In the afternoon sunshine, amid the ad hoc tent city in the shadows of St Paul’s Cathedral, the general assembly begins. For members of the Occupy London protest, this is the forum where decisions are made. Campaigners from different working parties, each responsible for running separate aspects of the site, take it in turns to make announcements, the crowd registering their approval with ‘silent clapping’, waving their hands in the air. The arrival of a policeman, wearing a hi-vis, neon yellow jacket, on centre-stage is accompanied by an unmistakable sign that this protest is unlike others – greeted, as he is, by a round of applause.

Politely, the officer warns the protesters about the dangers of disposing of food unsafely, before announcing donated wastebins are soon to arrive. There is also a gentle reminder urinating in public will incur an £80 fine, before, in closing, the officer declares he is “very happy with how the camp is being run”. Having said his piece, the policeman leaves the centre of the circle, receiving another round of applause, just as warm as the first.

Since the protesters set up camp at St Paul’s, not far from the London Stock Exchange, just over a week ago, drawing inspiration from the occupation of Wall Street in New York and finding an echo in as many as 900 cities worldwide, there has been no shortage of conjecture about the movement’s aims and the extent to which they can be achieved.

Propped up against one of the cathedral’s limestone walls is the protest’s mission statement. At its core is opposition to the government’s austerity measures, which the movement views as a perverse ‘solution’ to the global economic woes – one that spares the banks and their executives while squeezing sections of society least equipped to carry the can. “We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis,” the charter reads. “We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.”

The site is humming with activity as city workers on their lunchbreaks pass through to see what all the fuss is about; impromptu debate circles crop up on the pavement, white-collar workers locked in conversation with those occupying the cathedral’s forecourt. One protester, George Barda, has attracted a captive audience, of about a dozen people, as he outlines the movement’s objectives.

“I agree with a lot of what you’re saying,” concedes one freshly scrubbed young City worker. “And the system isn’t perfect, but the way forward – well, it’s not this.”

“It’s difficult for Britain,” Barda nods. “We’ve put all our eggs in some rather dirty, unstable baskets.”

Barda, 35, is a Greenpeace employee and a lifelong Londoner – he grew up in Shepherd’s Bush. He is sleeping at St Paul’s, working intermittently and popping home for the occasional shower. “I’ll be here for as long as it takes – as long as the police aren’t threatening you, which they’re not, you can come and go,” Barda says. “And I’m trying to work enough to pay the bills while also being here. It’s a good atmosphere – it’s pretty inspiring.”

With his long hair and shaggy beard, Barda may look every inch the leftie protester from central casting – an identikit image that detractors of the movement are keen to promulgate at every turn. But if Barda looks the part, he is notably devoid of the visceral anger that has characterised some of the forerunners to the Occupy movement, such as the anti-globalisation riots that engulfed the meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in 1999. According to Barda, this more inclusive, almost conciliatory approach is crucial to gaining traction and resisting attempts to denigrate protesters as part of the lunatic fringe.

“It’s like that Gandhi quote: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’,” Barda says. “It’s not about a return to angry socialism. I think the left needs to learn the lessons from when it became a bit too dogmatic. But there are some basic steps that we should be able to agree on, just because they’re sensible.”

It is on this point the London protest shares common cause with those around the world, particularly the one that has drawn thousands to New York’s financial district over the past month. Their agenda: opposition to public spending cuts; higher taxes on the rich; tighter regulation
of the financial sector; reducing the gulf between the rich and the poor; and neutralising the influence of corporations on elected governments.

“There’s a huge overlap,” Barda says. “Governments are saying, ‘we have no money because we’ve had to bail out the financial sector’. That’s the shtick. That’s the excuse for the cuts and the austerity measures.

“We need a radical reform of the tax system. The economic situation that we’ve seen on both sides of the Atlantic – giving tax cuts to the rich and hoping they’ll do stuff with their money that we want them to do, that’s a recipe for failure. And it’s totally undemocratic to have so much wealth in the hands of so few.”

The aims of the Occupy movement are wide-ranging and seismic in their implications. Whether the groundswell of sympathy for their grievances translates into concrete policy prescriptions remains to be seen. But already, protesters like Barda have achieved something by simply having the conversation, by forcing concerns that were, for a generation, consigned to the margins on to a more prominent platform.

“Hopefully we can get people to identify with it because there’s a majority who don’t feel empowered at the moment,” Barda says. “That’s why we want to make this site welcoming – people should come and talk to us. We’re not a small fringe group – we are the 99 per cent.”

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