What can protest movements learn from Occupy London?

There are two ways of looking at how the country saw Occupy London before its eviction at the end of last month.

The first is that the principles of the protest were surprisingly popular. We saw in October an ICM poll that found a majority sympathetic to the protesters’ aim of ending ‘a system that puts profit before people’. Fewer than two in five said that the protesters were naive in looking for an alternative to capitalism.

A new YouGov poll has reinforced this. Asking simply whether people support the ‘aims’ of the protesters – not spelling out what those aims are – the result is an impressive 17-point lead for those supporting the protest against those opposing its aims:

The surprise isn’t that the country thinks that the current economic system is unfair. We already knew that there is an overwhelming view that those who play by the rules don’t get rewarded.

What is impressive is that Occupy London succeeded in tapping in to this. Despite not making specific proposals for reforming the economic system, and having their message diverted by fights about tactics, the protesters’ desire for something better than the current system was recognised and shared by a large proportion of the population.

Whether this support meant that the protests changed anything is another question. The same YouGov poll also finds that 71% think that it didn’t achieve much or anything at all.

This seems harsh. While difficult to measure, one likely success is that the protest prompted media debates about whether the economic system can be reformed, which created political space to consider it in a way that hadn’t previously existed. It may also be true that the protests inspired and informed new activists, who will continue to fight for economic and political reforms.

Opposition to the tactics

But while the protests may have achieved some things, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the tactics of Occupy London got in the way of its achieving more.

Given that the protesters had public support for their aims, it doesn’t reflect well that large majorities wanted the protests to end. YouGov found that two-thirds support the legal action to remove the St Paul’s protest, and other polls showed similar approval for ending the protest. The widespread view seems to have been, “Ok, we agree with you, but you’ve made your point and now you’ve become a nuisance”.

Yet, this was inevitable from the moment the protesters found themselves camping outside St Paul’s, and it exposes competing objectives in the movement.

If the protest was intended to provide a space for democratic debate among activists, or even to be a mothership for other protests, it made sense for it to run indefinitely. But if that were the case, there was no reason for it to be in a location as prominent – as annoying – as St Paul’s.

On the other hand, if the protest was intended to spark a media and political debate, holding it in a controversial location like St Paul’s was a great way of getting publicity. But once the initial headlines passed – and the story inevitably became about the camp attracting people with mental health problems, or the conflict with the Church – trying to run a protest indefinitely at St Paul’s increasingly distracted from the protesters’ message.

Protest camps will continue long after Occupy London becomes a hazy memory, but there are lessons from the tent city at St Paul’s. From the movement’s perspective, a positive conclusion is that it demonstrated public support for discussion about alternatives to the current system. But there is also limited patience for those who would disrupt everyday life for months on end to make their point, even when their message has a receptive audience.

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