Johnnie Kerr

A broad church

The protesters outside St Paul’s are united in polite disagreement

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The protesters outside St Paul’s are united in polite disagreement

It’s really not clear why the doors to St Paul’s had to be closed. Perhaps the church will have concocted a reasonable explanation by the time it’s all over, but after an afternoon walking around the protesters’ camp, it’s hard to imagine that they pose any sort of threat.

Already the site has the peaceful air of a hippy festival. Groups sit in circles, talking and picking at the piles of crisps and chocolates donated by supporters of the cause. Others are gathered on the steps, listening quietly to a man giving a speech through a hastily assembled speaker system. A small queue waits patiently outside the information tent, and there is a helpful sign for newcomers and reporters: ‘We are now also occupying Finsbury Square.’

In fact, the only bad feeling seems to have been caused by journalists. The first person I approach is a bearded gentleman sitting serenely on the cathedral steps in an enormous hemp overall. ‘Try someone else, mate,’ he says, shaking his head politely when I ask him a question. ‘I’ve been talking to you guys all morning.’

Eventually I find someone more talkative. He declines to give his name, but tells me amiably that I can quote him as ‘an anarchist’. ‘We didn’t force them to shut their doors,’ he says, of St Paul’s, a refrain I would hear all day: ‘We didn’t want them to close it!’ In fact, says the anarchist, camp members have complied enthusiastically with both the fire department and the Health and Safety Executive, who have proclaimed themselves satisfied with the current arrangements. But St Paul’s remains shut.

A further poke around reveals the whole site to be remarkably well maintained. An assortment of other tents of varying functions have been set up beneath the cathedral bell tower, including a medical tent, a legal aid tent and other communal gazebos where informal conferences are taking place.

In fact, the organisation is so efficient that it almost seems to damage the credibility of the movement. Apart from the man with the megaphone, the only real clue that there is a protest going on are the signs, most of them discarded and lying scattered across the ground.

Some are funny: ‘Canary Wharf is Mordor’; others nondescript: ‘Occupation is Liberation’. Many of them are contradictory. Kicking away some plywood inscribed with the words ‘Ceci n’est pas le capitalisme’, I find underneath it a sign saying ‘UK: Hands off Libya, Out of Afghanistan’. I begin to wonder — what exactly is being protested against here?

An enormous banner dominates the scene: ‘CAPITALISM IS CRISIS’. But it doesn’t necessarily represent the majority of protesters. A teacher told me that the demonstration has slowly absorbed people with all sorts of grievances. ‘There are groups here who are anti-capitalist, there are groups who are pro-capitalist.’

The anarchist agrees. ‘Every person has a different reason to be here. We all have different political views. There are around 30 or 40 people I know personally who are anarchists, but there are socialists and pro-capitalists here as well. If we’re all united, it’s against greed.’

So if everyone here is protesting against something slightly different, what can the demonstration classify as an achievement? When might the protest be said to have been successful?

‘We would like to have it written down in our manifesto that we’re going to stay here until change happens,’ says the teacher. ‘If we pack up before there’s any real change we haven’t achieved anything.’

Not everyone shares this goal: ‘We’re here to raise awareness, essentially, so the longer we stay here the more we’re achieving,’ says Marvin Reusch, a university student. ‘Most of the people who come round support what we’re doing — they’re dropping off food, they’re giving us blankets, so that shows we’re having an effect on people.’

That seems to be the best explanation for this disparate bunch. Whatever their stated cause, they are seeking to represent the conscience of a nation that feels increasingly uneasy and at odds with our political and economic leaders.

As I leave, it seems as if the protesters are settling down to become a fixture. Some of them have jobs and will drift away. Others we have met will stay: they’ve sacrificed their jobs to be here, campaigning for this strange, indefinable but heartfelt cause.

Additional reporting: Amelia Heimler