two different generations,” Burgum tells The Big Issue.
“So you have the generation of activists who have been doing this for decades, and a new generation of people who saw the injustices of the crash.
“We have the tuition fees [the cap for tuition fees at English universities was raised to £9,000 in 2010] protests feeding into it. We have the riots [which began in London after Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, and spread into other English cities], which was the summer just before Occupy London.
“It all kind of created this moment where people felt like they wanted to get involved and wanted to change it. And I think, therefore, we should recognise that if there’s an event like that in the future, they will call back to Occupy.”
‘It will be horrific if the species is crippled by a system that favours the one per cent over the 99 per cent’ Jamie Kelsey Fry
The Occupy movement did exactly what it said on the tin: the occupation of public spaces was central to what the group wanted to achieve.
It wasn’t a new idea – protesters such as Reclaim the Streets had popularised the tactic in the Nineties.
But how Occupy organised and prolonged the movement was a new kind of activism built on technology. It drafted in established strategies of occupying space with a whole new stance on protesting in the internet age.
Even by 2011, Facebook had become a multibillion-pound operation and it was instrumental in organising and mobilising the so-called 99 per cent and turning the tools of the rich and wealthy against the system itself.
The online efforts did not end there.
Nafeesa Shamsuddin, now a human rights activist, became the tech co-ordinator at the St Paul’s site and ended up live-streaming the entire protest.
Her efforts formed part of the Occupy News Network, which allowed interaction with supporters and connection with 40 other Occupy sites around the globe to trade tips on activism and tackling the legal battles, as the establishment moved to evict them.
Without the connection, occupiers would not have been able to prolong their action or blend the work with keyboard activists years before live-streaming itself became democratised.
“I was watching the live-streams before I went to Occupy London and then when I went there it was just a group of guys with a laptop and a webcam in the tech tent. I was fascinated,” says Shamsuddin.
“I started to get things organised. Sometimes we’d use car batteries with a shopping trolley and we’d have backup laptops that we were carrying on our shoulders, running around with webcams at protests.
“We felt like this was more meaningful because we were speaking to hundreds of people within the UK, then, in the times of protests, there would be 1,000 viewers. Through the day and night in the tech tent they would all talking about the different issues.
“I sat in the general assembly in one of the first weeks and asked if we could represent the online community.”
These general assemblies were at the core of how Occupy made decisions and the societal changes the activists worked towards.
There were no leaders, in theory, and everyone had a voice in the movement’s horizontal structure. They were all, after all, part of the 99 per cent.
Activists also used the human microphone, with the crowd echoing whoever was speaking to amplify their message and subvert the public-speaking politicians who hog the mic in mainstream society.
The assemblies were not only a key part of how protesters wanted to see the world run then – they’re a key part of how they want the dialogue on big issues to run now.
People’s assemblies, occupying public spaces, the use of technology: all are pillars of Extinction Rebellion’s modern-day actions.
Jamie Kelsey-Fry has had his foot in both camps. In fact, he wrote the rulebook that links the two and sees the connective tissue between the economic system and the challenges of tackling the climate emergency.
“Occupy was an extremely moving emotional experience,” he says. “I’ve never experienced hope like that before. It was a dream for four and a half months. We had a taste of how beautiful this species could be.
“Members of Occupy brought the participatory democracy assemblies out to other movements. In fact, it was me who wrote the manual that informs the entire Extinction Rebellion movement on how to use participatory democracy.
“A lot of the people who are involved in Extinction Rebellion, a lot of the Occupiers, they’re aware of the fact that climate breakdown is mostly baked in. There’s going to be huge change in societies and civilisation so it’s really important that communities start to learn to work with each other now.
“It will be horrific if the species is crippled, and brought to its knees, simply by a system that favours the one per cent at the cost of the 99per cent. More than anything, that would be embarrassing. It’s not about outrage and anger. Actually, I feel such shame.”
Insulate Britain’s action to block the M25 is also informed by the same manual – but has a different take on occupying public spaces. The protesters’ disruption to the daily commute to trigger quicker action on the climate crisis has attracted criticism – last week the Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the group “irresponsible crusties”. The action has certainly made an impact – the government has pushed for an injunction to stop them – but, according to Burgum, it lacks the sustained appeal of Occupy.
