The Mass Sleep Out - Powerful Political Protest

21:37Ciaran McCormick

In the past couple of days, an American federal judge has dismissed the appeal by an Occupy Portland protester that she was subjected to excessive force by police. In 2011, Liz Nichols became an iconic part of the Occupy story when she was captured being vividly pepper sprayed by police. It is a reminder of the game-changing reality of that year, when Occupy protests swept the world. They shaped the political agenda, focusing more attention on the way that economic and political inequalities affected ordinary people. A new campaign has cropped up on social media calling for a mass sleep out on the 24th August 2013 in cities and towns across Britain. It is not affiliated with Occupy in any way, but is similar in its ambitions and methods. This latest development is a big part of the new kind of politics beyond politicians.

The 99% are a profound force. That message pitted people against the minority elites that they perceived as manipulating financial and global systems for their own benefit. They sacrificed the financial well-being and lives of the majority of people in return. The protests are the heart of a new kind of political behaviour, where protest outside of political channels is used to influence the agenda. It is catalysed using social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter that allow people to connect, discuss and organise. It happened against a backdrop of other similar movements that wanted to change their politics because the legal process did not provide that opportunity, such as the Arab Spring.

An example of the most important type of political behaviour in the modern world - protest

Though Occupy protests have not seized the media and public imagination as much since 2011, they have continued. Recently, I have noticed a new campaign cropping up on Facebook. It rejects the bedroom tax for its social fallout and the evictions of vulnerable people in society. On the 24th August, it appears to be organising mass sleepouts in cities across Britain. If they attracted support, they would be a powerful visual counter to the law. This type of campaign has been used by Occupy before. For example, it was a part of the 2011 wave of action. Later, they slept out on Wall Street and were narrowly saved from arrest by a court decision. A peaceful protest like a sleepout really should not be a question of whether they can be arrested for disruption.

However, it is difficult to pin the campaign down exactly. It has a Facebook page and is publicised by Occupy London. At the time of writing it had events for 51 different cities, which is a significant number for attracting attention to the cause. Nonetheless, loosely organised peaceful protests that erupt online are a crucial part of our political future. At the ballot box, we have lost the opportunity to meaningfully affect the political agenda. Parties have converged on large areas of policy and the recent NSA revelations have exposed the secrecy of the modern security state. We live in an age of storytelling where manifestoes, bland policies and empty promises cannot compete with Occupy.

However you feel about the bedroom tax, Wall Street or anything Occupy campaign against, you have to admire their methods. It must remain peaceful, because as the Portland protester who was pepper sprayed reminds us, the state will clamp down on such dramatic challenges to its authority. Violence sacrifices the values for which people struggle and undermines their credibility. That is why I sympathise with methods such as a mass sleepout. Indeed, the homeless are a deserving minority because of their vulnerability and victimisation and the social consequences of a policy like the bedroom tax could be severe.

A campaign like this is complicated by messages of support from Anonymous, the hacktivist organisation with highly effective, but illegal methods of wrecking the websites of groups and businesses they dislike. Associations with illegal organisations may boost their publicity but make people think twice about offering their support. Their grand claims will probably fizzle out and be marred by a lack of publicity and attendance. Whatever the outcome of this single example, there is a lot of ingenuity and commitment from people. They organise themselves into groups and communities of political action, convincing me that there is less of a participation crisis than often argued. Politicians would rather participation be channelled into behaviour such as voting. It makes little realistic difference and enables them to implement their agendas with the minimum of fuss. Occupy is just a part of the new political protest landscape and this new sleepout campaign just a drop in the waterfall of public opinion and backlash. However, it is a powerful example of the way that people are organising their political lives.

(Update: edited to reflect that though it is connected with Occupy in its ambitions and methods, it is not affiliated in any way)

Are protest campaigns like this a good idea or is the key to politics still elections and politicians? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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