Simon Jenkins doesn’t get it: protest and nuisance at Occupy London

On Tuesday the veteran commentator Simon Jenkins published an opinion piece in the Evening Standard which helpfully embodied the many varieties of condescension with which commentators have approached the Occupy movement. Jenkins, some of whose columns I agree with, is not the worst offender but his article demonstrates one thing loud and clear: he doesn’t understand how protest works.

“I regard myself as a card-carrying liberal on most things,” he writes (paging Phil Ochs), “but I am depressed when liberalism loses its moral backbone and appeases student idiocy.” He counters with it his own brand of idiocy, or at least blindness. He praises the law-abiding dignity of the 2003 Iraq war march as if unaware that the failure of that march to change government policy in the slightest damaged belief in the power of protest for years afterwards. He insists that protesters use the standard democratic channels as if oblivious to the growing sense that those channels are failing to address the problem. He blusters about the “nuisance” of the St Paul’s encampment as if oblivious that virtually every successful protest in history has been a nuisance to somebody. Nuisance is rather the point. But establishment figures like Jenkins regard protest as at best a novelty, at worst a threat and usually just an annoyance. The headline claims “This camp is not a proper protest.” Well yes it is, just not the one the Evening Standard would like.

What Jenkins appears to understand least of all is that there is an imbalance in mainstream political debate. To most of the media the language of power is smooth and acceptable; that of the powerless is messy and foolish. The well-spoken think tank wonk pushing free-market dogma is presented as the norm; the woolly-jumpered student arguing the opposite is an oddball extremist. When the left, which has far fewer newspapers and lavishly funded think tanks with deceptively bland names than the right, finds alternative outlets it is scolded for breaching etiquette.

Even the language of broadcasters like the BBC, which to the kind of tormented souls who haunt the Telegraph blogs is some kind of Marxist conspiracy, is skewed in one direction. The occupiers are reductively tagged as “anti-capitalist”, opening the door for glib attacks from the likes of Louise Mensch on any protester who has an iPhone or dares to use the local Starbucks. (Full disclosure: I typed the first draft of this blog on an Apple laptop in Starbucks before visiting St Paul’s yesterday. What a bastard.)

And there is little acknowledgment that the current system is faulty. Credit downgrades are solemnly reported as if the credit rating agencies hadn’t thoroughly disgraced themselves by letting reckless banking habits flourish unregulated in the years before the Lehmans collapse. Political decisions are judged on whether they appease or unsettle the markets. Had Jenkins listened to Radio 4’s World at One on Tuesday he would have heard ministers wringing their hands over their powerlessness to moderate unjustifiably high executive pay. Their excuse, heard so often these days, is that the markets run the game. The news actually enhances the sense that if you want things to change then you don’t turn to your government — you attack the all-powerful markets.

Hence the Occupy movement, which exists because of the sense that playing nicely doesn’t work. For decades we have been fed the line that the free market is a marvellous self-regulating machine that fosters competition and generates rewards for all. But the concept of “wealth creators” rings hollow when the only wealth they seem to be creating is their own. Competition, supposed to drive down prices, drives top-level salaries ever upwards. The idea that high pay is simply a fair reward for hard work, and that it benefits society as a whole, increasingly feels like a con job: a stick-up.

Due to age and temperament, I’m of the marching-and-voting tendency but I understand why for some people that’s not enough. Jenkins mentions the scale of popular anger towards the banks as if it erodes Occupy’s case rather than enhances it. He thinks that because it’s well-known that the executive class is running a racket where failure is rewarded at the top while ordinary employees and pension-holders take the punishment, then there’s no need to make the case on the cobbles of St Paul’s. He gives away his lack of understanding by accusing the occupiers of treating it as “fun”. They may be enjoying the experience but that’s not merely fun: it’s empowerment.

One of the most striking early insights into the August riots came from a rioter interviewed on Newsnight who said that it was the first time he felt truly empowered. For one night he wasn’t beaten down and impotent; the streets were his. Now looting’s a shitty form of empowerment but that desire to feel less like a victim of a system you cannot change is real and valid and surely even Jenkins would agree that camping outside St Paul’s is a more constructive way to express that desire than setting fire to cars, or indulging in the self-aggrandising antics of the black bloc. Jenkins, as a newspaper columnist, has no idea what it is like not to be heard. His opinions are aired and discussed. It’s surely not that much of a leap of the imagination to consider that in a time of crisis dissenters may want to have more of a voice than a vote every five years.

