At 8:30 this morning, the vicar appeared. The protesters on the steps of St Paul’s were beginning to stir after a disturbed night of discussion, chanting and occupation. At around 10pm, the police had stormed up the stairs, and stood in formation along the top – perhaps to protect the cathedral, perhaps so that they could intimidate, perhaps so that they would have the chance to swoop and clear should enough people abandon their sleeping place.
But when the vicar arrived, everything changed. He declared that the protesters should have a right to express their opinion, that we were welcome on the steps of the national cathedral. He recognised that those present would happily allow his flock to worship that morning, and told the police that they should go home. And so the occupation secured leave to remain. For now. The expanding tent village will stay, the discussions will continue.
This lunchtime, these discussion focused on international demands. Should the occupation sign up to the statement written by others across the world (published on Bright Green on Friday night)?
And this is interesting. Because what is new about this protest is not its size. There have been far larger demonstrations over the last year. And it is not its militancy. For all of the talk of shutting down the Stock Exchange, no one has yet been willing to press through police lines in order to do so, and it is now occupying the steps of a cathedral who have granted permission for its presence. Nor is it the willingness to stay – many student occupations in the last year have gone on for months. What is new about this (other than many of the people involved) is that it is happening alongside similar occupations all over the world. It was this element that the pushed the BBC TV news to make the protest the lead story this morning, and it is this element that marks it out in the cornucopia of protests over the last year.
Ten years ago, when I first got involved in activism, the watchword was globalisation. George Monbiot told us that “everything has been globalised except our consent”, and helped popularise the work of academics like David Held, calling for the globalisation of democracy and the replacement of the IMF, World Bank, UN and WTO. Stiglitz defected and wrote of “globalisation and its discontents”. We gathered at G8s and Finance minister’s meetings and challenged their legitimacy to make decisions for a planet they didn’t represent.
A lot has happened over those ten years. And events have forced us to shift our focus from the global to local as the shock-waves of neo-liberalism have increasingly stormed Western shores.
But whilst we must stand up to that storm swamping our communities, and whilst we must look to devolve and decentralise power, we must surely keep an eye on those global institutions who used to be a focus of our complaints – the G8, the G20, the IMF, the World Bank, and all of the other institutions who make decisions on behalf of the people of the world without our consent.
And so today, an Israeli peace activist – and student of the same David Held – stood on the steps of St Paul’s and encouraged us to support a statement he had been involved in crafting along with occupations and movements the world over – he reminded us that as we fight at home, we must not forget the global dictatorships which wield so much power over us.
The ever interesting Paul Mason, who was there yesterday, points out that in the 1930s, there were no international demonstrations against austerity – that there were instead national, and increasingly nationalistic protests instead. As I wrote yesterday, the occupations which have become larger – including that of Wall Street – have been successful in securing the support of significant numbers, often a majority, of people in their countries. If this popularity and the corresponding control of conversation can among other things be used to remind us that we, the vast majority of the people in the world, stand together and are suffering together from the same policies, the same power structures, the same elites, then surely this is positive. And hopefully it will help ensure that the self inflicted misery of the 2010’s doesn’t stumble into the same self inflicted carnage that ended the 1930s. And, better still, if it can lay the foundations of a better global governance system, then that is truly exciting.