Following the success of Occupy Wall Street in New York, last Saturday saw protesters descend upon cities the world over to occupy, chant and perform entry level circus tricks in public places. Generally it went well. In Rome things got a bit tear-gassy, but that was probably down to the good weather and Latin temperament. They've always been an emotional bunch.
Just before noon, London began to see its fair share of occupyees. Initially there was with a scuffle or two, as the protesters failed to occupy the bit of ground they were supposed to be occupying. This was because Paternoster Square is private property, and the mean-spirited Scrooge capitalist who owns it had obtained a High Court injunction forbidding their presence. More generally, there were a lot of police hanging around who weren't so keen on the idea, despite the fact that Billy Bragg was loitering like the ghost of British protests past.
Once everyone had settled into the more welcoming, and – crucially – more public arena of St Paul's square, it was straight down to business, with a ream of non-stop speeches about 'the system', 'corporate greed', and the coming installation of 'water facilities'. Each line was echoed back through the crowd like political Chinese whispers to ensure everyone got the message. As Harry Cheadle pointed out in his article on the Wall Street Occupation, it's a technique that's as clever as it is irritating.
All the usual faces were there. Film fans…
…representatives from London's skating scene…
…the queer housewives…
…Lynn from Alan Partridge…
…a bride and groom whose car was booed because everyone thought they were bankers riding around pretending to be married just for the hell of it…
…Richard E. Grant…
Shortly after 2PM, Julian Assange turned up. He gave a rousing speech in which he reiterated what other people had already said, repeated his trick of calling everyone in the media war criminals, then left. Thanks for making us feel special, Juley baby.
Around this time, the police set up a very thorough cordon around the square which was effective enough to stop all traffic and strand several bored-looking bus drivers in a kind of crustie purgatory. People began to play football, which annoyed the bus drivers greatly, and generally revel in the limelight afforded to them by a high journalist-to-protester ratio. The atmosphere, and sunshine, was warm and quite pleasant. Some tents were erected.
As dusk fell on Saturday afternoon, the police line moved in to allow traffic to pass and make things feel a little more claustrophobic for everyone. Murmurs spread through the crowd that a fat man had been arrested, and some portaloos arrived to join the protest. The pisspots were in furious demand, and the crowd seemed to thin slightly, what with everyone checking their iPhones and realising that the rest of the world's protests (or the football) were more interesting than what they were doing and they should probably go home and watch X Factor now.
Just as things were beginning to sag, some jugglers decided to up the ante with a bit of drumming, inspiring a large group to dance right in front of a gap in the police line designed to let bored people go home. The first day was declared 'a success'.
I went back to St Paul's on Monday to see how things had progressed (without a camera – all the photos in this post were taken by Henry on Saturday). The smell of wee lingered in the air, but that might have just been Central London. I spoke to some people to see how they thought it was going.
A young lady named 'Anonymous' wearing a Guy Fawkes mask explained: "We're having a peaceful protest, we're giving out free hugs… we're making it different, because violence will get you absolutely nowhere." She claimed to be there to further such genuine and sensible causes as "bringing down interest rates, so we can afford to actually put a roof over our heads." However, she soon opened a whole crate of worm-cans when she said that "we have all these different religions with different rights to cover their face" and made the observation that "Sikhs have the right to wear turbans and carry swords". When pressed to explain the relevance of these comments, she said that Anonymous were "hoping to become a religion". So I left it there.
I wondered if anyone at the camp might be skiving off work. These fears were swiftly quelled when I met Will and Jim, whose band, Will And The People, were playing in the square later that night. "We're here to spread love and music, basically," said Will, "We have all our equipment and rig ready to set up later on, we turned up right in front of everyone and the police, man, they helped us get our gear out. We told them we were doing ska/ reggae tonight and they seemed pretty into that." We haven't got any pictures of Will, but here are some press photos of him and his band so that your mind's eye doesn't break down in tears.
Will was stoned. I asked him if he'd had any hassle smoking trees in a public place. "No, none at all. It's been really chilled." No police joining in? "No, I'd love that, but no." I finished with Will and Jim by asking them what they thought they could achieve by camping out here. Will answered with another man's words. "I think our friend Caz put it really well, he said: 'Everyone, let's just sit here and wait for nothing to happen, so that eventually something happens.' It's the ASDA vibe, 'Every little helps.' Chink chink."
Will and Jim took us to meet Caz, a magician who was helping on the food stall. On the way, we discussed a man in a suit who was talking loudly about companies that were 'too big to fail'. "He's one of the most passionate people I've seen," said Jim. "That's the interesting part," Will followed, "It's more than just the activists and hippies, even people with jobs in the city are like 'We're slaves!' I thought slavery had ended, you know, but we actually are like… oops." His enthusiasm came to an abrupt halt. But that was OK, because we had reached Caz, who was more than happy to talk. "My involvement? It's general everything around me. Helping out at the kitchen, helping out speaking to the police, doing some interviews. We breezed in, a gentle breeze, knowledge and understanding based on forgetting the self and merging with the surroundings. Everybody's loving it."
I'd heard that the aims of the protesters were pretty diverse, so I asked Caz if there was any one thing that united the people Occupying London. "Well, from what we know as general punters: war, economic crisis, debt, collapse and all of what we hear… Everyone is here for the Stock Exchange. We don't really know what happens in the Stock Exchange. Nobody knows, but some stock, some exchange takes place, so exchanging something for something else… So, commodities, buying countries and selling countries and personal interest and all that sort of thing.
"We are here really for some sort of change and I think that change really is a big change. Some sort of like a 'freedom' change. Economy collapse, money collapse, chaos; order out of chaos."
"We're still working out how we're going to make that change, it's gonna take some time. It's a big thing. We're going to make change by skilfully using our knowledge." How does a magician do that? "My job is to make people happy. I did a show yesterday where I produced some money out of nowhere, then made it vanish. I demonstrated what they're doing on a big scale. What the Federal Reserves do on a big scale."
Honestly, Caz was a lovely guy, and he was clearly very passionate, as well as a good chef. But his plan for action seemed a little undercooked. I thought it would be best to get another point of view on this. All you hear in the news is protester this, activist that. What about the bankers? When do they get a chance to set the record straight?
I grabbed the nearest banker I could find. His name was Paul. Paul "works in the City, in a bank" and would surely have something to say about these smelly protesters camped outside his workplace. "I have no problem with it. I like that it's not violent, the message is a lot more effective if it's not violent. Do I have an opinion on what they're protesting about? Well what are they protesting about?" Inequality, bankers' bonuses, bail-outs going back into private profits rather than the public economy, etc… "Well I thought the 20% tax on the rich was a good idea. The problem is that rich people tend to be inclined to stay rich. It sort of comes with the package, doesn't it?"
Paul, it seems, had made a key point here, one that had either seemed to elude the occupiers, or just depressed them so much they hadn't mentioned it. Just because we've finally figured out who has us pinned against the shower wall, it doesn't mean we've figured out how to escape the shafting we're getting. Factor in a wider public apathy ("'Who's going to clear this up?' is what I think," a nearby roadworker told us when we tried to politicise him), and you get a trippy mix of optimism, communal living and defeat rolled into one.
Here's to prolonging the trip. As with any trip, it'll be best to see it through to its conclusion rather than cut it short. Some will inevitably see the end of capitalism looming before us; some, just as inevitably, will think it's all as useful as a bang on the bollocks. There are a lot of excited hippies on St. Paul's right now, and only they'll know for sure if the policeman was right when he told me earlier that, "Without the press and us here, only about five people would have bothered."