In Occupy London protest, echoes of Cairo

LONDON – Dozens of tents remain pitched outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London’s financial district on Sunday, as protesters continue their occupation of the London Stock Exchange overnight. According to protesters, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral has welcomed them and asked the police to leave, as church services and tourist visits continue uninterrupted.

Around 3000 people flooded the square outside St. Paul’s on Saturday, partaking in a day of coordinated global protests. Tens of thousands marched in cities across the world, from New York to Rome, under the collective banner “We are the 99 percent” – against government austerity, corporate greed and an unjust economic system.

“Occupy Wall Street” and the Spanish “Indignados” (Indignants) are widely credited as an inspiration for these protests, but Egypt and the Arab Spring also had a presence in London’s occupation. A street sign that renamed the area "Tahrir Square" was erected early on in the day, a banner declaring "The IMF is our global Mubarak" hung from one man’s tent, and a handful of Egyptian protesters carried signs critical of Egypt’s current military rulers.

An unexpected appearance from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange caused a commotion, and as he addressed the crowd he also gave a nod to Egypt. "What is happening here today is a culmination of the dreams of many people all over the world who have worked towards them, from Cairo to London," he said.

"People are being laundered through Guantanamo Bay to evade the rule of law, and money is being laundered through the Cayman Islands and London to evade the rule of law. This movement is not about the destruction of law, it is about the construction of law," Assange added before, rather bizarrely, throwing sweets into the crowd and then disappearing back into the media scramble that had accompanied him on his way in.

Despite the anger and frustration that had brought people out onto the streets, the mood was one of celebration and inclusion, no doubt helped along by the unusually warm October weather. Music played, people split into groups to organize, and called (somewhat chaotic) general assemblies to discuss the strategy and practicalities of the occupation and make collective decisions. By nightfall, toilets, first aid posts and shelter had been set up for those who decided to stay.

Canadian Alan McDonald, a school teacher who has lived in the UK for five years, was one of those who stayed the night. His reasons were very simple: “I am sick and tired of the hypocrisy,” he said. “We have been bailing out the banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but we can’t seem to find a few hundred pounds to keep a community centre open or a library open, or to keep some of the basic stuff for the public, for the 99 percent, open and maintained. But they seem to be okay to support the wealthy 1 percent.”

This feeling of having had enough of a system that is unfair and unrepresentative of the majority is a potent force and has pulled many out into the streets, across the world, against the backdrop of growing economic meltdown. Indeed, a G20 meeting in Paris this weekend discussed the Euro-zone crisis, but it seems that many people have lost faith in their leaders’ ability (or perhaps desire) to improve their situation. Instead, they are forging links across borders and taking matters into their own hands.

“This is very much an international movement where we are drawing inspiration from each other… We are making it British today, but we’ve got so many nationalities here today, and we’re all standing against the same thing, and its wonderful,” said one protester, named Eloise. Her boyfriend had just been arrested and she did not want to give her full name.

Despite a heavy police presence on Saturday, cordonning off the square and not allowing people freely in or out, events in London have been very peaceful, with only a handful of arrests made.

The protesters have made it clear that they are bedding down for the foreseeable future, and the police seem to have backed off for now. It remains to be seen what will happen when offices reopen on Monday.

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