If you’re part of “the 99 percent,” you’ll understand that sometimes just sitting around not going anywhere takes a lot of effort. In the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, not going anywhere has become a proto-herculean task. The greatest challenge is not the sneering opprobrium of the tabloid press, nor the protracted negotiations with church authorities and the metropolitan police, who hover like hornets around the small tent-city in the middle of London’s financial district. No, the greatest challenge is the cold.
Camping out on the bare flagstones of St Paul’s Churchyard, the cold bites into your spine and makes your joints stiff and painful. Behind an enormous banner reading “Capitalism is Crisis,” the free back-rubs being distributed by an activist who is also a masseuse do little for stinging fingers and wind-reddened faces. In the makeshift kitchen, which has been collecting donations from supporters around the country, you can find mothers with young children, visiting union activists, teenagers with tech skills who have been roped in to run the online live-stream—all sheltering from the gnawing winds howling around the courtyard at the foot of the great church.
Across the ocean, in New York’s Liberty Plaza, torrential rain—and recently, snow—has pummeled the occupation that helped launch the Occupy movement. In late October, temperatures dropped dramatically, just as the New York Fire Department decided, in a fit of bureaucratic sadism, to take away the generators. Occupiers have woken up in the small hours, their bedding soaked and frozen, and jumped straight into unpaid work at the medical station, or in the library, or in the kitchens. They look tired, and ill, and elated.
For all the questions that continue to be raised about the Occupy movement more than a month after it started—who are these people and what are their demands?—one of the most overlooked is: what, precisely, makes hundreds of thousands of people crazy enough to stay for days on end, sleeping and working in the open, surrounded by police poised to arrest them on the slightest pretext? In recent weeks, I have visited Liberty Plaza in New York, the 15th of October day of action in Puerta del Sol, Madrid, and occupations across the United Kingdom, including the protest camp on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. I have walked through the streets of familiar and unfamiliar cities, only to find myself in what felt, every time, like the same space, the same bright, busy haven of dissent. The salient features of these occupations are similar to the edge of eeriness. There are the young people camped out in circles, smoking and chatting. There is the bustling media tent, where serious-faced youth hunch over laptops in nests of looped cables, drafting press releases, updating feeds and relaying messages of support to and from other occupations. There are the comfort areas, where any weary traveler can find a snack, a blanket and a friendly teenager to explain why aggressive market finance does not lead to trickle-down prosperity. There are the large, drawn-out General Assemblies, operating a process of consensus-based participatory democracy that sounds immensely complicated and boils down, in practice, to several hundred increasingly frustrated people waving their hands at each other until they decide who cleans the dishes after the revolution. There, too, are the same faces: the poor boy from the dead-end town with his student dialectic and his eyes hungry for change, the world-weary labor activist excited about the left for the first time in years, the bohemian in extravagant trousers reading revolutionary poetry to the nearest amiable female, the girl in the media tent who knows how to talk to the press, the serious single woman in her thirties chivvying the skinny daughter who she hopes, one day, will have a home, an education and a future. They are trying to live together whilst they claw out space to dream of a different society, and are not put off by the cold, the exhaustion, the constant police intimidation. They are working, as Scottish writer Alasdair Gray put it, "as if they lived in the early days of a better nation."