London protests - a new way?

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AH

At 11.30am in Paternoster Square today there were more photographers, cameramen and journalists than protestors. By some margin. But half-an-hour later the mix had reversed, substantially. Many protestors weren't typical hardcore die-hards. Some were there because they said they were tired of what they felt was a bust system, and wanted to express it.




Broken?

Like Steve Kol (pictured) an engineer, 61, originally from Poland, an émigré from the Gdansk Solidarity movement. Kol is retired and says he hasn't been affected by the banking crisis. He fears the only way that Western governments will cope now is by re-introducing inflation, hoping the debts get shrunk away.

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"I'm looking at the young people here and I wonder what future they have then. I dreamed of democracy when I was in Poland. But the Western system is broken. It's a giant Ponzi scheme, supported by bankers and governments."

Rosa Weber, 28, a communications manager for a Latin American Music organisation stood in a growing crowd a few feet away from Kol. She thought more people could show there unhappiness with bankers in general by moving their cash away from institutions that pay huge bonuses.

"'We own the banks. Look at banks like ING, in Holland. It works there. Power and wealth need to be redistributed. We need much more accountability and we need an alternative." She says investing in smaller community banks or credit unions through organisations like Move Your Money is one way to vote with your feet.

Uni costs

Meanwhile a short distance from Weber stood Steven, a 61 year old public sector worker from Belfast. On a holiday to London he appeared sympathetic to the protestors. "I still have a job. But there is a lot of outsourcing now, and money seems to be the only driver, not quality." He worries about the future for this family. "I have a niece who is going to university. But she's saying 'Why bother now?' Is my life going to be waitressing or hairdressing?'"

He's thinking ahead, and of the effects of long-term unemployment on the young. He recalls the Irish troubles, and how extreme groups latched onto the disaffected. "They will take advantage". Meanwhile his wife, in her fifties, has seen her private pension hammered by the downturn, which Steve blames squarely on banker greed. "If Cameron is not careful, he will have a Middle England revolt."

An iPhone protest

However, today there was little sign of a Middle England revolt today. The numbers were modest. Perhaps 2,000, even 3,000. Many were young with expensive iPhones. Left-leaning. Middle class, it seemed. Plenty of woolly jumpers. The anger was genuine and heartfelt. And good humoured, mostly.

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Some protestors had dressed up as bankers. There was the occasional real banker in dress-down khaki: pink shirt, designer jeans, clutching a rolled-up copy of the Financial Times. What do you think of the protestors? "I don't know anything about them," he said, striding through the crowd. Do you know they're here today?" "Nope". Are you interested in what they're doing? No answer.

Mood change

But by 2pm, the mood seem to have shifted slightly. Especially when the police attempted to 'kettle' some protestors close to St Paul's tube station, north east of Paternoster Square. The official line from the Met is that there is "appropriate policing".

No specific mention of 'kettling' from the Met police office, so giving them the option. Which they took, locking some innocent bystanders in. It was ugly, at points, with several scuffles. I got caught briefly but pushed through when a policeman was distracted.

Watching the protestors from a distance was US student Megan Majeski, 27, from Florida (pictured below). She was there to support friends who had supported similar protests on Wall Street. "I don't think the bankers have the right to be bailed out when many are struggling for food."

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She says that near where she lives in Florida, around one three homes have been foreclosed on. "Instead of restructuring the mortgage payments, the banks are just kicking the people out. Some banks won't even accept people falling slightly behind," she says.

Close to Megan stood Jim, who works in education (though he was unwilling to give more details). He stood a little distance from a crowd back. The problem is, he said thoughtfully, increasing numbers of people "are working for money. Instead of money working for you. Money should help society function." He fears for his pension and his future.

"Robbery!"

Around him, placards swayed: "This is not a recession, it's ROBBERY". "Governments must ensure fairness, not banks". "Jesus threw out the money lenders for a reason". "We are the 99%" "Corporations get rich, taxpayers get robbed".

By the time I left, a police cordon appeared to have sealed off much of the area around St Paul's Cathedral, trapping many protestors in. Oddly, there seemed to be little driving focus to the protest: the sun shone, there was obvious scuffles and police tension. But little leadership. What was going to happen after a lot of noise made? For how long is the area occupied for? What is the strategy?

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Julian Assange was meanwhile rumoured to be about (later confirmed, speaking from the steps of St Paul's Cathedral). Perhaps that gave the crowd a sense of momentum or narrative.

The Met claimed two arrests had been made for assaults on police officers. Away from London, protests have today spread as far as Hong Kong, Madrid and Sydney. These protests are clearly well-meaning and, thanks to technology, effective in places. But there was not tens of thousands of people present in London today, nor a real cross-section of the community.

Few consequences?

Which is odd. Since the recession, corporation tax continues to be cut, no banker has ended up in prison, huge public sector cuts have been rolled out (though the impact is still yet to be felt in many places) and average pay for many company directors continues to climb.

Update, 16.30: The cordon around St Paul's has been relaxed and light traffic through Newgate Street resumed. The mood, of course, could change when the light starts to fade.

AH

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