Alex Anderson and Sam Spokony
Occupy London Stock Exchange demonstrators have refused to move from their much-publicised camp outside the capital's famous St. Paul’s Cathedral after its boss who at first supported the protest has now asked them to leave.
“I hope that the protestors will understand the issues we are facing, recognise that their voice has been legitimately heard, and withdraw peacefully,” the statement read.
In a general assembly of more than 300 people present, held soon after the statement was released, the occupiers responded by declaring that they would not leave. The movement, which seeks to end the injustices of powerful global financial institutions, has held fast in a makeshift tent village outside St. Paul’s since October 15.
“We stay, we stay, we stay and we stay,” a protestor announced, amidst deafening cheers from the hundreds of people seated around him.
The reverend’s announcement had come as a shock, since his outspoken support for the occupation had allowed it to remain in the church square throughout the previous week.
Demonstrators do not believe there is any substance to claims of safety problems.
“We’ve contacted both the fire brigade and the City of London Health and Safety Board, and they told us they haven’t issued any warnings to the church,” said Mike Jhon, an Occupy London media representative.
Along with affirming the continuation of Occupy London – which has drawn inspiration and support from Occupy Wall Street in New York – the general assembly noted that contingency plans would be discussed in smaller groups in case the encampment was forcibly removed.
Police relayed their own statement later on Friday evening in response to the protestors’ unwillingness to comply with the church’s request. Officials stated that since St. Paul’s had withdrawn its support for the occupation, police would remove people from the church square if asked.
According to a spokesman for the occupation’s legal team, police would need a court order to remove protestors, since it was a civil offence – and not criminal – to remain on private property in front of the cathedral.
In response to the announcement by Reverend Knowles, Sally Hitchiner, a priest, joined Friday’s general assembly by publicly saying the Lord’s Prayer. Although most protestors did not join in the prayer, Hitchiner said she had felt compelled to come and offer her support.
She said: “It’s terribly sad that this is happening today. I [came because I] wanted to be with the people. That’s what’s being Christian is about.”
Since its establishment, Occupy London Stock Exchange (OccupyLSX - see its live stream video on this website) has amassed considerable resources and public support. Nearly 250 tents now fill the square outside St. Paul’s, including centres for media, information, finance, law and first-aid – as well as a fully-staffed kitchen.
Phil, a volunteer who had just finished helping in the kitchen, told The-Latest, which supports the protest: “We’re getting support from corners that are surprising me. We tweet out for things and they arrive within 20 minutes. We’re getting more food than we can eat. It’s been amazing.”
Another protestor said that as of Wednesday the camp had received more than £1,000 in cash donations.
The influences of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations on the movement at St. Paul’s have been apparent throughout the week. Protestors have adopted the use of small working groups to discuss both immediate needs – like food, water and shelter – and future decisions, which are then voted on at a general assembly of all those present.
After initial tensions and several arrests on the first evening, police have maintained a small but visible presence at the camp. Officers have also surrounded and shut down Paternoster Square, which was the protestors’ original target for the demonstration.
The protestors remain unfazed by Reverend Knowles’ withdrawal of support. Occupy London seems set for the long haul.
“I think on Saturday everybody thought it was going to be a one-day, flash in the pan protest,” said protestor Justin MacDonald. “A lot of people expected us to fail.
“But now they see that we’re still here, we’re still talking, and we’re still making our demands. So people are more confident about coming back, because they know we’re still going to be here.”
The number of protesters camped around the cathedral has steadily grown since the camp was first set up outside the main entrance last weekend.
OccupyLSX estimated that hundreds of other protesters would swell the camp for a series of talks and demonstrations, taking the number of protesters outside the cathedral up to 2,000. Three generators are providing power to the camp, there are two portable toilets, a kitchen and a library.
The protesters have started a second camp at Finsbury Square in London's business district, where about 30 tents have been put up.
* Photography: Sam Spokony