(all photos mine)
Queen Anne is in a bit of trouble. This ex-monarch is under a siege! Used to the daily sight of tourists quietly lining up to enter the St. Paul’s Cathedral behind her, she now looks around to see hundreds of youth pouring in from across the United Kingdom for a sit-in. It’s called the “Occupy London” movement, inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in New York, which is now spreading across the globe. The siege began on October 15th, the international day of solidarity with the indignados (“outraged”) movement that began in Spain. The indignados movement had begun exactly five months before, on May 15th, at a rally in Madrid, which slowly transformed into a protest camp that occupied the city’s central Puerta del Sol for many weeks. It was driven by the extreme indignation experienced by the Spanish people during the economic crisis, and against cuts in public spending in health and education as well as rising unemployment and corporate greed. Thus, one of the banners at the St. Paul’s read: “This is an Outrage”.
A spontaneous sit-in? Not really. Protestors told me that they had held a general assembly many weeks back, on the sides of a meeting to protest against the Tory government’s new National Health Services (NHS) Bill. The NHS Bill seeks to sharply cut state spending in UK’s public health system. From then on, the protestors have been meeting “virtually” almost everyday.
What has been critical to this build-up is the country-wide protest movement picking up slowly against the Tory government’s economic policies. The most important of them is the movement to preserve UK’s famed NHS, the basis of its welfare state model. In the midst of the global crisis, UK, just as many countries in the world, has entered into an massive austerity drive. Social services are being downgraded, public expenditures are being cut and workers are being pushed out of employment. Trade unions have argued that the new NHS Bill aims to privatise NHS and forces NHS hospitals to compete with private hospitals; “the end of the NHS”, was how a trade union leader described the Bill.
Alongside, anger has been brewing at how governments have bent over their shoulders to please the financial sector, or the “bankers”. While private banks that revelled in speculation were “bailed out” by governments, its costs were borne by the people, who suffered massive cuts in social services and loss of jobs. The protest phrase of 2009 was true: “Privatise Profits, Socialise Losses”. In most demonstrations to protest against the NHS Bill in the UK, the anger against bankers is conspicuous. At a demonstration at the Westminster Bridge last Sunday, a placard read: “Governments must serve people, not banks”; another angrily asked, “When did the bank deliver a baby?” An NHS doctor was quoted by radical dailies as saying: “the same forces that wrecked the economy are queuing up to take over the health service”.
A country-wide strike has been called by major trade unions on the 30th of November. A massive voting exercise is on within unions to obtain a “yes” vote to the strike from the majority of workers. Big news of the week was the posting of 1.1 million ballots by the public sector union “Unison” to its workers; Unison has its members across local government offices, NHS hospitals, and other departments like water, environment and transport. The radical newsletter of Socialist Worker exhorted the workers thus:
“The government wants workers to work longer, pay more, and get less in their pensions at the end of it. Pension contributions could soar by as much as 50 per cent in many cases. Some workers will be told they have to work until 67. And at the end of it all, they’ll get even less – even though the current average council workers’ pension, for example, is £ 4,200.
But 30 November is about more than that too. It’s about fighting the Tories’ project of making working class people pay for the banker’s crisis. It’s about resisting their attempts to destroy the NHS and the welfare state, and fighting every cut.A preview of the 30 November strike was there for all to see at a strike by NHS workers in Northern Ireland last week. According to reports, over 700 nurses joined in the picketing of a hospital in Belfast. Union leaders themselves were amazed at the turnout; one leader said: “we haven’t had a strike in years, maybe decades, so we were all a little nervous. But in the end, we brought the hospital to a complete standstill”.
30 November can be the start of a wave that can stop the Tories. But first that means voting “yes” in the ballots – and doing everything you can in your workplace to persuade others to do the same.”
So then, to call the siege “spontaneous” would be wrong. The mood in the country is clearly against austerity measures and financial policies. And this mood has contributed significantly to the success of the St. Paul’s siege, even though trade unions are yet to join the siege. The siege began in the morning of the 15th of October at the street where the London Stock Exchange is located. The police quickly pushed the protestors out of the street, who gathered at the nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral. Around 3000 protestors camped at the St. Paul’s and by the night, more walked in with tents; about 7 make-shift toilets came in too. The crowd was young, but the old too stamped their presence; many of them, workers of an earlier era, came in wheel-chairs and carried placards around their neck. Julian Assange walked in, and spoke to the protestors. “Capitalism Is Crisis”, reads the largest banner as one enters the Cathedral square.
By Saturday evening, the police looked like competing with the protestors in number. The Cathedral was cordoned off by the police; they parked their cars and vans bumper-to-bumper to stop people from entering the Cathedral square. Traffic was diverted and the square was sealed. Policemen walked hand-in-hand covering the road width, shouting “clear the highway”, and pushing people off the roads around the Cathedral. More police vans came in, filled with cages at the back; dogs barked out from each of those cages. By 11 PM, it was almost impossible for an outsider to enter the square; you had to be on the steps and inside the cordon, which was where I was. On-lookers booed the police; an old man spit hard and shouted at policemen: “you don’t even let us watch? Is this a democracy you running? Shame on you!” A policeman told me around midnight that there were at least 2000 people at the Cathedral steps.
