A Letter from St. Paul’s
by Chuck Rosenthal
Photography by Gail Wronksy and Marlena Dali
London, December 10, 2011
I first heard about Occupy Wall Street in September when Gail Wronsky and I had just arrived in Sultanamet, Istanbul. A hundred or so people marched, carrying signs in various languages, shouting their support. It took some digging in the Sunday London Times when I got back; I found a small article on page six, saying that in the wake of Occupy Wall Street in New York the Occupy Movement had sprung up in number of world capitals, including Berlin, Sydney (where our daughter lives), and in Rome where it was accompanied by street violence. The movement, it said, was a response to rampant unemployment and, in Rome, the rioting because of the threat of cut backs in government benefits and services.
It didn’t really turn many British heads until the tent city plopped itself down around St. Paul’s Cathedral in the center of the city’s financial district. That’s when we hopped on the train for our first visit.
Like the other occupations you’ve likely read about, St. Paul’s is a tent city, not a campground. Tents are piled upon each other as tightly as can be. Flags are flown, placards posted everywhere, on walls, poster boards, on tents; the general drift is that Capitalism must do better, that banks and corporations are stealing us blind and destroying the environment, that corporate greed is promoting violence and war; guitars, bongos, didgeridoos. Within the tent cluster are larger tents for support and logistics: a kitchen tent, a communications tent, a child and mother tent, a library, a counseling tent, a “university” tent, a tent to organize the tents. Things are pretty organized. People sit outside the tents at the edge of the village, willing to talk with anyone who comes by; many that do are middle-aged Britons who often cite the contradictions in the movement, i.e. they have electronics, tents, clothes, use cell phones. The answer is, “Of course we do. We’re in the system just like you. We just want to make it better.”
“Well how do you make it better by sitting around in tents?”
“We’re sharing opinions. Our presence makes you aware of the problems. We’re trying to say there are big problems.”
Indeed. The Eurozone is on the verge of collapse. England, opting out, will likely go down with it anyway. A second big recession is on the way. Advice from one economist from the Swiss bank UBS: “Invest in tinned goods and small caliber weapons.” Whose fault is it? Mine? Yours? Or venture capitalism, over-invested banks, corporate greed? Who will suffer, you or the people who created the problem, the corporate execs with the million pound bonuses?
The spectrum of solutions you’ll find about you at St. Paul’s range from getting rid of all banks, corporations, and governments to each person just trying their best to be loving, non-violent, more environmentally aware, less consumerist.
In between, a call for more regulation on the corporate level, job creation on the part of government, a more equitable distribution of wealth, free education, free health care, affordable, if not free, housing. Some go so far as to eschew the need to work to be eligible for all this. But honestly, there seem as many opinions at St. Paul’s as there are tents.
When Gail and I go to St. Paul’s we attend the afternoon assembly on St. Paul’s steps. Politics isn’t really discussed, except that it is consistently stressed that everyone’s opinions must be respected. Reggae sounds from loudspeakers – it doesn’t blast, it’s not even loud – there’s some random dancing, then somebody gets up on a low platform and speaks into a mike. It’s been a different person every time, man or woman, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes young, sometimes even American; a kind of spectrum of the crowd. You wouldn’t call them well-dressed, they’ve been living outside in tents, though among the people sitting on the steps you’ll find a wide array, all races; the other day two Japanese men in suits sat eating their bag lunches.
On our first visit the assembly discussion formed around getting along peaceably, about logistics and organization in the village, keeping fed, keeping clean, helping each other, helping out. Then there was time taken to talk about what was happening where: a discussion about what a corporation is or another about what banks do, and maybe shouldn’t do. They petition for volunteers to help at the food tent, to help clean up. There was a general discussion that day about their rules of assembly. What constituted interfering with another person’s views. Violence, of course. Shouting. As the discussion went on, the audience performed the notorious hand gestures; they raised both their hands and wriggled their fingers. Assent. If someone disagreed, they crossed their fisted arms and were immediately brought to the mike to speak. So, too, if they raised a hand to ask a question.
During our most recent visit, in order to preempt their imminent eviction by the London police, a man announced that anyone could move to the recently occupied Finsbury Square (northeast of downtown). They had, as well, occupied an abandoned bank in Finsbury. The bank wouldn’t be used for housing but to shelter the technology operating communications and logistics. If you wanted to occupy, you had to pitch and live in a tent. You might have expected a celebration, shouting, or even defiance, but the crown grinned and raised their arms, quietly wriggling their fingers.
That night the police stepped in. The St. Paul’s Occupiers quietly left. The next day they quietly moved back in. The Occupiers of St. Paul’s are lucky in that way, in that they haven’t faced the authoritarian violence I’ve read about on the internet during the evictions of protesters in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Oakland, Berkeley, Davis, Los Angeles. The USA. In Sydney, my daughter reports, there are no laws protecting protest or free speech. When people gather the police move in pretty fast. She has to be particularly careful; if arrested she’ll be deported.
