'Occupy' Movement Hits London, Draws Thousands
A crowd of a few thousand protesters angry at the handling of the financial crisis noisily gathered outside St. Paul's Cathedral in London on Saturday, less than 100 meters away from the London Stock Exchange.
Throngs moved through the area's narrow thoroughfares chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets! Whose money? Our money!" Others marched in the area of Paternoster Square, adjacent to the cathedral and the exchange.
The protests appeared to be free of violence, with a heavy police presence monitoring events closely.
"Occupy the London Stock Exchange" (OccupyLSX) protesters were advised by organizers in advance to bring food and water, tents and sleeping bags, in case they're planning on camping out.
Protesters, who chanted in English but spoke in a variety of languages among themselves, carried placards reading, "If voting could change anything, it would be illegal," and "Bankers got a bailout, we got sold-out," among myriad other slogans.
Julian Assange, the activist founder of WikiLeaks, appeared in support of the protesters and spoke briefly from the steps of the cathedral.
"This movement is not about the destruction of law," Assange said. "It is about the construction of law."
Police blocked off the avenue leading up toward St. Paul's, Ludgate Hill, to vehicle traffic. They closed nearby St. Paul's Underground station earlier in the afternoon.
Police occupied the area around the exchange Saturday morning, well before protesters arrived. Several City of London police vans, some filled with officers, sat parked at discrete distances on surrounding blocks around the exchange and St. Paul's before protests began.
A handful of mounted police officers stood ready near the Exchange in Paternoster Square as the sound of police helicopters thumped overhead.
London protesters encountered a major disadvantage compared with New York's Wall Street protesters, who have been able to base themselves at Zuccotti Park: The area immediately in front of the London Stock Exchange is actually private land, so they are legally forbidden from occupying it.
One protester managed to post a sign near Paternoster that replicated a typical London street sign and declared: "Tahrir Square, City of Westminster."
Tahrir Square refers to the location of protests, many of them violent, that took place in Cairo, Egypt, earlier this year. The uprising, part of the so-called Arab Spring, eventually resulted in the end of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year reign.
Similar protests were planned for Saturday in Madrid—where the "indignants" movement that inspired the Wall Street protests began—Paris, Buenos Aires and Caracas, among other cities.
The '99 Percent'
One of the movement's aims is to generate more coverage for what they call "the 99 percent"—people who are aggrieved with the way the credit crisis has been handledbut feel that policymakers are not listening to their complaints.
“Why are we paying for a crisis the banks caused?" asked Laura Taylor, a supporter of OccupyLSX.
"More than a million people have lost their jobs and tens of thousands of homes have been repossessed, while small businesses are struggling to survive. Yet bankers continue to make billions in profit and pay themselves enormous bonuses, even after we bailed them out with 850 billion pounds ($1.3 trillion—estimated cost of the British banking bailout according to the UK's National Audit Office)."
While the protests have the support of established protest groups such as anti-austerity activists UK Uncut, organizers say many of those expressing an interest so far are not seasoned protesters.
One of their aims is to increase mainstream media coverage of their views and raise awareness among policymakers.
Mediacoverage of the Wall Street protestshas multiplied rapidly, and President Barack Obama recently said that the protesters were expressing the views of the American public.
The protests occupied 7 percent of the US's collective news coverage in the first full week of October, up from 2 percent in the last week of September, according to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Much like the Occupy Wall Street protests, the OccupyLSX movement is reluctant to label leaders, preferring to refer to the people coordinating the event as "supporters." The organization started off via a Facebook page just over a week ago.
"I think this would have happened anyway but you can only do it through social networking in a week," said Naomi Colvin, a supporter of OccupyLSX.
The supporters CNBC.com have spoken to are eager to stress that the protests will be peaceful.
"It’s an absolutely peaceful process about creating a space for people to discuss these issues and think about alternatives in a policy area where they keep getting told alternatives don’t exist," Colvin said.
After the riots which shook parts of London over the summer, London's Metropolitan police have been vigilant about any signs of violence.