Ellie Mae O’Hagan takes in the atmosphere outside St Paul’s
It’s an autumn afternoon in London and I’m sitting on a cold, hard tiled floor with hundreds of other people. We’re listening to the distinguished professor, David Harvey who has come to talk to us. Every now and then he will say something that seems to tug on the audience’s collective heartstrings, and hundreds of hands will shoot up, waving silently in agreement.
This is Occupy London, established on October 15th 2011, when hundreds of protesters spilled into the heart of the City of London and set up camp outside St Paul’s cathedral. It’s been a beleaguered protest in many ways: campers face the permanent threat of eviction, half the clergy seem to have resigned over it; the Telegraph even invested in night-vision cameras to try to prove that some committed the mortal sin of not sleeping in their tents every night.
Yet none of the clamour can prepare you for Occupy’s atmosphere. It is, even in its quietest moments, alive and unpredictable; creative and intelligent. It seems to be bursting at the seams with ideas and newness. There is also, here, a sense of community: campers speak in their own language of consensus – a series of hand signals signifying agreement or dissent, which help general assemblies move faster and ensure that no decisions are made that anyone present is unhappy with.
Over on the steps of St Paul’s a dog called Lucy is sporting a red fleece. She’s so adorable I can’t resist making a fuss of her. It starts a conversation with her owner, Matthew, which evolves into a weird and wonderful storytelling session. In the end the group of us, now old friends, are in fits of giggles. As I get up to leave, Matthew outstretches his arms and takes me in for a hug, saying “come back and visit, we’re always around.”
To outsiders that might seem kitsch; the sort of thing that would normally make me cringe. But here it seems normal. The camp’s arms are permanently outstretched, ready to embrace anyone and anything that comes along. It’s difficult not to get sucked into this world, where everything seems equal and hopeful.
What happens next to Occupy London is anybody’s guess. Scenes of violence we’ve seen across the Atlantic are having their opening acts played out here, as protesters wake up to eviction notices taped to their tents. But the spirit of occupation will not be quelled. This protest is not just the reclamation of public space, but the reclamation of the public itself – of society.
Things may get ugly as the City of London tries to turf a hundred tiny tents from its land, but that’s of no concern to a movement that was never about tents in the first place. As one banner in Occupy Wall Street reads, “you cannot evict an idea whose time has come.”