Occupy London: Occupy Wall Street Goes International
The Occupy Movement Turns up at the London Stock Exchange
The news arrived via the Internet. Of course it did. There was to be a protest in London on Saturday, inspired by Occupy Wall Street, and it was going to be a global day of action. Many of us had felt a sense of identification with the Wall Street protesters. Now we could offer our solidarity and make our own mark in the UK.
Twitter was abuzz; we were to gather at St Paul’s Cathedral, in the heart of London’s financial district. There was a plan to occupy the London Stock Exchange. We even had a hashtag – #OccupyLSX. Information about what to do if arrested was circulated.
The assembly was scheduled for noon. Rounding the corner to the front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, its marble edifice glittering in the autumn sunlight, it looked like there were between 200 and 400 people already there. But as we joined the gathering, it soon became clear that there were at least as many members of the media as there were protesters. You could barely hear the polite conversation over the sound of camera shutters.
The atmosphere was good-natured but expectant. Police officers, in ordinary uniform, not riot gear, stood in knots of three or four. Some, clearly older and more experienced officers were pleasant enough. When a protester dressed as a banana and carrying a “No Cuts” sign passed by, one office called out: “Shouldn’t that be ‘No Splits, son?” We all laughed.
People milled about, rudderless, yet united. At about 12:20 PM some individuals threaded through the crowd saying: “Follow the sound system”. Led by the sound system on wheels, playing what sounded like homemade trance-style music, the crowd started to move towards the privately owned Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is located. Signs were posted that the owners had revoked public access to the Square for the day, and that police would prevent entry.
In this, the oldest part of London where medieval architecture sits, oddly comfortable, alongside shiny corporate and finance HQ’s, Paternoster Square is only accessible through a series of narrow alleys and archways. The media skittered among the smallish group like a pack of over-excited puppies. By the time the first archway, blocked by officers on foot and on horseback, was reached, hordes of photographers were actually in between protesters and the police line. They were so desperate for a confrontation, they largely prevented one from happening by getting in the way.
There was some chanting: “We are the 99 per cent,” “They got bailed out, we got sold out”—and for the first time that day it felt like something cohesive and real was happening. A circuit of the various entrances to the square then followed, but all were blocked by police.
At the second entrance, during a well-mannered, almost silent stand-off, a young man reached into his rucksack, extracting a black bandana. He was about to put it over his face but decided against, scoffing, “This is shit! Is this all we are going to do?” A procession round the various blocked entrances then took place; a friend said there was “minor fisticuffs” between a couple of protesters and police at one. (Over the entire day there were eight arrests.)
It was clear that there was no way the square was going to be breached. There was no real collective will for it, and certainly insufficient numbers existed for a serious confrontation to take place. So everyone returned, somewhat chagrined, to the steps of St Paul’s. We would not be occupying the London Stock Exchange.
There was some speechifying from the steps of the cathedral as the crowd sat and listened. At its height it is estimated more than 2,000 people were there. (Spare a thought here for the two couples that were getting married in St Paul’s on Saturday. This was probably not what they had hoped for during the months of planning.)
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange made an appearance—which we, alas, missed as we were investigating complaints that “kettling” was taking place. Some who claim to have been there yesterday say they were “kettled” and prevented from leaving. But this was not our experience; there was a police cordon but we were allowed to go in and out twice without much bother. Toilets were brought in on the back of a lorry in the late afternoon.
There have been some nasty incidences of heavy-handed police tactics at previous UK demonstrations, but claims of “police brutality” occurring yesterday are, at best, overdramatic. Especially when placed in context with what is happening around the world. This is not Syria. We are not going to get shot dead, no matter what. We have enough in common without kidding ourselves all regimes are the same and we are all taking the same risks.
We left as twilight fell. We learned on Sunday that about 200 people had camped in the area in front of St Paul’s overnight. It appears to be the intention that a long-term camp is established.
So what does this all mean in the UK, in London? In comparison to events around the world yesterday—the tens of thousands that took to the streets to in Spain and the explosive day in Rome in particular—London’s effort felt a bit feeble.
And yet…and yet. When we got home and found a website that had live streams of protests happening simultaneously all round the world, we felt maybe we had been part of something important after all.
Unlike some of our European cousins, the British are hampered by an inherent reluctance—confrontation and complaint do not come easily. We are meant to “get on with it” right? But the British do have their limits, and when a certain point is reached, become steadfastly resolute. There can be an awful lot of quiet ‘tutting’ before reaching that point, though.
Unlike the USA, the level of discourse about this nascent global movement is, as yet, poor. It tends to revolve around the almost obsolete debate between right and left. Whereas what this movement seems to represent is a rejection of the political classes as a whole. A rejection of corporate greed and institutional complicity in privatised gain and socialized losses.
The Occupy movement symbolizes the growing realisation among ordinary people that the global system is broken. That leaders are failing to lead. And that it is us and our children who will be paying for the mistakes. The movement embodies our refusal to accept this. Maybe more people in Britain will shake off their awkwardness and make themselves heard as time goes on.
The Internet has connected us and created a new social dynamic that no one could have predicted. It goes beyond geographical boundaries and is almost spiritual in nature. Several times this year we have seen the power of combining online technology with offline protest. Whether you are in London or New York, Madrid or Manila, we mean to change things. For all our sakes, I hope we can.
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