Occupy London: Protests Fail To Capture Spirit Of Wall Street
The Occupy London Stock Exchange protests are underway and progressing peacefully, however, numbers are far lower than organisers anticipated, and there was little evidence of the kind of grassroots pro-democracy movement that has captured the public imagination in New York.
The protesters, denied access to the LSE and to Paternoster Square itself by a thin line of police, were held by a loose cordon near the steps of St Paul's. Tourists made their way in and out of the crowd to get views of the cathedral, and there were more cameras on show than placards. Activists in the Guy Fawkes masks favoured by the online Anonymous group queued in Starbucks.
Far from being the diverse mass of interest groups and average Londoners that organisers had predicted, the crowd, briefly led in a call and response by megaphones from the steps, were a mix of students and familiar left wing activists.
There were brief scuffles when a few protesters tried to block Ludgate Hill, and when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was spotted and run to ground in a souvenir shop, but the bulk of both scrums were made up of photographers and film crews.
The police cordon hardened as the crowd grew, but tourists and observers were able to slip out without hassle, despite widespread media reports that a “kettle” was in place.
Before Saturday, the movement certainly had the illusion of momentum. Following a “general assembly” in the middle of a protest held in Westminster against National Health Service (NHS) reform on October 9, the movement gathered pace through a Facebook page and on Twitter, using the hashtag #OccupyLSX.
Mirroring the “horizontally organised resistance movement” of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), the London group says that it does not have organisers or leaders.
“Supporter” Spyro - who declined to give his family name - one of the protest’s early members and co-architect of the Facebook page that has now attracted tens of thousands of followers told the Huffington Post UK: “This is not a one issue campaign, it’s not about cuts, it’s not about any political demands.”
Without any clear demands, the group claimed to be a broad church, with supporters from across the political spectrum and across interest groups. How compelling and persistent a protest without a message would prove to be was always in question, after a summer punctuated by demonstrations and civil violence.
This year has seen public sector strikes and protests against reforms to the pension system and health service, as well as headline-grabbing stunts by the tax pressure group UKUncut - behind all of these a simmering sense of injustice against the government’s austerity measures that are increasingly being linked with reductions in the living standards of households.
A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) this week said that high inflation and stagnant wage growth is likely to see standards of living drop below 2009/10 levels and stay there for at least four years. The number of adults living in poverty is likely to increase by 40 per cent by 2020, the IFS said.
In longer term trends, income inequality in the UK is at its highest in 40 years and youth unemployment, already running high, has hit close to one million, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday.
The general lack of prospects for inner city youth is widely thought to have contributed to the rioting and looting that paralysed areas of London in August and spread to other major cities.
It is the sense that the majority have suffered while the privileged minority responsible for the crisis have escaped unscathed that has driven the creation of Occupy Wall Street, and now Occupy London, according to Spyro.
“It’s a new movement. At this initial stage of the movement, the issue is to raise awareness about the unfair economic and political system that seems to benefit a few international financial institutions,” he said.
“We have seen people losing their jobs, we have seen family homes repossessed, we have seen small businesses closing. We have seen more than $800 billion used to bail out banks, and at the same time, we have seen the same people responsible for this crisis going home with enormous bonuses.”
While the immediate progenitor of the Occupy London Stock Exchange movement is the US occupation - which began on September 17 and gained momentum throughout the month - it is also, supporters say, inspired by the Spanish “Indignados” movement and the rolling strikes and protests in Syntagma Square, Athens, which seemed at times close to shaking the resolve of the Greek government in its austerity drive.
More ambitious supporters compare the movement to the disaggregated, anti-government movements that overthrew autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Those movements shared the simple, single demand for change across disparate social groups and political affiliations, but the context is hardly the same.
OWS has at least managed to get its message heard. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit said in an interview with Fortune magazine that he would be happy to talk to protesters, and that their demands were “understandable”.
Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian, who oversees the world’s biggest bond fund and is a major voice on Wall Street, warned in a blog on Monday that the grassroots movement should be taken seriously, saying that the occupation was “part of a worldwide drive for greater social justice.”
Thousands of people have joined groups purporting to be taking the OWS movement global, with London just one of more than 950 cities that the “15th October” movement claims will be demonstrating. The 15October.net website maps events taking place from Dakar to Denver, and Twitter users have been trying to organise ad hoc gatherings using the hashtags #15O and #globalchange.
However, with police unlikely to allow protesters to camp out on the steps of Saint Pauls, and with their main target of Paternoster Square off-limits, it is unclear whether the occupation will be able to match the scale or the persistence of OWS. Even some in the crowd seemed disillusioned.
Standing near an ironic “Tahrir Square EC4” sign, one protester was overheard to say “this really isn’t Egypt. It’s nothing like Egypt.”