Debunking the OccupyLondon "empty tents" story

Writing in the Guardian, Patrick Kingsley debunks the attempts to smear Occupy London protesters as "part-timers." Local councillor Matthew Richardson has been widely quoted in the press saying that the police's thermal imaging showed 90 percent of the Occupy tents are empty overnight — but when Kingsley tried to verify the statistic, he discovered that it was unverifiable. The police denied having originated the number, and the Councillor then changed his story, saying the statistic didn't come from "official sources." The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, is using flaky thermal cameras trained on the tents before the protesters' normal bedtime to "prove" that it's all a Potemkin village.

Kingsley, meanwhile, stayed out overnight, spoke to organizers, and suggests that "more than three quarters" of the tents are full at any time. Organizers have a well-managed system that assigns vacant tents (whose owners are taking a day or two off to catch up on family and work) to protesters who "occupy" them.

When I stayed at the St Paul's site last week, I borrowed a tent from Jay Gearing, a 32-year-old graphic designer. He had to leave the camp for a couple of nights to catch up with work. I touched base with him again yesterday to ask whether he felt his peripatetic presence undermined his protest. "No," was the short answer. "People who want to attend the occupation still need to make a living," he says, on the phone from Peterborough, about to head back to the camp after another couple of days away. "Being able to return, like I have done several times, and having a tent there for me, is more than reasonable, and it does get used as many times as possible when I'm not there. The fact that sometimes it may be empty is irrelevant." In fact, he points out, eight different people have slept in it in total, meaning that it has hardly ever been out of use.

This kind of debate is nothing new. Cynics have often criticised protesters who can't stay for every minute of every day. "We also had to confront the spin, propaganda and dirty tricks being used against the Occupy protesters now," says Jason Torrance, 41, currently policy director at Sustrans, and formerly very active in the anti-roads protests of the 1990s, such as Twyford Down and the Newbury bypass. "I've seen it all before. You are variously described as unhygienic, smelly, scroungers, timewasters, uncommitted and the like. It's easy to throw scorn at protesters, especially when you're comfortable in your clean, dry home. But protest is a very important, treasured tradition and the Occupy camp is highlighting a very important issue."

Is Occupy London a part-time protest?