One week into the Occupation of the London Stock Exchange the sun kept smiling on the protesters in front of St. Paul’s cathedral. Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, the Spanish 15-M and the anti-cuts movement in the UK, around 5000 people gathered on 15 October in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, called a General Assembly and declared an occupation.
This Saturday the occupation celebrated its first week birthday. Over a 1000 people wandered around the colorful tents, remarking on the tidiness around. There were families with young children, professionals working in the City and elsewhere, students, pensioners, tourists, the now common cross section of society that has come to define these movements across the globe – the 99% .
They were met by the new Information tent at the head of the camp, which help a placard of the 9 point initial statement agreed by the General Assembly: this was a peaceful protest against the current undemocratic and unsustainable system; a refusal to pay for the bank’s crisis; not accepting the cuts to public services; solidarity with similar movements across the UK and the rest of the world; demanding structural change towards a system that is based on equality and environmental sustainability not profit and the interests of corporations; calling for independent regulators, end of tax havens and end of military spending among others.
The day started out with a “Meet the Movement” opportunity to meet some of the people involved in the occupation and setting up the tent city. This by now includes around 200 tents, a Starbook Occupation Library with a growing selection of magazines and books among which the utterly brilliant Ha-Joon Chang’s “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism”
, a Tent City University organising a series of lectures and events on viable economic and political proposals for alternatives, a drawing area for children and a piano. You could also get a hair cut, as opposed to spending cuts, listen to some acoustic music by a young man who writes cheerful songs about the things that make him angry, get the now emblematic free hugs, visit the kitchen and get some tea, coffee, fruits and a warm meal.
The special Public Assembly was held at the steps of the cathedral and shared personal testimonies of many involved in the occupation. They included Nathan, who was camping here from day one and planned to stay “till the end”, he was impressed by the amount of public support they were receiving from the community around expressed in bringing food and water, giving donations and just general positive feedback. Rachel, a Harvard educated lawyer and mother of two talked about how consumerism has entered and emptied our lives and how happy she was that this was a space where her children could hear speeches about justice and the value of the human spirit. And Danny who was working in finance said that “the game was not fair” as financial institutions concentrated both money and power.
At the Bank of England a roundtable on the State of the Nation gathered speakers Polly Toynbee from the Guardian, Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, James Meadway from the New Economics Foundation, John Christiansen of the Tax Justice Network and members of the OccupyLSX. They spoke about the current state of the economy and pragmatic ways of brining about systemic change that would both be economically viable and beneficial to the 99%. These included references to Keynes, and pro-growth policies, which are exactly the opposite of the current government spending cuts; the need to turn this protest into a strong political movement; the central issues of democratic control and transparency of institutions as part of the ways forward; the need for governments to regulate the existence of tax havens, that enable big corporations to evade paying taxes and others.
All seemed to send one clear message that there was an alternative to the current response to the crisis and there is the need to keep formulating these alternatives if a more fair and sustainable society is to be created. “This is fascinating, I can sit and listed here all day”, remarked a young lawyer working in a City bank.
As the speakers were making their final comments, the beat of the samba drums was heard and soon after the Tour of Corporate Greed marched by. As the crowd walked down City Road suddenly a group broke off and ran onto the patch of green that is Finsbury Square. With impressive swiftness and efficiency tents came up and a General Assembly was called. The crowd waved their hands in agreement that this would become the Second Occupation Camp (#occupyFS). The camp at St. Paul’s would remain and both camps will operate simultaneously.
The kitchen was quickly set up and it seemed about 50 people were getting ready to pitch their tents for the night. For a movement largely criticized for lacking organisation and efficiency, this was a very well thought through and carried out occupation and the police seemed neither ready nor willing to intervene.
There are however challenges as well.
On Friday, 21 October in an unexpected and unprecedented move St. Paul’s Cathedral was closed to the public on the grounds that the occupation constituted a health and safety risk to visitors (statement). This is only the second time the Cathedral is closed, the first being during the bombardment of London in the Second World War. Protesters who have been very eager to maintain good relations with the cathedral and had formed a special church liaison group for that purpose were clearly disappointed about the turn of events. They issued a statement that the camp had made every effort to accommodate the safety requirements of the fire brigade and there were no new requirements issued.
If the Cathedral withdraws its support, when the courts open on Monday, police may seek injunction on the basis of which they can evict the occupation. The same is valid for the second camp at Finsbury Square, which is a public park.
On a personal level, a cleaner working three jobs to support her family complained that she was fired from her job as a zero hour cleaner of Paternoster Square being told by management that now the square was closed, she was not needed anymore. Similar reports came from other workers engaged in the operation of the Cathedral, who were dismissed after the Cathedral was closed for the public.
There was also growing concern among many that as the occupation grew in popularity it attracted a wide range of causes. Although they are all welcome, the movement needs to assert its strong political message that it does not agree with the current response to the economic crisis.
It also needs to reach out and grow its support among wider and wider sectors of society if it is to really speak on behalf of the 99%. This can only happen if the message remains broad enough able to unify large groups of people.
These are all viable issues that would continue to be discussed and addressed through the working groups and at the General Assembly in this unprecedented and inspiring movement of popular democracy.