What Occupy LSX are getting wrong
This is Dan Hodges' first contribution to the Total Politics blog. Every Friday he will be examining a campaign that's currently in the news and giving his assessment of it. Today he writes about his visit to Occupy LSX at St Paul's Cathedral.
Walk into the small, green Occupy London Stock Exchange media tent and the first person you come across is a banker. At least Liam Kirk claims to be a banker. “I work in banking,” he says, fixing me with a slightly over-intense stare.
Work in banking. As in currently employed in banking? Or formally employed in banking?
“I’m an investment banker.”
But are you actually working for a bank now? “I work in banking.” OK, which bank? “I’m not saying.”
Liam Kirk is a tough man to pin down. As are a number of his colleagues. And his movement in general.
I’ve come to talk to the Occupy LSX communications team about how they’re spinning their St Paul’s “occupation”. They are all very clear on this point; it’s an “occupation”. Personally, I’m not so sure that’s a media savvy description. Iraq or the Normandy coastline, fine. But St Paul's? When I finally meet a press officer I plan to tell them.
The trouble is, I can’t find one. “I’m not a press officer,” says Liam, “I’m a volunteer. I just came out for a pint of milk. And I stayed.” I’m not a hundred per cent sure I’m buying Liam’s milk-buying line. But for now I’ll take a steer from anywhere I can.
A young women enters the tent. She’s smartly dressed and wearing a yarmulke. Is she a press officer? “No. I’m from the Occupy Judaism movement. I’ve been told there’s someone here from the Jewish Chronicle. I’ve been asked to come down and be Jewish at him.”
Finding myself, not for the first time, too gentile for my own good, I turn back to Liam.
I need someone who can explain why Occupy LSX is here, and what they are trying to achieve. “I can do that,” he says. My heart rises. “I’d like to point you to two books.” It sinks again. “The Great Depression by Galbraith, and The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis.”
I consider telling Liam I was taught you should always get your press release to fit on one side of A4, and handing out whole books is pretty poor trade craft. Then I spot a newspaper sitting on the floor. It’s the Express, with the headline, “Banish The Hateful St Paul’s Rabble Now”. Occupy LSX is losing the communications war. And I’m beginning to understand why.
In desperation, I seize upon a young man standing at the tent’s entrance. Is he, by any chance, a press officer? “Well, I’m a volunteer.” Yes, we get that you haven’t all been press ganged. “But I suppose you could call me a sort of floating press officer.” Perfect. Levitate if you have to. You’ll do.
Andy Kenny, my floating press officer, can’t really give me quotes. But he can show me around, and let me see the camp. The camp itself has been described as a tented village, but it’s more of a small hamlet. The tents are fairly neatly arranged, in that form of organized chaos much beloved of the direct action movement.
What’s immediately noticeable is this is not a protest aimed at the banking system, it’s a protest aimed at every single injustice man has ever managed to perpetrate against his fellow man. And one or two injustices the most sadistic of his fellow men couldn’t even have dreamt of.
There are protestors against fuel poverty, police injustice and student fees. You can buy a copy of Socialist Worker, visit the Anarchist Book fair or visit the Queer Visibility Workshop. As I’m wrestling with my options a lady called Dianne approaches.
What are you protesting against Dianne? “Corruption.”
State? Capitalist? “Local authority. Southwark council. They defrauded me. They claimed it was an administrative error.”
I put it to Andy that to an outsider, the aims of him and his fellow occupiers seem somewhat diffuse. “Yes, they are a bit,” he concedes. “The problem is that as an organisation we’ve grown organically.”
He points me to a piece of cardboard which has nine points written down on it. This was the camp's initial ‘mission statement’. It’s illegible.
“It’s had its critics,” he says, “so were editing it. Refining it. This is too vague.”
I ask if he has a copy. He does, but he’ll only give me one if I put it into the appropriate context, and explain it’s being reworded. I explain I’m only too happy to do that, but it will mean quoting him. “Oh that’s fine,” he says. My press officer has returned to terra firma.
I’m shown the ‘Tea and Tranquility’ tent, the ‘International Commission’, which is a tent which is supposed to be used to communicate with fellow protestors abroad, but is now stuffed with equipment from an old sound system, and the ‘University’.
“Yesterday they were teaching five to ten-years-olds about politics and power," Andy informs me, “They loved it.” I think about how my five-year-old loves hitting me with his plastic light sabre.
I ask if I can interview some of the other occupiers. Andy says yes. The first girl I approach says she’s happy to talk; “But you’re not going to write anything bad are you? The press have written some bad things. You aren’t going to be asking me bad questions.” I won’t be asking any bad questions, I explain, but I’m not sure what I’ll be writing. “In that case, I’d rather not.” I ask another seven occupiers. They all politely refuse to speak to me.
I put it to Andy that the point of a protest is usually to try and get your mesage across to others. “Yeah, but it’s not unusual. A lot of people who attend these things don’t like talking to the press. We had the Telegraph here last night trying to find out how many people were actually sleeping out.” I tell him I also work for the Telegraph. He looks at me like I have five heads.
So why’s Andy here; in a sentence. “Hmmm. It’s not a one sentence job. OK. I’m protesting against government and the financial institutions.” And does he want to be a full-time occupier. “No,” he laughs, “it doesn’t really pay the bills, does it? I’d like to work in the music industry.”
A diminutive figure, wrapped in about fourteen scarves, approaches. “Hi I’m Naomi.” Naomi is a real press officer. I can tell by her professional, but not overly slick, demeanor. And by the fact that instead of dragging me towards the Tea and Tranquility tent, she guides me into Starbucks.
“This is basically our media headquarters,” she says, pointing to a room packed with earnest looking occupiers huddled over laptops and soya lattes. Critics of the Occupy movement have claimed local businesses are being hit. This one appears to be booming. Starbucks staff have been told not to comment on the occupation, but I check with the shop next door, and they confirm the world’s favorite barista is doing a roaring trade.
Naomi is the woman with the facts at her fingertips. Occupy has about eight press officers, but the nature of the movement provides its own management issues.
“People tend to drift in and then drift away,” she explains. “Also, because we’re not managed from the top down they tend to gravitate towards the things that interest them.”
Other problems would be recognisable to most traditional PROs. “Yeah we’ve got an issue with the website. There’s a bit of a dispute over who runs it. Whether it’s press or stand alone.”
Naomi thinks their press management has gone well: “We’ve managed to avoid most of the elephant traps people have put in front of us, and turn them around.” I wonder if I should tell her about the Express. Probably best not to.
So what exactly are Occupy trying to achieve with their media strategy? “It’s about showing we’re reasonable people. That we stand with the 99%. That we’re ordinary working people. That we’re not different to everyone else.”
But Naomi, let’s be honest. You haven’t done that have you? Most ordinary people think you lot are weirder than Ed Miliband. There’s a pause. “Look we accept there’s much more we need to do. But you have to remember, we’re part of a global movement. I know this sounds really pretentious, but we really think the moment’s with us.”
They all do. Naomi, Liam , Andy. They may be hopelessly out of touch and misguided. But in their own way, they are sincere. They believe what they’re fighting for. The problem is they just don’t know what that is.
So Naomi, the same question I’ve asked everyone else. Why are you, personally, here? “People have seen Egypt, the Arab spring, Greece. I want to be part of that. I know we’re not going to change things overnight. But I genuinely think there are two or three people in this camp, who have been with us, who will be inspired by what we’re doing, and will one day go on to do extraordinary things. Generate real change.”
It’s about the fifth or sixth different answer I’ve heard today. And the best.
Dan Hodges has worked on campaigns for Labour, the trade unions, private and charity sectors