So. Farwell then, Occupy London? There’s nothing like writing a (relatively) topical blog to remind you of how fast news develops. When I began thinking about this post, the protestors at Occupy London outside St Paul’s had lost their appeal against their eviction. It seemed that this wing of the occupy movement had gone the same way as Occupy Wall Street when Zuccotti Park was cleared. But now the campers have found a new, fifth spot, still in the City of London: Roman House, an empty building in the Barbican.
I visited Occupy London in December last year. I had arranged to attend a drawing class presented by Baduade (this is her account of it, with some of our contributions) and was hopelessly early, so I decided to visit two of the protest’s other sites, in Finsbury Square and in the abandoned UBS building in Sun Street – now rechristened the Bank of Ideas. I was struck by the social and ideological complexity of the protest. Not only did the protestors represent a variety of opinions, but were a varied group of people who had decided to camp for different reasons. Laurie Penny’s recent article on Occupy London sums this up particularly well:
The people who live full or part-time in the camps can now be divided into roughly three categories: those who were homeless before the occupations, those who will shortly be homeless, and those who merely look homeless. Three months of sleeping in tents, washing in the bathrooms of nearby cafes and working around-the-clock to run a kitchen feeding thousands with no running water and little electricity will transform even the most fresh-faced student into a jittering bundle of aching limbs and paranoia.
In his account of a night spent at the St Paul’s camp, James Macintyre noted a class difference between the sites, with more middle-class protestors choosing to settle at Finsbury Park – the site which produces The Occupied Times. My experience certainly bore this out: as I arrived at the Finsbury Park welcome tent, the girl supervising it bounded up to me and exclaimed in tones which would cheer any elocution teacher, ‘oh I love your badges!’.
Part of the appeal of the camp, commented Macintyre, particularly for homeless people, is that it has a kitchen which provides food for free:
The campers, a multi-ethnic mix, are fed in the soup kitchen by volunteers, including several part-time chefs; they say they feed up to 1,500 people a day, most of whom are just around the camp during the day. The volunteers’ chief concerns are the need for more donations of vegetables, and the lack of storage facilities for meat, rather than the evils of global capitalism.
The same was true at Zuccotti Park which developed a reputation for the quality of the cuisine which its cooks – some of them professional chefs – prepared. In fact, the kitchen’s output proved to be so popular that overworked and apparently ‘underappreciated’ volunteers temporarily refused to make food. Indeed, there were even some reports that Occupy Wall Street decided to limit the kitchen’s output because of the numbers of homeless people the protest was attracting.
Whatever the politics of feeding so many protestors may have been, Occupy Wall Street’s achievements are worth celebrating: its kitchen relied entirely on donations, meaning that meal planning was almost impossible and relied on cooks’ inventiveness and ability to think quickly. Also, the kitchen was not allowed to use any form of open flame.
The kitchen at the St Paul’s protest was as heroic, and reminded me of the cooking done at the Climate Camps a few years ago (and I think that there’s more to be said about the overlap between the Climate Camp movement and Occupy London): using mainly donated produce and almost always vegan – a practical choice in terms of storage and dietary requirements – food was prepared using wood-fired rocket stoves and provided free to all people on the campsite. It was delicious – and I write this as one whose experiment with veganism lasted only a week.
In both cases, the food served at the camps was emblematic of the concerns and ideals of the protestors, as the New York Times described the Zuccotti Park protest:
The makeshift kitchen has fed thousands of protesters each day. Along the way, it has developed a cuisine not unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement itself: free-form, eclectic, improvisatory and contradictory.
Requests for food go out on Twitter and various Web sites sympathetic to the protesters. And somehow, in spontaneous waves, day after day, the food pours in. The donations are received with enthusiasm, even when they are not precisely what the troops might have desired.
Robert Strype, 29, a protester from the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., area who was wearing a T-shirt that expressed his displeasure with Monsanto, said that anger about practices like factory farming and the genetic modification of vegetables was one of the factors that had roused him and some of his fellow occupiers. ‘Food plays a huge part in this movement,’ he said. ‘Because people are tired of being fed poison.’
Of all the various manifestations of the occupy movement – from the recent Occupy Nigeria, to Occupy Art and Occupy History (my favourite, obviously) – one of the most persistent has been Occupy Food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it began in the United States. The Occupy movement was produced by the inequalities of Obama’s America, and no country on earth has as powerful a food industry as the US. Whereas it’s an exaggeration to refer to Big Food in South Africa or Argentina, this is certainly not the case for America. As Strype makes the point, Americans ‘are tired of being fed poison.’
