Monday, 17 October 2011

First 24hours at St. Paul's: even the priests give their blessing…

Not being allowed into Paternoster Square, home of the London Stock Exchange, was no less disappointing for it's being predictable. But the iconic symbol of blitz spirit is once again uniting the people, as protesters bedded down for the peaceful occupation of St. Paul's...

By the time I stepped off the tube at St. Paul's, Paternoster Square had long been barricaded by the police, and the occupation moved to the closest open space big enough for a few thousand protesters: St. Paul's cathedral and the square in front of it.

Police also surrounded the occupiers in the square but were letting people in, one by one, at various points, with a warning that they would not be allowed to leave again; not leaving being largely the point meant the crowd swelled to between 4000 and 5000 at its peak.

The day was spent debating the various merits and demerits of consensus decision making - to jazz hand or not - and the people's microphone, and putting them to use in various assemblies and working groups. Julian Assange received a mixed welcome, some protesters bemoaning celebrity activists speaking on their behalf. But the gathered crowd was united when he cracked the old Life of Brian joke, through the people's mic, and had a couple of thousand people shout back at him: "we are all individuals!" It's a cliche to describe an atmosphere as festival-like, but between the tents, the toilets and a sense of a moment to be remembered, it did feel that way.

The police that encircled the square had been creeping forward by increments, and by late afternoon were beyond the statue of Queen Anne to the right and had cut off the last open coffee shop to the left (and with it the last open toilets). As the left flank advanced, I witnessed Jody McIntyre put on the brakes of his wheelchair in front of it, only to be hoiked out of it by three surly cops. I asked an officer whether he didn't remember the reports from earlier this year, when they did exactly the same thing. His response was, 'he's not even disabled' - so I guess not.

Black and red flags were notable by their absence, and the only other bit of nastiness came when a line of tactical support group officers advanced, unannounced, through the crowd. Lots of people had been sitting down in front of them, linking arms, but many that were in their way (myself included) received boots, knees and back hands about the head (after I remonstrated with one officer, who was kicking my leg, he snarled and said: "dry your eyes, mate.")

Once they'd got through the crowd and formed a line across the top of St. Paul's, they let it be known that they were acting under orders to protect the cathedral, its pillars and doors, from the potential for criminal damage. It seemed spurious: there was no appetite for attacking anything at all, and especially not a place of worship. The attitude of the protesters to the intrusion was best summed up by this exchange between an activist with a loudhailer and the crowd: Is anyone here to damage the church? No! Is anyone here to stop people worshipping? No! Is anyone here to have a peaceful protest? Yes!!

Everyone calmed down, and the rest of the night passed without incident. The cordon was opened and police and protesters gathered supplies from local shops; numbers dwindled into the night on both sides, and the hardcore that was left chatted happily under the floodlights for most, if not all, in some cases, of the night.

I awoke to the peeling bells of St. Paul's and bright sunshine. The camp seemed to have grown; the kitchen, established the previous evening, was about three times the size. There was a buzz in the air, tired smiles on peoples faces - the news on everyone's lips of the priests not only giving us their blessing but also assuring the police that their attendance would no longer be necessary. As a sign of a gratitude, the decision was made - collectively, of course- to create a giant thank you card, which everyone could sign.

We spent today in various working groups and general assemblies; the question that everything came back to seemed to be: why are we here? There was a unanimous consensus that we supported the message coming from New York, as well as Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein an various other occupations around the world. As for Occupy LSX, when I left on Sunday afternoon, I'd heard reasons for attendance as varied as 98 of the FTSE 100 companies - listed on the London Stock Exchange - paying no tax in the UK and 'I'm on the road to happiness'.

But far from the usual perception of the movement lacking a voice, merely being anti and having no for, the protesters occupying London are constantly and vociferously articulating what they want. Everyone will have their own reasons for being there, and it may take a long time - because real democracy isn't afraid to take its time - for the group to articulate its demands. But, that what they want is myriad merely shows how much is needed the one thing everyone agreed there must be: change, and lots of it…


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  2. Nice piece. I must admit that I was just a bit downhearted on Saturday afternoon, by how effectively contained we were by the police and by the fact that there seemed to be no identity or message linking the crowd together. Clearly the diversity has proved to be a strength, but furthermore, after adjustments have been made for the dickhead factor, would it be crazy to suggest that the police have prevented this protest from being hijacked by the black scarf crowd? That is to say, is it possible that the police have facilitated peaceful protest?

    I remember the climate camp on bishopsgate in 2009, all dogs and truncheons, and I fully expected a repeat as soon as the sun went down.

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  4. As the day wore on, the police actively tried to break up the protest, and were aggressive and provocative. Bringing out big fucking snarling dogs on the pretext of protecting pillars that weren't under threat, a fact the priests attested to when they sent them away in the morning. In fairness, they didn't bring out the truncheons, but they were pretty stampy with people who were sitting on the floor.

    And the police didn't stop any anarchists from coming to St. Paul's: lots of them have stayed away because they don't agree with the not necessarily anti-capitalist message. That said, I've seen lots of people I would normally see masked up - they're just wearing V masks. I think the protest is peaceful for its own reasons, not just because some anarchists stayed away...