So when Jenkins tells the occupiers, with patrician hauteur, to “depart in good order” he is attempting to define the limits of protest from a position of power, as if the right to protest can be granted or withdrawn at any time, like a five-minute free swim in the school pool. Jenkins is writing for a paper which has made its position perfectly clear, warning on yesterday’s front page that the occupation might damage the Olympics, the Lord Mayor’s show and the Queen’s Jubilee. The implication is that the church, the royal family, the tourists — they matter. You’ve had your fun, now fuck off before the Queen gets here.

But protest is a human right and a British tradition every bit as important as the Lord Mayor’s show — maybe, whisper it, even more important. Instead of feeling like mugs forced to suck it up and tolerate Occupy, the public should be proud that such a thing can flourish. The fact that, despite persistent smears like the discredited heat-vision story which purported to show rows of tents left empty overnight, the public is so far broadly sympathetic is encouraging.

I went to St Paul’s yesterday afternoon and found a benign, creative, self-regulating community: Glastonbury on cobbles. There’s an information tent, a First Aid tent, a kitchen, an art gallery, a library, portaloos, recycling bins, messageboards, even a cinema. A girl was handing out copies of the Occupied Times newsletter. A circle of middle-aged men and women were singing The Times They Are a-Changin’. Everywhere I walked I overheard people engaged in political conversation, from full-time occupiers to curious passers-by to gents in suits with poppies on their lapels. What I didn’t see, despite what some would like you to think, were noisome drummers (who plagued Occupy Wall Street last week), anti-semitic conspiracy theorists, litter, vandalism, aggravation or Louise Mensch’s pernicious “fancy tents”.

If you enjoy taking cheap shots at hippies you’re in luck — a sign outside one tent pleaded, “Please donate incense!” – but it’s not just about the spirit of the 60s anymore than it’s just about the Anonymous contingent in V for Vendetta masks. Political action, from mainstream parties to marches, is about feeling less alone and this is an extreme example of a functioning community bonded by its ideals. The occupiers are striving to make their deeds match their words and create their own temporary society. Ideas are being thrown back and forth. Factional disputes have been held in check. In London, at least, it has been relentlessly civil and peaceful. The recent showdown with the drummers at Occupy Wall Street filled me with respect for those attempting to keep the occupations running smoothly without laying down hard rules. Yes, it’s inconvenient for some local traders and St Paul’s staff but you know what? The ongoing financial crisis for which nobody has been taken to task is pretty fucking inconvenient too, and at least Occupy has only cost two people their jobs.

The departure of church officials is something nobody at the camp wanted. If it were a protest against the Church of England it would already be acclaimed a triumph, but this was not the confrontation they were looking for. It’s a great shame that because of London’s geography and land ownership there is no more neutral site, equivalent to Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, for the occupation. Unfortunately, just as the media only tends to report on demonstrations when violence breaks out (not much has changed since police charged antiwar demonstrators in Grosvenor Square in 1968 and the next day’s papers fretted mainly about the welfare of the horses), it’s the method rather than the message that continues to dominate the coverage.

But news of a possible deal with the church and the Corporation of London proves that the occupiers are very far from being naïve troublemakers. To quote a “Dear General Public” letter taped to a fence at the site: “We are not some ‘special interest’ group. We are you.” Read the whole thing below. Not quite “student idiocy”, is it?

Certainly Occupy, in every city, faces many challenges. How long can it last without losing public goodwill? How long can it continue to duck demands for a clear agenda? How can it avoid dwindling to a whimper? But this is a brave and painstaking experiment in consensual democracy and part of an honourable, centuries-old tradition of British dissent. To tell them, as Jenkins does, to pack up and go home is to say that the experiment is unnecessary because the current system is working just fine. As many people know all too well, it isn’t.

Note: The Occupationalist is a remarkable unfiltered, real-time document of the progress of the Occupy movement worldwide.