“I’m not against it because they’re pissing people off,” says Burgum. “The classic narrative is they shouldn’t be annoying everyone, but that’s exactly the point.
“But I don’t necessarily think blocking the traffic is achieving what they want it to achieve. I think public squares are better because they are areas that you can persist in and you can make those alternatives that you’re trying to create sustainable in that space, you can make them appear for a longer time. I’m not sure gridlock has the same sustainability.”
So why, 10 years on, are we still living with the inequality and environmental concerns Occupy brought to the fore?
‘It was the biggest robbery on the planet and they got away with it’
In the years since the last Occupy London protesters were evicted, the one per cent have been winning. Inequality has increased – a pattern that Covid has turbocharged.
The average CEO of a FTSE 100 company was paid £2.69m in 2020, 86 times the median salary of a full-time worker in the UK, according to the High Pay Centre in research published last month.
Thousands could be facing homelessness this autumn at a time when there are almost 30,000 homes – worth around £15bn – sitting empty in the centre of London, research by insurance firm Admiral claims. Many of these properties are holiday homes or left vacant so their owners can speculate on soaring house prices.
If this was the world Occupy was seeking to prevent, it clearly failed.
Ten years on, Stephen Moore, a former bailiff who joined Anonymous after feeling let down by the economic system he was a part of, has mixed feelings about Occupy London. Like many, he feels competing agendas and fatigue saw things decline before protesters were evicted from St Paul’s on February 28, 2012.
“It was the biggest robbery on the planet ever and they got away with it,” says Moore.
“There were a lot of people coming down and pinning their own issues to Occupy but, essentially, the way I saw it was the establishment using the banking system as a free casino and if they lose we bail them out. I feel the establishment got away with murder.
“There’s certain organisations out there like the Good Law Project that are trying to hold them to account but essentially they are still stuffing their pockets and they’re getting away with it.”
Sam Burgum believes the leaderless setup popularised by Occupy is both one of the movements’ greatest assets and its greatest flaws.
But that’s not to say Occupy was a complete failure – there are still lessons to be learned and, in the process of activism, those lessons are still evolving.
“It was a democratic experiment,” says Burgum. “But there’s a lack of accountability. Decentralisation was central to what they were trying to achieve, but it was also the biggest problem.
“When you don’t have clear leaders, you don’t know who’s accountable to who. So they kind of just end up leading anyway. Like, the classic thing was, you can tell who the leaders are, because they are the ones saying there are no leaders.
“I would say that Extinction Rebellion has continued with some of the mistakes of Occupy. It’s almost like Occupy is waiting there in history for a future movement to then pick it up as part of its legacy.”
The home secretary is currently bringing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill through Parliament. Widely described as draconian, the bill would allow police to crack down on protesters if their actions cause “serious annoyance” to the surrounding community, organisations and businesses.
It could spell the end for marches and protests and would have undoubtedly curtailed Occupy London’s months-long public space occupation.
For Melanie Strickland, it’s a worrying sign. The environmental activist has already faced a prolonged legal battle as part of the Stansted 15 – activists who were arrested for blocking a deportation flight at the London airport in 2017.
An environmental campaigner before Occupy London, Strickland was originally a legal observer before getting involved in the protests after they allowed her to “join the dots” connecting her environmental cause to capitalism and the economic system.
She tells The Big Issue Patel’s bill is a threat.
“Civil rights activist Angela Davis talks about fascism being a process and I think when you look at that bill, you have to recognise how far down that road we are,” says Strickland. “It feels like the space for dissent is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
But it does go to show that direct actions are effective. When the state feels the need to pass repressive legislation that shows it’s because they feel threatened.”
Perhaps Occupy’s true legacy – aside from the enduring symbol of the Guy Fawkes mask and the provocative slogan “We are the 99 per cent” – is that we have the language to call out these injustices wherever they happen.
The movement made rallying against inequality everybody’s fight.
“It changed the dialogue,” concludes Kelsey Fry, “making it okay for anybody to say the economic system was corrupt or the bankers got bailed out and we got sold out. That no longer became something that the left wing says. Or people with degrees in politics. It became ordinary for people from all walks of life to be saying that.”
This article is taken from the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.
If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.