New York. Paris. Berlin. London. The ‘Occupy’ movement is gathering momentum across the globe and has now reached even the most unlikely of cities. Sheffield. A far cry from the towering financial districts of the world’s most famous cities, Sheffield boasts little ‘big business’ and prides itself on a more laid back approach to life.
Remember remember, the 5thof November. However, in Sheffield, this symbolic date will be remembered for a very different rebellious plot this year. As this was the date that an assorted band of around 50 protesters set up camp outside the city’s humble cathedral (the most visible of three sites offered to them by the Council).
Having followed with interest the mixed reaction to the Occupy Wall Street, and latterly, Occupy London Stock Exchange protest outside St. Paul’s Cathedral for several weeks I was intrigued to see whether the protesters had genuine motives for their actions, whether the publicised hypocrisy was true, and whether their action could possibly have any kind of impact. So I, rather sceptically, went and joined them for the evening to find out first hand…
As I tentatively stepped into the camp (comprising around seven tents and several gazebos) I was quickly and warmly welcomed into the ranks. I was immediately struck by the diversity of the 20 or so people populating the protest. A business consultant, retired paralegal, writer, youth worker. A charity employee, call centre operative, craftsman, several students and many representatives of Sheffield’s significant homelessness problem. Certainly not the bunch of ‘hippy stoners’ I had been led to believe were carrying out these protests.
As the cold evening hours flittered away, I had the opportunity to work my way around this disparate but collectively passionate group. I asked people why they were protesting and what changes they would like to see brought about by their action. The answers, as you can imagine, varied immensely however what became evident was a universal sense of injustice about the inequality prevalent in our economic and political system. Discontentment that the poor are paying for a crisis created by the rich.
It was difficult to deny that their concerns were genuine irrespective of an individual’s background and the coherence with which they were able to vocalise these viewpoints,. This was not merely a bandwagon they had jumped on. This was not something they were doing because they had nothing better to do. Here an authentic cross-section of society, the ‘99%’, had come together to take action against an injustice – and were offering real, tangible interventions to bring about a more equal society for all…
Close tax loopholes to ensure the richest pay their fair share. Regulate the banks. Limit bonuses. Introduce the Tobin Tax. Reduce the public sector cuts. Restrict corporate lobbying power. Reduce monopoly power. Stimulate youth employment. Invest in sustainable energy and social enterprise. Combat deprivation to prevent a ‘lost generation’. Above all, however, the ‘99%’ appeared unanimous in their desire for better representation by leading political figures, greater accountability of politicians and financial institutions and more transparency in the political process to be able to participate more fully.
These are not the disillusioned ramblings of blind-sighted anti-capitalists. These are rational voices which need to be heard more often in the political arena however they currently lack a platform for their voice to be heard. These people are offering solutions that politicians so often lack as they are so far removed from those who actually feel the impact of their decisions.
So will the Occupy Sheffield protest have any impact? Yes. It already has. Despite BBC Radio Sheffield’s disappointing best efforts to say it is all futile, the protest was given a two-hour open debate with, no doubt, hundreds of callers waiting in the wings to offer their views. It was featured as the lead story on the Look North regional television news. Journalists and amateur bloggers are busily tapping away exploring both sides of the argument. The social media sites and forums are alive with debate. The protesters have their platform – their essential voices are being heard.
Will the protest bring about wider reform? At a local level probably not. But as a global movement active in cities across the world it will be hard for political leaders to ignore the volume of voices calling for change. A week ago I was highly sceptical of the Occupy movement. I am now not only a supporter, but an active protester having attended the protest whenever my free time allows. If our collective action brings about, even slightly, a more socially-orientated democracy where people matter more than things, and where the measure of well-being is valued as much as GDP, then the protest has certainly not been in vain.
Follow the latest developments at Occupy Sheffield here.