Angry protesters settle in with kitchen tent, library and music 'room'
Hundreds of demonstrators – and their pop-up tents – have forced the closure of St Paul's cathedral, but, as Mark Leftly discovers, despite its variety of concerns and objectives, this is not an average rent-a-mob crowd
A Ronald McDonald mock- up holds a machine gun in one poster; messages such as "The monetary economy must go! Many thanks!" and "Banks, IMF are the global Mubarak" are stuck to the fabric of the protesters' tents.
Around 300 people have lived and slept in Tent City since they tried to occupy Paternoster Square, the now cordoned-off home of the London Stock Exchange, last weekend. Thousands have joined them during the week, furious at what they view as widening social and economic inequality caused by corporate greed.
Occupy London Stock Exchange (Occupy LSX), one of 950 such "actions" taking place around the world, might have failed to occupy its main target, but it has effectively captured a far grander symbol of the capital: St Paul's Cathedral. Tent City is located in the pedestrianised area by the cathedral steps, grabbing the attention of both City workers and tourists.
Although peaceful – two police officers chat and smile as they walk past the tents the morning The Independent on Sunday visits – the occupation has managed to close down St Paul's for the first time since the Second World War. The Dean of St Paul's, the Right Reverend Graeme Knowles, has been surprisingly supportive of the protesters but believes that the camp's stoves and fuel have created a fire hazard.
He has called on them to withdraw, telling occupiers "their voice has been heard". The problem with that statement is that there are so many voices here. The camp is run as a direct democracy with, purposely, no leadership structure.
Its members were inspired by the Occupy New York protest that started last month, but they are not all angry about the same issues. The personal reasons behind the seizure of this prominent part of the Square Mile vary greatly, from distress at the country's growing unemployment to fury at the banking failures that led to the financial crisis.
No clowning around
It's 10am and most of the protesters are asleep or hiding from the cold in their tents. The shops surrounding the camp have complained at the loss of trade, while St Paul's has confirmed that takings in its shop and café are down, though not by the 70 per cent that has been suggested.
The patisserie Paul claims to have lost £500 a day. Still, the staff are happy to serve the occupiers: one protester, dressed in policeman's helmet, pink hair and red nose, is up earlier than most of his comrades and warms his hands around a cup of coffee.
Andrew, aka Barry Daft, is a 44-year-old bicycle mechanic and part-time clown from Yorkshire. Like many others, he was alerted to the protest by social media, spotting images of the camp on Facebook, and decided to spend a few days of his two-week holiday here before performing at the annual anarchist bookfair in London this weekend.
"I liked what I saw," says Andrew. "People were standing up, saying that they were unhappy. I have a certain amount of rage and resentment for any kind of authority. It's why I clown, it's anarchic."
An employed homeowner, Andrew also claims that he is a "fully paid-up capitalist" as he does not believe that any other system works. However, the best system is still flawed: "I think the whole country feels angry at the bankers, that they've rigged the system in their favour, screwed up and resisted any pressure to change. I don't understand why people need more than £5m or £10m in their bank account."
On a neighbouring table, a few minutes later, two well-attired bankers discuss how they might collect £140,000 in fees on a potential deal.
At the initial meeting of 500 protesters on the steps of St Paul's last Sunday, Occupy LSX came up with a nine-point statement defining some of their aims and objectives. Point three states: "We refuse to pay for the banks' crisis."
A better free market
Andrew was equipped with a tent within 20 minutes of arriving at the camp on Tuesday, around the time that St Paul's officials started to worry about the safety implications of the camp's size, which had at least trebled to more than 200 in a few days.
There are few visible signs that the occupiers will leave any time soon. Rather, they have merged a slick operation and a burgeoning society in a week: there's a legal and media tent, regular working group meetings, a diverse library that includes biographies of Karl Marx and books by Terry Pratchett, and even a piano "room".
Josie, 27, is washing cutlery in the camp's well-stocked kitchen. She runs an alternative culture magazine and has come down to support her friend Bryn, a 28-year-old who works in music PR. The duo bicker over who is going to hold forth first, Josie condemning the coalition's public spending cuts ("I'm sick of them taking everything away"), Bryn interrupting and claiming the support of some bankers ("They have tipped us off about some of the corrupt actions of the greedy few which have brought their institutions into disrepute").
Bryn also argues that the camp paves the way for "eliminating government". The way the protesters are working together – albeit with food, book and blanket donations from supportive members of the public – shows "how the market can function without regulation: this camp works better than the free market".
The real free market has certainly annoyed a number of the occupiers. Flo, a 35-year-old fashion graduate, complains of not having a job for eight years as work in her sector has been outsourced to economies with far cheaper wages: "I found that my job has been taken over by slave labour," she seethes, "I feel I've done everything I could. I've got a lot of intelligence but nowhere to put it."
By Friday, the cordial mood between the cathedral and the protesters had started to sour. Dean Knowles said that safety officers had "pointed out that access to and from the cathedral is seriously limited", while he suggested that "long-term planning" was necessary to ensure that staff wages could still be paid.
Occupy LSX countered that they were "mystified" as to the decision to close the cathedral restaurant, which they had never blocked. They also claimed the camp was now a tourist attraction in itself, potentially drawing more visitors to St Paul's.
The bulk of the occupiers are not the protesters-for-hire of the far left, and the realities of life would suggest that Tent City may soon lose some of its occupants.
Take Lucy, a smartly dressed 33-year-old working in the camp's media team. She is angered by the Health and Social Care Bill, which is considered by some to mark the privatisation of the NHS. She joined the "Block the Bill" protest on Westminster Bridge on 9 October. This demonstration formed the initial rump of Occupy LSX.
"I've never occupied before," Lucy explains. "It was a big step to sleep as a lone woman in a tent. But [the Bill] was the final straw."
However, Lucy starts a new job this week and will rejoin the occupiers only during the evenings. Then there's Art, a 42-year-old IT graduate, who goes home most nights to his family.
No doubt a few will not be moved. Ed, a 50-year-old who insists on being called "Bob", will stay to tell more media and passers-by about his idea for a "Bank of Britain" (hence Bob). He wants to carve out the investment arms of Lloyds and RBS, and for the bits that remain to lend to local authorities without the commercial fees of private banks.
"A bank that doesn't charge publicly funded bodies could be the only bank that receives government guarantees [if it should collapse]," he says. "If the taxpayer owns about 80 per cent of RBS and 40 per cent of Lloyds, there must be a way of cobbling together a [public] bank."
For now, people are listening: a middle-aged Australian woman stops to read the initial nine-point statement, which also calls for regulators to be independent of the industries they oversee and for more money to be spent on social care than on wars. "It just seems so logical," she says.
Cathedral officials would say this shows that the point has been made. The most defiant protesters will say she is just one of many they have to tell of their numerous, disparate concerns.
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