On Thursday 17th November, a group of 30 intrepid explorers from Occupy LSX left from St Paul’s to walk and play in the City of London in order to investigate the increasingly blurred boundaries between public and private space, and with the aims of creating and reclaiming public space. The City of London is predominantly used as a space of financial accumulation for the elite, however, we reckoned, using the City in different ways would displace and disrupt this primary (dis)function. This action was in direct response to the increasing privatization of the City that has been highlighted by the Occupy LSX protest – the closure of Paternoster Square, the eviction attempts from our camp at St Paul’s, injunctions at Canary Wharf and Broadgate, and rings of steel around the Corporation of London headquarters. This privatization of vast swathes of the City makes it out of bounds to ordinary people and protest, which greatly undermines the state of our democracy. Thus, we set out to reclaim these spaces for public use and reassert our right to the city.
Our first stop was the City of London Corporation headquarters where we intended to picnic in the ‘public’ Guildhall Square. A couple of days before, Occupy LSX protesters had been kettled in this space for protesting against inequality as the Lord Mayor banqueted with his friends including David Cameron. Access to the square was blocked by large metal fences and so we sat outside of the fences to eat and talk. We had made cupcakes on which we iced ‘Defend the Right to Protest’ – a rather ingenious form of protest which meant that if the police came in to kettle us, the offending protesting cupcakes could be quickly gobbled up – returning the space back to its dissent free sterility. Our presence outside of the gates was apparently not acceptable – we were warned that a van needed to enter the square and we were blocking its path. However, a security guard promised us that we could enter the square from an entrance around the corner. When we arrived at this entrance a couple of people were welcomed through, until another security guard took a disliking to our large group.
Security guard: You can’t come through.
Us: Why not?
Security guard: Because I own it.
Us: Do you? Who are you?
Security guard: Who are you? Who’s leading this?
Us: We’re an autonomous walking group
Security guard: Fuck off…I’m not letting you in because I don’t like you
Trying not to feel disheartened at this blatant discrimination, we visited our next stop – the Lloyds insurance building, also known as the inside-out building because of its striking architecture. Here we found an open space between the Lloyds building and the Willis building, which had shiny black marble seats and people in suits passing through. Here, our large group proceeded to ceilidh beneath the towering steel structure that is the Lloyds building, lead by Vic our ceilidh leader (the only type of leader we want in our movement) and Dan Dan accordion man. At one moment it looked touch and go as a young security guard from Willis came out to speak to Vic, but it was only to request that she step down from the black marble bench. We were allowed to ceilidh away with workers watching enviously from the windows as we spun wildly about. Successfully reclaimed public space I think we can conclude, although if we’d had the energy to continue dancing for a bit longer, perhaps there would have been some issues. Fortunately we were all too unfit to manage more than one dance.
The rather fancy looking RBS on Bishopsgate was our next stop as we wanted to find out whether the 84% public ownership of the bank translated into public space – owning such a large proportion of the bank surely entitles us to access the space and decide what we want to do with it. But RBS were clearly prepared for groups looking to use the space in a more productive way than investing in tar sands, and had three security guards standing outside preventing the public from using this publicly owned bank. Perhaps we could find an inviting space further along in Bishops Square. However, here we found on the post stating ‘Bishops Square’ a plastic folder inside of which were court documents banning protest here. Badminton and Twister however are acceptable – and arguably just as political as a protest (or a form of protest in themselves), for we were showing that this square has more uses than a space in which you cross from one shop to another, but can be a place were people gather, play, interact, and engage with one another.
Exploring the City in a collective and subversive way was loads of fun – ‘the most concentrated amount of fun there has ever been in the City’ as a fellow walker told me. There was a real sense of freedom in what we were doing – walking together, and doing things that may be considered a little odd. Usually the City can feel quite an oppressive place, but it was transformed by our presence and our actions. Whilst we certainly covered a lot of ground there is more of the City of London to be explored and played in, to be reclaimed for public use. After our grand tour, maybe capitalism will chug along for another day, but perhaps at Lloyds insurance tomorrow there will be an empty desk as a worker finally pursues their dream of being a Scottish dancer.