Sunday morning was different. The crowd appeared to me as having shrunk. But by Sunday evening, there were more people walking in. There was less police too; the reason, it appears, was the widely publicised conversation between the Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral - Giles Fraser - and the protestors. “You have the right to protest”, said the Canon to the protestors. The Huffington Post reported the conversation thus: “I’ve seen what is going on and it seems to be that there doesn’t need police force in the numbers that there have been, so I have asked them to move and they have done. All is well and there is a very calm atmosphere.” On Sunday evening, a speaker at the steps was heard saying: “we are not going back. We are here at the invitation of the Church of England.” “Yes, we are children of God”, screamed a protestor from the crowd, to the loud cheers from all.
A feature of the protest is lack of violence. The only violent incident reported was where a young man threw a bottle at a policeman; he was arrested. And one speaker at the steps said: “we have to show the world that we can protest without violence. That should our reply to this government, which tries to run down this protest by force. So, take control of yourselves. Make sure there is no incident of shame.” Another speaker was thankful of the Cathedral, and said: “this is a place of worship. We should thank the Church for letting us sit here. We should not keep the place dirty. Make sure you use dustbins and toilets.” I checked on the sides of the Cathedral; there were separate bins, one for “general rubbish”, one for “cans”, and one for “food waste”. There was a “waste committee” that was at work, and its workers regularly cleaned up the Cathedral square. There was also a full-blown kitchen on the sides; the placard at its entry read: “if you have means to cook, please take and help yourselves! :)”. Another placard there read: “No Smoking”.
“Love” and “Peace” are recurrent themes; in poster after poster, one can see REVOLUTION being written as R[EVOL]UTION or R[LOVE]UTION. Written on a demon-faced effigy was: “When the power of Love overcomes the love of Power, the world will know Peace.” And a poster right under Queen Anne read: “We can’t feed the poor; but we can fund Wars?”
The third recurrent theme is anger; the anger is against the government and the bankers. The key slogan of the movement is “We are the 99 per cent”, as opposed to the rich 1 per cent that runs banks, corporations and governments. “I am 1 of 99 per cent”, “Bankers are the Real Looters”, so read many placards and banners. Another read: “We are 99%. F*$k us and we’ll give birth to discontent and organised resistance”. Yet another read: “Authorities are not Truth; Truth is the Authority”. A banner in front of one tent read: “We don’t need Sex. The Government F*$ks us”.
By Sunday night, the number of tents had multiplied. People brought chairs in, sat outside their tents and read or discussed. One was reading “A Radical Reader”, another was reading “The Jewish Question”, and many others were picking up books from a make-shift library that had just opened.
Singers and performers have come in. One performer was a magician; he enthralled the crowd by making pennies disappear from between his fingers, and said: “that is how our banks make our pennies disappear”. Others performed juggling tricks. A sing-a-long was on nearby; the lines went: “When you talk on your phone, Be careful what you say, They’re Going to Get You…”. The singer gave me the You Tube link to the song he had recorded and uploaded; he is here.
Finally, the million-dollar question: how sustainable is this “movement”? To hazard an answer to this question is risky, as the experience with many recent “movements” has taught us much. This can blow up into a big, long sit-in, and surprise many. Or it could just fizzle out in a day or two. I went around asking the question: who is leading this? I am led to a small tent, with about seven computers. That’s the office, it seems. But then I figured out that there are many groups in there, most of whom don’t even know each other. They arrange regular corner meetings to discuss “strategy”; I heard many of them discussing how to bring in more people the next day and making sure this siege doesn’t end soon.
Hughes, a veteran trade unionist selling books at the venue, told me that most participants are from fringe anarchist groups, and many don’t even know what it means to be an anarchist. “You have to organise, and these guys have to get that simple point”, said Hughes. For him, the success of the siege lies in whether these anarchist groups connect with worker’s unions as quickly as possible, and spread the revolt. He said: “the government is cool about this; they don’t mind this sit-in; this does not disturb anything in the government or among the powerful; but it will do so once these guys connect with the simmering discontent among workers”.
Hughes’ arguments are much the same as what Noam Chomsky said in London last weekend, at the Rebellious Media Conference. Talking about the Wall Street protests and the protests in Egypt and Tunisia, Chomsky said: “It’s when the labour movement began to seriously participate that the gains of these movements really became noticeable…That ought to be known if the occupy movements, spectacular as they are, are going to have real success.”
“Will that happen?”, I asked Hughes. He gave me a telling look, and said with a smile: “Let’s see”.
From the sides of "Occupy London" by R. Ramakumar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at ramakumarr.blogspot.com.