They have set up camp by the steps of St Paul’s to protest about, well, everything from capitalism to cuts. Sophie McBain hears their grievances
BY 10AM THE protesters outside St Paul’s were slowly emerging from their tents, blinking and stretching in the cold morning light. It was surprisingly quiet, although people were already moving purposefully through the makeshift camp. Tea was being made and drunk, cardboard placards painted and wielded, the information tent was fully manned and running, the media tent was wired up with its own electricity supply for citizen journalists’ laptops. Outside one tent a fresh copy of 1984 peeked out of a fluttering plastic bag.
‘If you’re media, I’d recommend that you start off at our media centre, situated under the green tarpaulin just behind the kitchen,’ the volunteer at the information centre said. ‘And may I ask that as this is a living area, you show respect and care while moving between the tents, as some people are still asleep.’ Think what you will of the protests, it is surprisingly well-organised.
Twenty policemen stood in line at the mouth of Paternoster Square, the same number were positioned at the end of Newgate Street, and a few stood chatting to protesters inside the camp, who responded to questions in a guarded but not unfriendly manner.
The inspirations for the occupation were varied, although there were common themes represented in the hundreds of hand-made signs: ‘Banks, IMF are the global Mubarak’; ‘We are the 99% from Tahrir to London’; ‘Consume less, share more, enjoy life’; ‘The end is nigh, the future is on sale’; ‘We can’t feed the poor, but we can fund wars’; ‘Democracy is a lie’; ‘mas preparados, mas informados, mas indignados’.
‘There’s no agreement, people are here for many reasons. But we voted on a manifesto last night,’ explains Will, a student at SOAS who spent the night at the foot of St Paul’s. He plans to camp here for at least a month — and has brought his books with him, a reference book on ancient African art lies discarded on the ground next to him. Did he agree with the whole manifesto, I ask. ‘It would be quite hard to disagree with anything on it,’ he says.
The handwritten manifesto is taped to the wall next to the entrance to St Paul’s. ‘The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives. This is where we work towards them,’ point one of the manifesto reads. It calls for an end to bank bail-outs and government cuts, for independent industry regulation and ‘structural change towards authentic global equality’, and pledges support for a strike on 30 November and solidarity for the oppressed around the world. A nearby blackboard displays an agenda for further discussions throughout the day.
SOME PROTESTERS HAVE flown into London especially to join the protest camp. Giles Clark, a freelance photographer, says he spent several weeks occupying Wall Street, before flying to Europe, stopping to protest in Berlin yesterday before arriving in London at 1am this morning. ‘I was on Wall Street within 24 hours of the first occupation, it occurred to me that this was long overdue. This is valid and peaceful human organisation that can exert massive change, we are looking to shift the political discourse.’
What are his complaints against the current political discourse? ‘In simple terms, millions of people have lost their homes and their jobs at the hands of a banking system and a political system that is not taking care of the people. There is gross inequality in the whole system. I can name so many specifics: students are paying back debts at 15 per cent interest rates while banks are charged 0.5 per cent. Top bankers are getting paid massive bonuses while benefits are being cut. Are we going to have to have a financial Armageddon before we curb bankers’ bonuses?’
Already agitated by his own speech, he curses as his iPhone slips out of his pocket and smashes onto the cobbled pavement. This is the ‘social media revolution’, he says, and he is not the first to invite me to add him on facebook to read more about his views.
Asked about his political affiliations Clark describes himself as an ‘activist’: ‘I don’t attach myself to anything I don’t want to,’ he adds. He believes that the protests will force politicians to change, but through the democratic process. ‘We are the voters, and when you get enough of us, the politicians will have to listen.’ This makes his politics less radical than that of some of his fellow protesters.
Carl Beckland, who lost his job as a social worker in February, hopes to ‘overthrow the government’. What does overthrow mean, I ask. A change of the whole British parliamentary system, or just bringing Labour back to power? ‘Not New Labour. We want the old Labour, a better Labour. We want a government that looks after people. Make sure you say that,’ he instructs me, looking nervously at my notebook, ‘that we’re looking for a government that looks after people.’
‘Nah, we want to have a global government, a government of the 7 billion people in the world,’ his friend butts in, but Carl ignores him. Unlike Giles, it is Carl’s first time protesting. ‘It’s been brilliant, the best thing I’ve done in my life, I’ve made lots of friends. Yeah, it was cold last night, but we had some drinks, some discussions,’ he says. Despite the cold, Carl plans to stay here until he’s evicted.
And will it make a difference? ‘Of course! You’re interviewing me. No one’s asked to interview me before. And people are really supportive, they’ve been donating food, and tents. Lots of people support us.’ The police have been ‘lovely’, he says, and he was touched by the Reverend Giles Fraser leading prayers for the protesters.
Diane Richards, a former mental health worker, is less impressed with the police. ‘A lot of people are unhappy that the police have stayed here when the reverend said it was OK for us to camp here,’ she says. ‘They have been fishing around tents, and that’s disrespectful.’ She joined the camp partly out of solidarity with the Anonymous movement, who offered her support after she was ‘manhandled’ by the police a few weeks ago (they searched her but would not issue her with a stop and search slip, she says), but she also supports the anti-cuts movement.
FOR THE MOMENT, however, relations between the police and protesters seem to be weary but amicable. The police are media-savvy too, and unlike the protesters they’re not happy saying too much to journalists: ‘We get into trouble for expressing our individual opinions,’ one says apologetically. ‘But as you can see, things are fine so far.’ They’ve been moving around the camp chatting to protesters to ‘interact with people, and make sure they’re OK.’
Things are definitely fine so far: the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, the protesters not only happy to chat, but quick to offer tea and biscuits to stave off the cold. That’s not to say the atmosphere won’t change: whether its political conviction or the after-effect of a cold night on a hard tent floor, a few demonstrators are openly hostile. But they are in the minority, and this is a broad group of people: students, the unemployed, teachers, former public sector workers, even lawyers apparently (though I didn’t find one of those), first-time protesters and career ‘activists’. Their aims are even more disparate.
As I leave the camp, I notice a wiry man rip off his t-shirt and begin applying white paint to his face and body. I head towards him to ask a few questions, but within seconds he is surrounded by a handful of photographers and a dozen people with camera phones. If there’s one thing that unites the protesters occupying St Paul’s it’s the determination that the revolution will be televised, printed, tweeted, blogged, YouTubed and facebooked.