After Wall Street and St Paul’s, Occupy Leeds emerged last week. Rod McPhee met the anti-capitalist campers to find out who they are and how long they intend to stay.
T’S fair to say it isn’t exactly the most spectacular of demonstrations. It looks not so much like a prolonged, obstructive sit-in, more a boy Scouts’ outing that took a wrong turn somewhere.
Pitched on City Square, we’re talking eight tents, about 10 people and as few as four sleeping there overnight. Occupy Leeds is unlikely to spark a revolution though, for most of those present, that’s just what they’d like.
The majority are staunch socialists, or at least sympathetic. The odd anarchist drops by to show support for their anti-capitalist stance but a brief chat with most of the 20-somethings indicates they loathe bankers, big business and the current governments and institutions which continue to back them.
They claim to represent the 99 per cent of us who are at the mercy of decisions taken by the rich and powerful one per cent of the population. But are they really representative of us?
We interviewed the handful of “occupiers” present on Tuesday. All three were local and all three were jobless, though they all seemed to have notably different political views and levels of understanding. Though not all of them had taken the plunge and camped out.
“I’m a bit nervous about how cold it is,” says 22-year-old Ian Pattison of Roundhay. “So I haven’t actually camped out yet, but I think I will at some point. I have been down to support it though, handing out leaflets and talking to people.
“Most of the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Loads of people seem to have a gut feeling that there’s something wrong in society with wealthy companies getting away with not paying tax and banks getting bailed out while there are cuts to public services and pensions. And everyone is finding it difficult to get a job – I’m finding it difficult to find a job.”
Ian has only been out of work for the two months since graduating from university. He acknowledges he comes from a middle class family in north Leeds’s leafiest suburb and left uni with little or no debt. His is not a proletariat uprising. He is educated, supported and politically-minded with a degree and a masters in politics.
“But the cuts aren’t just affecting the working class, it’s affecting the middle classes too,” he insists.
“The cuts are affecting everyone. My mum, for example, works in the voluntary sector and she’s seen her hours halved because of the spending cuts. Besides, my parents worked hard all their lives and saved up so myself and my sister could go to university, but we were also lucky. If I were going to uni now even they couldn’t afford it if we had to find £9,000 a year.”
And though the protest isn’t quite the Jarrow March, in terms of nature or size, it is highly symbolic, peaceful with an obvious presence, but one that somehow manages to be unobtrusive. Since the first tents went up six days ago, there have been no steps taken to move them on by either the police or the local authority, even though they landed under the giant City Square Christmas tree a matter of hours after the lights were turned on.
At the heart of Occupy Leeds – like sister protests in New York, London and other UK cities – there does appear to be some kind of loose consensus.
“Capitalism just can’t provide even the basic necessities in the western world. Socialism is the answer,” Ian confirms. “Look at Greece – capitalism has no solution. Instead of bailing out banks they should be nationalised and controlled. The rich just aren’t investing in jobs and services and if they’re not doing it then their wealth should be nationalised and used.”
But not everyone’s political views are quite as honed as Ian’s.
One of those who has camped out every night is Erika Sykes, 27, from Lofthouse. Is she anti-capitalist too?
“Well, I’m very new to politics so I don’t think I could realistically comment on that,” she says. “I’m not sure I could say yes or no to that. Perhaps the best solution is some sort of compromise between the two, either way I’d rather things don’t go on as they are. I don’t really know enough about the issues to give a comment.
“Really, I liked the idea of being able to develop some organisational skills through the camp and, secondly, I was becoming more aware of issues, like the Robin Hood tax, and they came together with Occupy Leeds. I wanted to organise the (Occupy Leeds) movement and learn about alternatives to capitalism. I wanted to educate myself and pass that on to others.”
Erika says she has been in and out of work. Taking, then retaking her GCSEs then getting into university before failing to complete the course. She’s now on the dole, but has been actively seeking work and would like to one day get into IT. In the meantime she says she will stay in the camp for as long as she feels they are achieving something and making the public aware of what they believe in.
“Workers need more rights because there’s a lot of pressure put on people working more and more on less and less,” she says. “The minimum wage could be looked at and we need fairer taxes – it’s been suggested that people on low incomes shouldn’t pay any tax. Education also needs to be free, or at least fairer in terms of financing it.”
Erika is one of the handful who have been permanent residents on City Square. She says that the numbers actually sleeping over have hovered between 10 and 15 at best, but on some nights have been as low as four.
One of that gang of four is Stephanie Maston, 21, from Burley-in-Wharfedale. She left school with nine GCSEs but has struggled with a health problem and quit college, saying “it wasn’t for her”. “We need to overthrow this system not just the government,” she says. “We are the 99 per cent and no longer should we have to pay for a crisis we never caused. There’s been recessions before and usually they put money into the economy and made jobs – now it’s all backwards. After the war they created the NHS, now they’re trying to cut it instead.
“The fact is the whole capitalist system provides for the few, not the many. We’re the ones who produce the produce, they regulate it and sell it. We get a pittance for it – and we’re the workers.”
Stephanie hasn’t worked in years and has been on the dole throughout. She recently had her housing benefit cut and has been forced to move back in with her father and mother, who’s a former teacher.
“They’re very proud of what I’m standing up for,” she adds.
Not everyone is so sympathetic. “Some walk by and shout ‘Get a job!’ But I can’t find a job and a lot of my friends can’t find a job. Sure, a lot of people are lucky enough to have jobs and a nice house and have had the luxury of education and food – some of my friends live off bread and jam. If it was their family or friend affected by this maybe they’d think differently. I know a lot of people think ‘it isn’t affecting me therefore they’re just a scrounger’ well, that’s not the case.”
Stephanie is nothing if not committed and passionate. She’s braved the cold nights thus far and doesn’t expect to be packing up any time soon.
“I really don’t know how long we’ll stay here for – maybe months,” she says. “Will we be forced out? No, quite the opposite, we asked a police officer if we were legally allowed to stay and they threw us a look that said, ‘Of course you are!’
“If we were physically forced to move on by police then we’d resist that peacefully. As a camp we haven’t really discussed that possibility but I think we’d have to be forcibly removed from our tents. Quite a few of us would stay put and I’d certainly stay put for as long as possible. Though maybe not on Christmas Day – I think my mum would be the one dragging me out of the tent if that happened.”