October 14, 2011
Saturday’s Occupy LSX protest is to centre on Paternoster Square, near the UK HQs of iconic financial institutions including Bank of America and Goldman Sachs. Participants are asked to assemble in front of St Paul’s Cathedral at 12 noon tomorrow, Saturday 15 October. “The Wall Street protests sort of inspired everything,” said Kai Wargalla, one of the organisers of Saturday’s protest. “It was just time to start here. We need people to step up and speak out. The movement aims to unite the United Kingdom’s far-flung activist communities in addressing ‘the inequality of the financial system.”
October 17, 2011
Eighteen months ago, the political and media establishment was busy celebrating a new era for British politics, as a coalition government was formed for the first time in a century. The occupation of the City of London is a reminder of just how far public dissent has developed since then. The size and global reach of these demonstrations has surprised almost everyone. Their targeting of corporate greed and austerity is a narrative that is rapidly becoming mainstream. The student demonstration on 9 November, called by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts and now with official NUS backing, will also march on the City.
The key target of the demonstration is the government’s higher education white paper, which has drawn widespread criticism from academics, who see it as a fundamental threat to the purpose of the university. It can be best described as a chaotic attempt to introduce a market into higher education, with for-profit private providers, institutional closures and disastrous implications for access. Meanwhile, the fiscally catastrophic implications of the government’s raising of tuition fees, which will cost money rather than saving it, will be compensated for by raiding bursaries and student support in order to grant barely meaningful “fee waivers”. For a generation of people who have had their EMA scrapped, and who face massive rates of youth unemployment, the outlook after these reforms is bleak.
It is seven in the morning in the City of London, and the sun has just risen. A lone jogger glides down Cannon St, across the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, and through the rows of silent tents that constitute Occupy London. “Wake up,” he shouts. “Wake up and get a job.” I’m spending a couple of days at the camp, to glimpse what it’s like to live here. Most occupiers aren’t yet awake, but I couldn’t sleep for the cold, so I’m already up. “Twat,” notes the jogger as he turns past me towards Paternoster Square, the home of the London Stock Exchange. The occupiers originally tried to take the square last Saturday, but since it’s private land, they were foiled by a well-timed injunction. So they settled for the piazza outside St Paul’s, with the (short-lived) blessing of the cathedral leaders. “What do you think of the camp?” I ask after the jogger. He stops, turns around, and realises I’m a journalist. “What do I think of the camp?” he replies. “I think this wishy-washy thinking, this vague thinking – it shows they don’t really know what they want. Either they contribute to the debate, or they’re just camping.” What’s his name, I ask. He’s a banker, he says. “Or put it this way: I work. I work full stop.” The man’s a jogging cliche, but he nails the age-old issues some people have with large groups of protesters who hang around longer than the government want them to. Who are they? What do they believe? And what do they want?
In the short term, I learn quickly, these guys want to stay here. I arrive on Tuesday, the fourth day of the occupation, and already the place seems staggeringly well organised – and growing fast. Estimates vary, but yesterday some say there were 100 tents lining the steps of the cathedral, and along its northern face. Today there are around 150. Tomorrow, maybe 200. If the church maintains its support (though on Wednesday night, that started looking less likely) the camp has the means to last the winter. A kitchen – compliant with health regulations – has been here since day one. Portable toilets were due to arrive on Thursday. Pallets – to insulate the tent-floors – have been ordered, and the corporation of London has supplied a full gamut of recycling bins. There is a tech tent – filled, one techie tells me, with enough hardware “to host a TV station” – and a library; a welcome tent, and a “university” that holds daily lectures. Where do they get this stuff from? Most of it is donated. So much food has been dropped off by passers-by that it can barely fit in the kitchen. There’s enough spare camping kit to fill a designated storage tent. Financial gifts – including a big cheque from one local businessman – top £3,000. “A woman on her way to work wanted to know what she could buy us,” says Kai Wargalla, a 26-year-old economics student who first put a Facebook callout for an occupation. “She said: give me a list!”
Other locals get involved in more surprising ways. Round the north side of St Paul’s, five men kick about a football. This is Occupy FC, Occupy London’s official football team, and they were founded late on Monday. The funny thing is, the players aren’t all occupiers. Two of them are wearing suits, businessmen on their way back from lunch. “It’s like that football game they played in no man’s land during the first world war,” muses one suit, Ian, a management consultant who won’t give his surname. “We were just on our way back from our gentlemen’s club, the ball rolled in our path, and we thought we’d have a quick match.” Twenty-three-year-old Tom Rodriguez Perez, the club’s co-founder, is ecstatic. “This is what it’s about,” he says. “We’re not saying football’s going to change everything – but it’s starting a conversation, it’s bringing people in.”