But the idea has had a worldwide resonance, despite the fact that ‘occupying food’ seems like an inherently illogical idea: how can you ‘occupy’ something which is so ubiquitous? The organisers of the first Occupied Food protest at the re-named Zucchini Park explained:
We started Occupy Big Food because we thought it was really important to bring the discussion of food to what is happening at Occupy Wall Street. The goals of OWS and OBF are totally aligned — we are against the corporate takeover of our food system.
The Occupy Food rally was followed a month later by a farmers’ march to Occupy Wall Street to ‘to ‘fight and expose corporate control of the food supply.’ Willie Nelson – yes, for it was he – writing in his capacity as the President of Farm Aid, urged his readers to Occupy the Food System:
From seed to plate, our food system is now even more concentrated than our banking system. Most economic sectors have concentration ratios hovering around 40%, meaning that the top four firms in the industry control 40% of the market. Anything beyond this level is considered ‘highly concentrated,’ where experts believe competition is severely threatened and market abuses are likely to occur.
Many key agricultural markets like soybeans and beef exceed the 40% threshold, meaning the seeds and inputs that farmers need to grow our crops come from just a handful of companies. Ninety-three per cent of soybeans and 80% of corn grown in the United States are under the control of just one company. … Today, three companies process more than 70% of beef in the U.S.; four companies dominate close to 60% of the pork and chicken markets.
In an article for Mother Jones, Tom Philpott elaborated on Nelson’s point. Firstly, the food system is dominated by a handful of very big businesses, whose reach is global: Monsanto has a virtual monopoly of the world’s seed supply; only four companies – including Cargill (which begs the question why the World Food Programme sees fit to do business with it) – control the grain trade; and Walmart’s reach is extending around the world.
Secondly, the size of these businesses allows them unprecedented power over the whole food chain. In an effort to drive down prices, farmers and suppliers are put out of business, wages plummet, standards of animal welfare decline steeply, and the use of pesticides, antibiotics, and other poisons increases.
Thirdly, the growing involvement of hedge funds and banks in the commodities market – which now includes food commodities – has led to concern that speculation on wheat, maize, and other staples is driving up the price of food. The best known example of this occurred two years ago when hedge fund Armajaro bought up Ghana’s total cocoa crop – about 7% of global production – causing a 150% rise in cocoa prices and many Ghanaian farmers to go out of business. Several economists have drawn a link between high food prices and the origins of the Arab Spring.
Finally, the relationship between food companies and governments can be uncomfortably close. In the United States, intense lobbying from the food, agriculture, and beverage industries has caused already light regulation to crumble. In the UK, a collection of food companies – including PepsiCo and Mars – advise the government on how to curb obesity and have formulated a programme which helps to swell their profits.
In other words, the food system is controlled by too few organisations. A lack of regulation of both industry and the economic system has driven up prices, contributed to a decline in the quality of food, and undermined job security, animal welfare, and ethical farming practices. On its own, this is enough to compel us to occupy the food system by growing our own food, supporting small farmers and producers, lobbying supermarkets to stock sustainable and ethically-produced food, and taking action against the cosy relationship between business and government.
But beyond this, there are few more potent indicators of inequality than access to food. The Occupy movement came to prominence partly because of, as my friend Seb commented, one of the best slogans in history: ‘we are the 99%’. It’s catchy and, most importantly, accurate (even if it may be the case that we’re actually the 99.9%). We know that the poorer people are, the poorer their diets are. In extreme cases, they simply can’t afford food, and starve and suffer from extreme malnutrition. But for most of the 99%, good, fresh, ‘whole’ food – the food that the shrinking middle classes can afford to buy from Woolworths, Waitrose, and Trader Joe’s – is simply too expensive, or too far away. They rely instead on heavily processed food.
As a recent report published by the World Health Organisation indicates, obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases are now as much a problem in the developing world as they are in the developed. This is partly the result of prosperity – the new middle classes crave McDonald’s burgers and Coca Cola as indicators of status – but mainly because of shifts in eating patterns caused by high food prices and the greater availability of cheap, processed proteins and non-foods.
In an extract from his new book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions, Paul Mason responds to critics who argue that the Occupy movement – and, indeed, the other protests which dominated the news in 2010 and 2011 – had few clearly defined goals and viable alternatives to the social and political status quo. Referring to Andre Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class (1980), he explains:
parts of the book now bear rereading, in particular Gorz’s definition of revolution: taking power implies taking it away from its holders, not by occupying their posts but by making it permanently impossible for them to keep their machinery of domination running. Revolution is first and foremost the irreversible destruction of this machinery. It implies a form of collective practice capable of bypassing and superseding it through the development of an alternative network of relations. By this definition we are in the middle of a revolution: something wider than a pure political overthrow and narrower than the classic social revolutions of the 20th century.
If this is so, the occupy movement signals a beginning in a shift in our understanding of how power should work in society, and particularly as regards inequality.
We are the 99%. And we demand to eat well too.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.