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Occupy London Is Back to Make the UK a Better Place

Problem is, nobody's listening and the police keep trying to kick them out of their protest camp.

Remember #occupy? Here's a memory jogger: it was that movement in 2011 where a load of people camped out next to St Paul's Cathedral for months on end, through the rain and snow, to put the frighteners on all the corporate fat cats on their way to work. That moneyed elite – the "one percent" – had to face the horror of walking past the camp every morning, forced to give the shivering protesters and their vague demands a quick glance, before spending the day in a nice warm office and completely forgetting about everything outside.


For all its good intentions, Occupy London 2011 achieved very little. So, just as the weather turned shitty again this year, protesters decided to get back in their tents and have another crack at affecting some kind of change. From the 17th of October until yesterday, they were camping in Parliament Square to protest against the state of democracy in the UK, under the banner "#occupydemocracy". They say they’ll be back at the beginning of November.

When I visited on Saturday, there weren't too many people at the camp – only 100 or so, which is a markedly smaller number than a few years ago. One protester I spoke to seemed only too aware of this, sighing that the camp was "a shadow of Occupy in 2011", while others told me there had been upwards of 500 people involved earlier in the week.

occupydemocracy has various demands that all fall under the overarching and somewhat ambiguous wish for “a democracy that works for the 99 percent, not just a tiny wealthy elite”.

Demonstrators have been vocal on the privatisation of public services, cuts to welfare and the UK's growing wealth inequality. They've also compared their stand to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong – which have seen tens of thousands of people battling with riot cops for control of the streets – and wondered why the media hasn't been as interested in several dozen people camping out in Parliament Square.

Small though the protest has been, it hasn’t stopped the police giving the campers plenty of aggro. The day I was there, cops had teamed up with the square’s heritage wardens to rigorously enforce the 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, which bans sleeping equipment from the square.


Last week, authorities citing this Act confiscated a sheet of tarpaulin and a few of the pizza boxes that protesters were using as pillows. This didn't go down very well: demonstrators got pissed off and the riot vans rolled in, inexplicably carrying around three officers to every activist. The event has since been canonised on Twitter under the hashtag #tarpaulinrevolution.

One of the occupiers, Matilda Wnek, gave me a rundown of the Battle of the Tarp.

“They came to [confiscate] the tarpaulin we were sitting on, on the grounds that tarpaulin counts as a structure," she said. "Our solicitors turned up and pointed out that it was unlawful, so they backed away. On Sunday, they came back with 10 police vans and 140 police. Fifty peaceful protesters were kettled and then dragged, one-by-one, off the tarpaulin. On Tuesday morning they arrested 30 peaceful protesters for sitting on a piece of tarpaulin, and in the meantime built this fence around the square. They’re doing it on the grounds that the grass needs to be repaired.”

Thanks to those very urgent repairs, the square itself was closed off on Saturday, with protesters stood on the grassy verge around it.

Despite all these setbacks, the atmosphere seemed fairly upbeat while I was there. A lady was holding a banner that read: “Honk if you love the NHS”, and every time a passing car answered her wish the crowd responded with applause and whooping.


Danny, AKA "plinth guy"

After a quick walk around I caught up with Danny, AKA “plinth guy”, so-called because he'd been arrested for sitting on the square's Winston Churchill statue for 28 hours as an act of protest, climbing up after seeing the "emotionally offending" fencing being erected.

Fresh out of police custody, he claimed that protesters who'd passed him food or water were arrested for obstruction, before having their photos and fingerprints taken without charge – i.e. police getting protester's details on file. He said he faces charges ranging from criminal damage, for residue left on the statue by a sign, to indecency charges, for giving Winston a mock blowjob.

Shortly after speaking to us the police arrested him again, this time for breaching his bail conditions.

In spite of the apparent harassment, the camp's general attitude towards the police wasn't too damning. Some I spoke to brought up police failures over phone hacking and child abuse scandals, while others suggested that cops represent just one section of the UK's low paid workforce, as deserving of a break as the next lot.

Then there was this confusing police-inspired artwork propped up outside the square, which didn't really tell me anything at all.

There were also a few conspiracy theorists milling about, but people seemed kind of disdainful of them. Seeking a bit of clarification as to what the camp's mission statement is, I asked Matilda what #occupydemocracy actually wants and how they hope to achieve it.


“Things like the right to recall MPs, and removing the Remembrancer, who is the liaison between Parliament and the City of London,” she said.

Moving on to how some people camping out in central London is going to be constructive in any tangible way, she said, “I think the difference between Occupy and a petition is that Occupy has an emphasis on discussion and learning. People who maybe care about the NHS but don’t see its connection to the TTIP [Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership] or fracking… what we’re trying to see is the creation of civic spaces where people feel like it makes sense to talk about politics, and where politics can be part of the fabric of their life.”

Much like the original Occupy protests, this sounds like a very nice idea. Everyone wants the world to be a better place. Plus, Ritzy cinema workers striking over wages, and the E15 mothers' occupation of council housing, are both recent examples of protests rooted in the everyday issues of people's lives – and each, to varying degrees, has had some kind of success.

Problem is, I'm not sure week-long urban camping exercises are going to prompt much meaningful response. And, like the original Occupy, there are plenty of demands, but very few realistic solutions being proposed. Mind you, maybe I'm wrong – maybe, come the beginning of November, crowds will return in their droves and we'll see London's answer to Hong Kong's "Umbrella Revolution".


I just wouldn't advise you to hold your breath.

@cromulentjosh / @owebb

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