The Big Issue Seller Outside St Paul's Who Became An Icon Of The Occupy Protests

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The Big Issue Seller Outside St Paul's Who Became An Icon Of The Occupy Protests

Playwright Tim Price tells us about Protest Song, which is inspired by the true story of Jimmy McMahon, the Big Issue seller who became an icon of hope in the 2011/12 Occupy London movement. Protest Song is on at Arcola Theatre this December and January, offering audiences a very different kind of Christmas play from the usual.

An orange tent with a sign: global democracy now
"Occupy London set up camp outside St Paul's Cathedral, bringing food tents and nourishment, and Danny finds himself swept up in the movement." Image: Neil Cummings via creative commons

Protest Song tells the story of rough sleeper, Danny, who in the lead up to Christmas wakes up to find himself surrounded by a canvas city of protesters on his patch.

In an era of austerity, Occupy London set up camp outside St Paul's Cathedral, bringing food tents and nourishment, and Danny finds himself swept up in the movement. When one day, Danny is handed a microphone and speaks in front of a cheering crowd, for the first time he feels listened to and has purpose. In a matter of time, the protests end, the food tents close and the local homeless community are angry, leaving Danny caught between two worlds: the activists, and his homeless family.

A man with a Santa hat 'graffitied' onto his head
David Nellist plays Danny in the latest outing for Protest Song.

I started attending the Occupy protest General Assemblies quite soon after the initial Occupy camp took place in October 2011. Activists had tried to set up camp on the London Stock Exchange but were pushed back and ended up Occupying land adjacent to St Paul's.

Occupy was a global protest movement that reached over 70 cities; starting in Zucotti Park, New York, as Occupy Wall Street, it soon spread to other financial centres and cites, as a protest against economic inequality, corporate greed, and the corruption of democracy by the vested interests of those with concentrated wealth.

I wasn't thinking about writing about it when I first attended. I was just curious and wanted to see what it was all about. I'd previously written a play about Wikileaks, and Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning, and I'd make connections with activist circles and could see the same networks engaging in Occupy.

A policeman talks to a protestor near St Pauls' during the Occupy protests
A police officer talks to a protester near St Pauls' during the Occupy protests. Image: Nathan Meijer via creative commons

Marches were no longer working. They were no longer disruptive, and no longer gave those in power pause for thought. They were heavily managed, with licensing and route planning. Freedom to assemble was becoming strangled. So the idea of camping out until a change was agreed was a new strategy. Climate Camp had occupied streets previously and Brian Haw had been camping out Parliament Square so you can seen the provenance of the idea in protest circles.

In the nine months they were there, they built a kitchen, a university, a welfare tent, and they had their own 'police' team called Tranquility. Each time I would visit I'd check the website to see what the kitchen wanted and I'd go to the local Co-op and stock up and take donations into the kitchen tent. It was a whole village run by consensus. In time it became a magnet for the rough sleeping community in London who moved in alongside the activists.

The Millennium Bridge covered in snow, leading to St Paul's, caught in two shafts of light
"Jimmy was an entrenched rough sleeper, and had slept on the steps of St Paul's for years." Image: Aurelien Guichard via creative commons

It was in the Occupy newspaper, the Occupied Times, that I first heard of Jimmy. Jimmy was an entrenched rough sleeper, and had slept on the steps of St Paul's for years. The Occupied Times interviewed Jimmy and he talked about how much he got from his new found role in the Occupy kitchen. He spoke of how he didn't want money from passers by, but time, and companionship and that is what Occupy gave him.

Jimmy's story encapsulated all that was good about Occupy, offering kindness, inclusion and purpose to those left on the scrap heap of society. I got to know Jimmy and we'd talk about his time there.

I took inspiration from his story and created a fictionalised character who had a similar route into Occupy but a different journey out, and a different backstory. The show was first performed at the National Theatre in 2013.

Julian Assange speaks in front of crowds on the steps of St Paul's, as part of the Occupy protests
Julian Assange speaks in front of crowds on the steps of St Paul's, as part of the Occupy protests. Image: Ilias Bartolini via creative commons

At the time of Occupy, Boris Johnson was London Mayor. On taking post he declared he was going to eradicate homelessness. Through his policies of cutting social care, not building affordable housing, direct cuts to organisations that tackle homelessness, and local authority cuts he managed to double homelessness in the capital.

Today, homelessness continues to be a serious problem in London, exacerbated by inflation and the cost of living crisis. The risk of being homeless for poor Londoners is at the highest it has been for decades. It is systemic and needs addressing at Government level. We need emergency housing, rent freezes, lifting of benefit caps and unfreezing of housing benefits, or people are going die this winter on the streets of London. When you consider London is the fourth richest city on planet Earth is it nothing short of shameful.

I could have written 10 plays from my time at the Occupy protests, but this is the story that moved me the most. Homelessness is not a lifestyle choice, but simplifying other people's problems is.

Protest Song is on at Arcola Theatre 12-23 December 2023 and 3-6 January 2024.

Last Updated 12 December 2023

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