October 17, 2011
I wasn’t expecting much on my way to the Occupy London demonstration in Paternoster Square in the City on Saturday, I have to confess. I wasn’t at all convinced that the global Occupy movement would gain any traction in a city as apathetic as London. The trail-up on Facebook had been feverish enough, true, but Facebook activisim is famously flimsy – it’s a thoughtless moment’s clicking to ‘like’ a protest, and it’s all too easy to let that be your only commitment. Still, I went because the movement was important and needed bodies. My pessimism was thoroughly unfounded. Ignore police and press estimates, at the apex of the protest, between 2 and 3pm, there must have been 4,000 people in the main police cordon in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, and maybe 1,000 more kettled in smaller knots further out. That’s an excellent turn-out for an ad-hoc movement springing practically from nothing. For the most part, the demonstration was relatively benign. The police tactics seemed to be to keep it low-key; eavesdropping confirmed their plan was to bore people into submission by keeping them waiting in a small space with nothing to do. They just couldn’t quite keep their authoritarian tendencies in check, though, and the kettle, or rather the ‘breach of the peace cordon’, came down early.
They’ve denied this of course, but the police, who had a difficult job to do, weren’t playing entirely fair. At each point in the line of riot-suited officers, which ran from the tube station at the north east corner to the plaza to the front of St Paul’s, we were promised that we were not being kettled. In fact, to the knowledge of any given officer, we were able to get out just a little way further around the ring. We were assured of this the whole length of the cordon, so either the position of the exit kept moving, or it didn’t exist quite as fully as we were told. Eventually the line did become a little more porous, though not for the crowds of late arrivals, who were kept in miserable clumps out of shouting distance from the main group. Most of us did make it to the general assembly on the steps of the cathedral. Ostensibly a meeting to decide a new course of action in light of the fact that the original target for occupation, the Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, was locked down by lines of frowns in hi-viz stab vests, it was sometimes a little bit of a jamboree of bien-pensant hot air.
The one thing I’ve learned about consensus meetings is that they can go on for ages. Trying to hold a meeting of 3,000 equal voices with no chair is nigh-on impossible to achieve in timely fashion. Combine that with the famous ‘human microphone’, in which speakers talk in short bursts of half-a-dozen words at a time, so the crowd can repeat their words to give everyone the chance to hear, and you have a recipe for glacial progress. The assembly has to recognise anyone who wants to speak, which invites a lot of grand activist sloganeering, all expressed in those five-word salvos, without much by way of concrete progress, for hours at a time. This is one of the problems of the left. We’re so committed, rightly enough, to equality and plurality, that it takes an age to reach a consensus. The right, so psychologically given to hierarchy and accepting orders, just defer to the bossiest characters and get stuff done by diktat in a fraction of the time. Still, we eventually agreed to get into working groups, and everyone else took a break to groove to the drum circle. I’ve always sniffed at drum circles as hippy artifice. They are exactly that, but you know what – they are crucial for morale. In a cordoned-off slog, the constant drum beat keeps the atmosphere urgent and the focus righteous – without it, spirits would fall in the ensuing silence. Never will I sneer again.
As night closed in, and with the police line moving in and out like a concertina, the working groups – sanitation, supplies, internal and external comms, medics, etc – managed to report in. No-one knew if they’d legally be allowed to stay in the plaza, but an ever-tightening cordon of cops suggested that they might have an opinion on the matter. This caused an uneasy stand-off between a cluster of thin-looking tents nervously pitched to drain gratings in the cold night air and the looming rozzers. Apparently they did move in in force towards the end of the evening, with reports on twitter claiming that they were throwing their weight around until a moment of literally divine intervention. Unfortunately for the police, the canon chancellor of St Paul’s is one Giles Fraser, a notable lefty, and he eventually showed up to demand the police leave the protestors alone and depart – a major first victory for a burgeoning movement. I’d left by this point, as I had, no word of a lie, a dinner reservation in Chelsea. The occupation continues. They’re slowly deciding, by consensus, their demands and their MO, but it feels like the start of an important movement.