London Protesters Camping, but What Are They Saying?


It’s getting colder in London. We had a lingering summer, but that is over. Not such a great time to be on the streets for any longer than you have to. The central heating goes on and the thick duvet is very welcome.

A London demonstrator vents anger at bankers while standing near St. Paul's Cathedral. "Occupy" protestors, as they're known in the United States and United Kingdom, concern themselves primarily with what they see as the domination of society by interests within financial institutions and corporations.
Photo: Ted Kemp for CNBC.com

Pity then, the anti-capitalist protesterscurrently camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral. For them, its thin canvas, extra thick jackets and concrete bedding. Ouch.

There are maybe two or three hundred of them, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. The campers in New York have been doing their thing for more than a month now, but the London version is still relatively new.

They look fairly settled in though. They have a media and legal tent, a food tent (shared cooking and cleaning by the look of it) and a first aid tent.

They are going to a lot of trouble to make a statement. The trouble is that, to the casual observer, it’s quite hard to know what that statement is. They are against capitalism. There is a big banner hanging out the front of the tent town, right where the tourists normally stand to take their photos of the Cathedral, that says, "Capitalism is Crisis." But obviously that sentiment has its limits. After all, none of the tents were homemade, as far as I could tell, and I saw a few IKEA bags [the multinational furniture juggernaut] flapping about in the breeze. Another banner, which clearly is homemade, says, "Grow the Real Economy." That means, according to the words emblazoned there, an economy drawn around, time, experience, wisdom and energy.

It’s all a bit vague.

At CNBC, we’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, and we spent a day reporting on the protests in London too. And even during that process, it was hard to get a firm idea of what the Occupiers were after. One of them even told us he wasn’t sure why he was there, but that was OK, because he didn’t have anything else to do. They compare themselves to the Arab Spring. But in the countries caught up in that wave of revolution, there was a very definite aim—to overthrow aging dictatorships and introduce democracy. Here in London, if I can put words in their mouths a bit, it is more about wagging fingers at greedy bankers and the spineless regulators who bailed them out.

Well, good for them. They share that urge with plenty of institutional investors, disgusted shareholders and a large number of other humans, with or without money.

Even without a clear message, you could still probably get that general idea across. And they are having some success. They are right next door to Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is based—and which is all private land. So the Square is now extremely difficult to access, thanks to security and policing on every corner and at every entrance. Hence the protesters' success, because the cafes and bars in the Square, which, reports have it, use money as a means of exchange and are therefore capitalists, are suffering rather a lot. A phalanx of slightly desperate signs bears pleas like, "WE ARE STILL OPEN," but let’s face it, who can be bothered with the twenty questions from the security guards required to prove you are capitalist enough to get through the barricades.

“Yes sir, that is a copy of the Telegraph under my arm and if you’ll just hold my bowler hat for me, I’ll get out my photo of my Chelsea tractor.”

So not only are they stopping a tiny slice of capitalism in its tracks, they are being noticed by many dozens of people who might otherwise take their lunch near the LSE.

You do have to feel a little sorry for them. They have chosen the tail end of one of the busiest years in the news business for quite some time. Who has the time to pay them attention between the horrors of the Thai floods, recent developments out of Libya, escalating Greek violence and the see-sawing of news from European officials about what they might or might not do in order to tackle the debt crisis.

If that goes badly, we might all be needing our tents.