In London there’s a tradition of occupation, political and otherwise. Squatters have rights. If a building or property hasn’t been used for two years, somebody can move in. Then the owner has to go to court, showing the intention to use the property. Eviction can take months. Outside Heathrow International, on the vacant land where the government has planned a third runway, a group of protesters opposed to the expansion have moved in and planted a successful subsistence farm. They’ve been there a year. Of course, there are a lot of varying opinions about how to handle something like that.
So Londoners respond to Occupy St. Paul’s with varying degrees of admiration, puzzlement, toleration, and anger, if not yet violence. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has called them “Dope smoking fornicators living in crusty tents,” but that makes me think he hasn’t visited the tent city. Drugs and alcohol are banned there (to my chagrin, I suppose), though I don’t know how that’s reinforced beyond suggestion; there are no open displays of sexuality, or even physical affection beyond a hug. What live music you hear is acoustic. The demeanor of the inhabitants ranges from playful to respectful.
For my part, the first time I walked away from St. Paul’s, all of this passivity bothered me. Where was the leadership? The anger? The defiance? They didn’t have a slogan, a direction, a singular objective. I recall our anti-war movement during Vietnam. Whatever else fell around it, peace, free love, hard rock, eco-awareness, vegetarianism, feminism you hoped, it coalesced (and then fell apart) around a single objective: stop the draft, stop the war.
Many of us then weren’t simply counter-cultural, we were cultural critics, educated in the Frankfurt School, Marcuse, the New Left, the critique of a consumerist, materialist infrastructure fed by the capacity to wage war, even total, nuclear war; Marx’s critique of capitalism magnified Freud’s pleasure principle to where the charade of pursuing middle class aspirations, spurred by the corporate war machine, in that current case, Vietnam, created a society where the substratum of pleasure was death. In a society such as this, the media, however well-intentioned, folded into the ideology of the superstructure, the vocabulary of protest and discontent was eaten up and spit back as the slogans of society at war: rock became pop: “Our house, is a very very very fine house,” can sell real estate, or “Give pizza a chance.” Thus the language of protest was emulsified by incorporation, i.e. repressive tolerance.
However naïve, and even the Old Left called us, the New Left, naïve, we thought that was an ideology. But it was easy to find opinions, but hard to find an ideology at St. Paul’s.
I’m teaching a class here in London for Study Abroad called RoadWrite, and in conjunction with that I had thirteen college students read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” then sent each independently to St. Paul’s to observe it. They came back reporting what we all can see. The Occupiers were respectful, admirable, but seemed directionless and diffuse. They stood for some wonderful things, but how could these things be accomplished?
“Socialism,” said one student. “That’s what they want. Why not say it?”
“Well,” I said, “not all of them want it, and if they did, they couldn’t say it. They’d be cornered as communists.” Then, in that moment I reflected that maybe that was part of the strategy. To sit, passively, in one place, here, in the middle of the middle of the world’s financial capital, tents in the canyon of the valley of wealth. Having spent four months in India, I’m very aware of the accumulative power of Ghandi’s passive resistance. One man, eschewing violence, sitting and weaving, liberated India, changed the world. Mother Theresa, simply by tending the needs of the dying, turned the head of the world.
I thought about the very assignment I gave my students. Thoreau’s philosophy of protest and civil disobedience didn’t come out of nowhere, but arose in the caldron of Romantic discontent already fifty years deep with the Shelley’s protest of the rape of North America and Byron’s active participation in Greek independence from the Ottomans. Melville’s ironic hero, Bartleby, who just “preferred not to,” functions as an existential metaphor to Thoreau’s passive protest of the Mexican War. What are the options when the odds are so overwhelming?
Broadly, America’s counter-cultural protests of the 20th century, the Beats and Hippies both, were Romantic movements spurred by opposition to war and rat race, and saw them both as linked. At a glance, I began to see the Occupy movement as another Romantic cry against the faceless nationalism and corporatism that pacified the middle class with the soma of materialism that has produced, even most gently put, a massive unconcern for issues like global warming, the diminution of world water supplies, overpopulation, starvation, and the rubbing out of animal species needed to support us. Only, it seems, when it hits our own pocketbooks do we turn about and see that maybe something has gone wrong. But when we do see it, like the dock workers in Oakland now see it, Occupy will stand up. For now, they sit in their tents in front of St. Paul’s, like a group of Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s at the feet of the corporate finance system.
Here in London, the English Church has now stated that Occupy and Christianity share the same goals: justice, sympathy, and the fair distribution of social benefits and wealth. Instead of pressing for their eviction, St. Paul’s ministers and other churches are now opening their doors as refuge. Things are wrong out there. People are suffering while others get fat. As we face the precipice, the Occupy movement remains, waiting for the alliances grow, and I begin to rethink my question to one of the Occupiers during my last visit.
“What’s your focus?” I asked her.
She responded quietly. “It’s early. Wait.”