When I got there the signs were already up: ‘Paternoster Square is private land. Any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith. There is no implied or express permission to enter any premises or any part. Any such entry will constitute a trespass.’ Bundles of legal papers were duct-taped to the archways leading into the square. Police stood about, watching. A few tourists drifted in and out. Photographers stood by, crash helmets dangling from their waists.
The plan had been to congregate next door, in front of St Paul’s, before moving on to Paternoster Square to set up camp. ‘If we can take Paternoster, we will,’ the website said, ‘otherwise, rest assured there are contingency plans in place. We will Occupy London!’ I walked towards St Paul’s, where people had begun to gather on the steps of the Cathedral. ‘Crisis stems from rule of Capitalists,’ one of the signs said. Another: ‘Emulate the Cuban Revolution.’ Someone asked me if I wanted to buy the Militant or a book of speeches by Che Guevara. ‘We are the 99 per cent,’ people shouted.
An old man selling whistles moved professionally through the crowd, working the mass as though he were at a football game or concert. A wild-haired man next to me was explaining that ‘distrust is one of the weapons being used against us to make us not trust each other.’ He said his name was Ian the Interdimensional Wizard.
After a while a makeshift soundsystem was rigged up, and everyone crowded round as an open mic session was declared. ‘The richest 1 per cent own 70 per cent of all the land in Britain,’ Peter Tatchell said. ‘Twenty families own land the size of Kent, Bedfordshire and Essex combined.’ Midway through his speech, half the crowd surged away towards Paternoster Square. They didn’t get very far: lines of police moved in and began to form a kettle. People ran through the gaps between them. I got out and walked back round the block to St Paul’s.
Everybody settled down and the concept of the human microphone was explained. Calls of ‘mic check’ echoed across St Paul’s Churchyard as sonic Mexican waves. Suddenly a great cry went up. ‘Something is happening at the back but I can’t see what’, the human microphone said. We thought people had charged the police lines (by now we were being kettled again), but a mass of people surged towards us, cameras flashing. Julian Assange had arrived, accompanied by security guards and hangers-on.
‘Sit down, sit down,’ we chanted, and everybody did. The TV crews and photographers surrounding Assange were admonished by the crowd. They sat down too. ‘Like all of you, I have had difficulty,’ Assange said. But I didn’t hear what he had had difficulty doing. It felt a bit like the Sermon on the Mount scene from The Life of Brian.
‘I have always wanted to say, we are all individuals.’ A thousand people repeated his words (more shades of The Life of Brian). Mass cheering.
What is happening here today is a culmination of dreams that many people all over the world have worked hard for… This moment is not about the destruction of law, it is about the construction of law.
When Assange finished speaking, sweets were thrown into the crowd. ‘Whose sweets? Our sweets!’ everyone shouted.
Leaving wasn’t easy. I joined a line of tourists and journalists queuing to escape the kettle, but the police wouldn’t believe I was either (no press card, no ‘I love London’ T-shirt) and bundled me back in. Eventually I found a policewoman I’d chatted with earlier. When Assange came back, providing a diversion, she let me through the lines. At home, I followed on Twitter as police and protesters clashed on the cathedral steps.
By early on Sunday morning a hundred or so tents had sprung near the stock exchange, along with portaloos, a field kitchen serving donated food, a first-aid area and a media centre. Giles Fraser, the canon chancellor of St Paul’s, had said that the occupiers should be allowed to stay, and that the police should back off. The mood was much calmer, and there were far fewer police about. A few TV film crews picked their way through the tents to interview people, and every so often the human microphone performed a mic check. A general assembly was announced for midday, and I was told that a list of demands would soon be made available.