Experience feature written as part of Interactive Journalism MA at City University, February 2012.
It’s cold, it’s cramped, and it’s muddy. You’re sat on a bench with people that you don’t know all that well, eating food you don’t quite know exactly where it’s come from, and talking about an idea that a lot of people don’t quite know how, when, or even if, it’s going to succeed.
This is Occupy London.
I’m on the Finsbury Square camp, in the heart of East London. It’s been that way since October 2011, ever since a group from the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp, resident outside St Paul’s Cathedral for the seven days beforehand, marched to the site in Moorgate. They called a general assembly, and declared it an occupation, and it’s now one of over 300 the world over.
Tonight is Thursday. Early February. It’s deathly cold. Temperatures are down to -1 Celsius at just after 6pm, and you can feel the ice and cold in the air. Snow is forecast soon. The protestors here are the hardcore group – they live on site, and participate to keep it moving. That can be harder than it seems.
As they tuck in their meal of pasta and potatoes, with a tomato sauce, cooked by one of the kitchen staff, they start to discuss what the big issues of the day are for the camp. Trance music plays in the background, interspersed with jazz and guitar tracks, depending on who controls the playlist. They’re all wearing whatever it takes to keep warm. A large parka coat, hooded tops, large hiking boots and woollen socks are commonplace. A notice board is up, detailing important information, such as the nearest health centre, and a call for debate on the future of the women’s tent.
The 99% don’t have it easy, living a simple life in the middle of London. The occupiers need basic provisions to help survive the night. That’s how serious it can be. They are living in very close quarters, and stay close to keep warm. The problem is that immune defences can be so low that even the slightest thing can be serious.
One of the men in charge of the camp explains how cold it gets. He introduces himself as Earthian. He’s one of the fixers for the camp. He makes sure it runs smoothly, and takes responsibility for a lot of the day-to-day tasks – simple things like making sure they have enough light and heat.
He’s been going around the camp, making sure that the tents are on a raised platform so they’re not in touch with the cold, wet ground. He’s also ensured that people have sleeping bags and two blankets. The camp has even got the foil blankets, similar to those used by the Ambulance service for hypothermia patients, for occupiers in dire need.
“The temperature was -6 ºC last night; it’s due to reach -11 ºC tonight. We do our best to make sure everyone is warm. We tried keeping the kitchen open all night but we ran out of food. We simply don’t have the resources to look after everyone.”
They may be living in the busiest city in the UK, one that works around the clock, but it seems a sense of apathy and compassion fatigue has set in over the preceding months.
“We cannot rely on donation; it is not coming in as quickly as we spend. The best thing we can do is keep the kitchen fully open until 10pm, and then have a skeleton kitchen with hot water for tea until 12am.”
He says that they’ve had homeless people asking for places to keep warm. They may have been sleeping on the streets for a long time in the cold; the warmth of the occupy camps is a free, accessible shelter.
However, Earthian says it’s not that simple. They can’t just let them in the camp. There are notices for direction of homeless sleepers to various hostels, so the occupiers can help direct them to shelter.
As we leave, the mercury has dropped well into the minuses, and the camp huddle together. Freezing.
I revisit the camp briefly two days later, on Saturday night. It’s started to snow. It’s extremely cold, cars on the M40 are abandoned, and the London Underground system buckles. The occupiers, meanwhile, have a fire to keep warm, and a tent. They’re still there, and will be until the authorities say otherwise.