Early Reflections on Occupy Edinburgh

Posted on October 15, 2011

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I was in the highlands for the past two days, and my train didn’t get into town until about 4 PM today, so I was a late arrival to the small protest encampment that has now been established in St. Andrew Square. I missed the initial setup and only had a brief, conicidental encounter with the small march that occurred earlier in the day. But what I did see was still inspiring. I think, for reasons that I will explain below, that the movement that began with Occupy Wall Street and has now expanded internationally shows some real promise, and so for at least the next few days I’m going to try and blog on topics relevant to the ongoing protests. Today, I’m just going to share a few first impressions.

A small encampment under the Mellville Monument.

Occupy Edinburgh remains somewhat underwhelming in terms of numbers. I estimated somewhere around one hundred encamped in the square, and very few of the people I talked to were planning on staying the night. This is clearly not going to immediately become a force to be reckoned with. That’s not necessarily such a bad thing. Occupy Wall Street did not start out very big. A small group of dedicated followers can plant the seed for a much larger movement, and this is the dynamic that progressive activists need to embrace. Ever since the Seattle World Trade Organization Convention in 1999, the Left has been waiting for the next big activist event. After more than a decade of disappointment, there is good reason to believe that the Seattle model is not the way forward. You can blame it on a different activist culture, an increase of police intimidation, or a a shift towards clicktivism, but the fact remains that it seems to be much more difficult to get thousands of people to gather spontaneously in one place at one time than it was in 1999. The occupational tactics that were pioneered a month ago in New York appear to avert his problem by establishing a constant visible presence that can build momentum gradually. A protest encampment draws attention to itself, and that attention translates into more interest and involvement which in turn generates more attention. The experience in New York showed us that it can take weeks for dozens to become thousands, but it can happen. Occupiers all over the world should take heart.

A very intelligently phrased sign

What the crowd lacked in numbers, it more than made up for in enthusiasm and commitment. Participants were hard at work making placards, conducting legal workshops and filming video of the event, but there was a real sense of joy to the buzz of activity. The solidarity in display was incredible, as people ranging from respectable looking middle class families with children to black-clad anarchists talked openly and freely about economic justice. This kind of open communication displayed a commitment that goes beyond the willingness to do physical work or risk arrest; it was clear that everyone in attendance had intellectual passion for the cause. The usual crowd of conspiracy theorists was in attendance, but for the most part people were well-read, intelligent and sensible enough to realize that there is something very wrong with the way the global economy is being run, and that it needs to change. Far from the incoherent rage at an ill-defined ‘system’, the gathering was a place of real, thoughtful dialogue. This is another advantage of the movement’s structure. A protest encampment is a much better place for the flowing of ideas and the building of consensus than an ongoing march. One of the most common criticisms of Occupy Wall Street is that they have not articulated any demands. What this critique overlooks is that the structure is cleverly arranged such that the movement can figure out its demands as it unfolds. That’s how democracy was originally intended to work, isn’t it?

Hanging the banner.

The last thing I should mention is the international solidarity. I spent a long time in the months leading up to my departure for Edinburgh puzzling over how I would engage with politics on this side of the Atlantic. Being a Canadian citizen rather than a British subject, I was concerned that I would have trouble finding a legitimate outlet for my politics. I would be uneasy with British people presuming to dictate Canadian policy and so I decided I should be uncomfortable attending any British protests in anything other than a strictly observational capacity. That anxiety did not exist at Occupy Edinburgh. I saw participants from all over the world giving shout-outs to the occupy protests in their home cities via the live-stream. I had a long conversation with a Bostonian in which we compared the police violence at the Toronto G20 with what Occupy Boston recently experienced. And whenever I looked at my phone, I could see the progress of new occupations in Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, London, and Halifax constantly documented in my twitter feed. There was no anxiety about the small numbers because it was obvious that we were only one small outpost-the local representation of a global occupation. This may be the most widespread protest movement that has ever happened on Earth, and that means that every single occupation, however small, already has an entire planet of momentum to sustain it and help it grow. I knew that I was joining hands with friends who were doing the exact same thing back in Canada. That is both promising and beautiful, and it is why I will be returning to St. Andrew Square tomorrow.

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