Let me tell you about an old schoolmate, Mitch (not his real name). Mitch was that guy in class with the shabby hair and intentionally oversized uniform who ‘played’ acoustic guitar. I bumped into Mitch a month ago -- the first time I’d seen him in a number of years. That he ended up a (self-proclaimed) hippy is less a testament to my clairvoyance than to predictability. Today, Mitch trots the globe in search of things to rebel against and people to scorn. He told me why he was doing it: “things need to change”, he said. I didn’t listen too closely to his response -- possibly awed by details of his capricious lifestyle and his loud bandana -- but I agreed with him.
I came across Mitch again last week at OccupyLSX outside St Paul’s Cathedral. It was a warm evening but dark, verging on depressing. But Mitch and Co. were at hand to brighten things up. Mitch -- 6’2” with unearthly shocks of brown hair, beard to match -- doesn’t smile but his demeanour is otherwise one of acceptance and generosity. He offers me a homemade pierogi. I decline. I ask him why he is here. “People are losing their jobs and the banks are raking it in”. That’s all he says.
There is a perception about folk like Mitch; bandwagoning layabouts with little else to do, spurred by a pretence of purpose rather than real purpose. It’s hardly significant that this stereotype is perhaps deceptive or even that the camp has few of the Mitch ilk. A campaign of this kind relies in part on media attention for its impact and the media directs its focus how and on who it wants; be it the hardened life-long campaigner, the preppy girl who abandons her tent at night for home comforts, or indeed Mitch.
Added to this are reports of confused clergymen, notably Giles Fraser and Graeme Knowles, who, some might argue, struggled to reconcile the name of the Church with the word of #Occupy. Both are now jobless and humiliated -- the only tangible resultant of OccupyLSX thus far. The fact there’s so much talk of churches, given that this is a protest against bankers, is itself bizarre.
Together, these factors have left sections of the public alienated. OccupyLSX has become about not social justice and legislative change but the protesters themselves. Campaigners now talk about their rights, their freedoms, with designs of challenging the financial system, an afterthought (it’s been a good couple of weeks since I heard uttered the words ‘bank’ or ‘bankers’). So far, OccupyLSX can only be described as a muddle for which I suspect the St Paul’s fiasco is more a highlight than a cause.
There is still an academic, passionate air about #Occupy. But the issues -- who knows what they are anymore? -- are being trivialised, hollowed out by over-used slogans, posturing and frivolous ‘zombie bank runs’. This plays directly into the hands of those OccupyLSX sought to confront.
Is there a better way, or will persistence pay off?
Krish Nair is an LPC graduate currently working as a citizens advice bureau adviser. He blogs at the Training Contract Hawk.