Many will have heard about the Occupy Wall Street protest, seen pictures of tents camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral and, more recently, noticed the little community of protestors located in Nottingham’s own Old Market Square. As the Occupy movement gains momentum across the globe, are we any closer to finding out what exactly it is all about?
If, like one curious bystander at the camp’s information point, you’re looking for a concise explanation for the movement’s existence you’ll probably be disappointed. It’s not that they don’t know what they are protesting about; it is more that the issue is a lot more complex than it would initially appear. Listening to two members of the camp passionately discussing everything from the fundamental weaknesses of government leaders to the curious legal status of substances known to gradually chip away at our health – cigarettes and alcohol – the sense that a lot of these people are a lot more conscious than we would like to admit about the problems engulfing our society isn’t lost.
The Occupy movement could be seen as the backlash from a consumerist bubble that unceremoniously burst in our faces with the economic breakdown of 2008. Whether we are to blame or not, the fact that so many people have been plunged into a precarious financial position means that the subject of money, not just how far it goes but our dependence on it in the first place, is now on our minds more than ever. Which is exactly what the protesters aim to bring to the forefront of debate; a debate we have with our friends or our parents over biscuits in the kitchen but more importantly a debate with ourselves, uncomfortable questions about the repetitive cycle of work and spend that we are now all too familiar with. These doubts, usually brushed off with the answer that we are just going through the motions within the rat-race of society, have now become too pertinent to ignore.
A theme recurrent when listening to one campaigner of the Occupy movement, James, 28, is the belief that there is a small minority at the top of the social hierarchy that determines the way the rest of us (the 99%) plan our lives. The belief that we have become desensitised to the point of obliviousness, living within a system that benefits the conscious few, initially seemed far-fetched but could actually hold a fundamental truth. How often do we just unquestioningly accept the status quo as the best way to get ahead? The Occupy movement zones in on the piece of thread which has the potential to unravel the social norms so long upheld in our society. Yet by opposing something so fundamental to the way we live today, financial wealth and consumerism, they have a hard time relaxing people’s sceptical expressions.
From the small amount of time spent interacting with and observing some of the campaigners in Old Market Square, I got the impression that people do support their ideas while at the same time finding them unfeasible. One man yelled that despite his concurrence with the group’s principles he felt wronged by the fact that they were blocking a pathway in which he may have wanted to walk. Another stayed for what felt like a good 45 minutes discussing the viability of a world without complex government hierarchies deciding our every move. The Occupy movement does not just oppose the wide berth of inequality produced by our thirst for more stuff but the discouragement of independent thought.
Despite awakening the curiosity of many a passers-by, scepticism continues to follow the movement – the central argument against it being that camping in public landmarks will never change anything. How can you reverse our materialistic tendencies when, for a lot of us, going shopping is a hobby? Or when we measure the value of a job on the basis of a year’s salary and ignore the fact that it will probably do more to induce stress than happiness? Money represents a sunny future of exotic holidays, designer clothes, sleek cars, never having to walk past that shop – a dream that many people won’t quickly abandon. The alternative focus on community and life outside of career that the campaigners promote won’t be to everyone’s taste but it might be time now, when youth unemployment is at a considerable high, to reassess our priorities.
Most of us aren’t willing to brave the increasingly cold weather and less than luxurious camping conditions, either out of a lack of support or an unwillingness to commit to nights without our cosy beds, but the cause and what is at stake still seems to be hitting home. As people curiously stopped to read banners and speak to occupiers, there was a sense that it isn’t just about being rebellious and anti-establishment but actually breaking down the idea of society and weaning ourselves off our dependence on the accepted state of things. If the Occupy movement’s principal aim was to get us thinking and talking about the way we live our lives then they are on their way to achieving it.
Aisha Brown Colpani
Images by Bruno Albutt & Lukasz Bonnenburg