In the financial heart of London, workers returned to their offices today to be met by a growing anticapitalist demonstration on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The bemused and be-suited financiers, accountants, and PR-types offered a stark contrast to the eclectic group of protestors who first moved into the site on Saturday with the aim of occupying the nearby London Stock Exchange. Only, a heavy police presence stopped an estimated 2,000-strong crowd from invading the building. Eight people were arrested, but there was nothing like the violence in Rome last week and problems in New York and Chicago.
Now an estimated crowd of 600 people remains camped in nearly 200 tents, vowing to remain until the New Year despite a predicted change in weather this week.
Gently stirring a large pot of soup in a makeshift kitchen next to the cathedral, an 18th-century London landmark designed by Sir Christopher Wren, Ross Harwood, who hails from Cornwall, explains what drew him to the protest. “I’ve seen what’s gone on in America and Rome and just wanted to get involved. He says: “We’re going to hell in a handbag. The banks and big institutions control us through debt and governments don’t want to do anything about it. They’re not elected, yet they control us by issuing more and more debt.”
Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street campaign, the Occupy London movement is supported by Facebook, Twitter, and a website with a list of nine demands and claims. As police patrol the makeshift campsite, protesters have set up a first aid tent, mobile toilets, media center, recycling points, and meeting areas where organizers armed with megaphones inform participants of upcoming debates.
They are careful not to make a mess, drugs and drink are limited, and stewards ensure access to the cathedral steps is clear – a demand from the cathedral management.
On Sunday, police tried to move protesters away from St. Paul’s, but senior priest Giles Fraser said they could stay and, instead, asked officers to move.
In a statement today, the dean of St. Paul’s, the Right Rev. Graeme Knowles, said: “Services at St. Paul’s Cathedral were able to take place as normal this weekend but the last few days have not been without various challenges. Our chief concern is that St. Paul’s be allowed to operate as normally as possible and for all people to be respectful of this need. Public safety has been a major concern. We have been in constant touch with the police and community leaders.”
Why we’re here
Bryn Phillips and Laura May arrived on Saturday and sit in their tent, buffeted by increasingly wild winds.
Mr. Phillips says: “We are the 99 percent of people who don’t have all the money and the power, but we are the majority. This is growing not just in London and New York but across the world, and we are in the majority.”
Ms. May, a museum curator, adds: “It’d be easy to ignore what’s going on in the financial sector and say it’s got nothing to do with me – but it has. We need better regulation of the markets and big banks who just seem to do as they please. The amount of debt we’ve got, but ordinary people are paying for it in lower pensions, job losses, cutbacks to welfare.”
Dotted around the campsite are reminders of the cause. Among the placards are “capitalism is crisis”, “united for global democracy,” and “the London Stock Exchange – Britain’s biggest casino since 1801.”
But what did the City workers think of the demonstration on their doorstep? Most preferred to walk on and not be interviewed but some were surprisingly supportive.
Guillaume Boisselet, a financial recruitment consultant, says: “I’m not sure what demonstrations like this will achieve, because organizations like Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Bank of America have got to accept there’s a problem with the system in the first place, and they don’t.
“Clearly there is a debt problem and this helps highlight it,” he continues, “but they can’t change anything, only governments can. And I’m not sure there’s the will there.”
An investment banker, who would only give his name as Simon, says: “We’re not all millionaire bankers. I know a lot of people in the City who have lost their jobs in the credit crunch and are struggling.
“It’s all very well protesting, but someone’s got to make money to pay taxes for hospitals and schools and, I’d imagine, a lot of these people’s dole and housing benefit.”
Demonstrator Emma Thomas, however, says it was vital to protest. A cafe owner in Leicester, she got her mother to open the shop today so that she could travel to London to join the demonstration. “It’s amazing how many people just don’t realize what’s gone on and how much debt there is,” she says. “I speak to people in my cafe and they don’t have a clue, so me telling them I’m coming down here has at least got them talking about the banks and big institutions which control us.”