Occupational therapy

Finbarr Bermingham reports from the Occupy London Stock Exchange demonstration and finds out how these protestors want to cure society. Photos by Mark Bristow

Mondays are always busy on the square outside St Paul's. This morning, though, the single files of besuited workers milling between buildings have gone, replaced by an altogether different sort of commotion. The ground is littered with colourful, ramshackle rows of tents, pitched on the concrete, anchored in place by rolls of industrial tape. The regal statues, vestiges of centuries of British imperialism and durability, have been refurbished with placards, slogans and bunting. Some present have chosen to remain anonymous, their identities shielded by the Guy Fawkes masks popularised by the Alan Moore comic book series and movie, V for Vendetta.

There couldn't be a more appropriate symbol of Occupy London Stock Exchange (OLSX) than this film: for this protest is a vendetta in action, against what protestors perceive to be mismanagement on a national level. The blue touch paper lit on Wall Street has sparked occupations in cities across the world. The global economy is, seemingly, on the brink of imploding, there's widespread youth dissatisfaction: right now we're living in the most socially agitated times that many of us have seen in our lives and people are expressing their opinions with their feet. Most of the protestors who've headed to the heart of the City seem happy to air their grievances and explain why they're here, but the lack of a uniform manifesto has caused confusion and drawn criticism from observers.

The issues at hand have caused debate on both sides of the Atlantic. In New York, where a list of proposed demands appeared relatively early, many in favour of the movement oppose setting too many parameters, claiming that ambiguity is and will be the main foundation of its success. While the protestors in  London have drawn up a loose set of objectives, their demands have not been crystallised (although banners call for action on everything from religion, to tax law, to lower carbon emissions, to the NHS, to bank regulation). Onlookers have argued that without a clear roadmap, the movement will fizzle out. For the moment, though, those gathered seem content to wage their own personal wars, united on one overarching theme: to strive for change at the heart of society.

Tristan is a biologist at Imperial College, London. He's been sat outside his tent all day: pensive, calm and welcoming. "I'll be here until the government starts taking notice," he says. "I'm here to protest against how the financial crisis is being dealt with, although this isn't just a financial crisis; it's now an economic and social crisis. There's a feeling that politicians have stopped representing the people. They are subject to the financial system alone, and markets dictate what happens in the country. The government has made cuts in every part of society in order to preserve their AAA rating, while the financial sector has remained unscathed. That's not how it should be."

A young Welsh couple have also been at St Paul's since the outset, and expect to remain there for the foreseeable future. But aren't their parents worried about where they are? "My mum's very excited and proud," says the woman. "She's never seen anything like this in her lifetime." The couple say society is broken. They point to the lack of opportunities for young people, such as themselves, and voice their frustration over the blurred line between companies and government. "We're not protesting against individual bankers going to work and earning a living," the woman continues, "we're angry with the system that allows them to gamble with money that's not theirs and take home extravagant bonuses which, in some cases, have come from taxpayers' money." The pair don't have a solution. "That's what we're here for," offers the man, "to thrash out ideas and try to move in a new direction. This is not about left or right: all the political systems have failed us. This is about a new start."

Whereas protests in other parts of the world have been marred by ugly scenes, London's is, so far, calm and mild-mannered. Reports which filter through later in the day of a Daily Mail journalist being harangued off site seem detached from the morning's peaceful atmosphere. Sati, an Italian au pair working in London, describes it as "beautiful". She, too, has been here for most of the weekend, but much of her time was spent worrying about friends in Rome, where the worst violence seen in the city in years marred protests over austerity and banking practice held there. Sati says she has "come here to share", and expresses a desire for a new system of governance, "away from capitalism and socialism". She explains: "People need to change their own lives; society can't change unless we all change. It can be as little as turning off a light, or growing a garden. People need to share more, and that's what is beautiful about this. People are sharing."

A poll conducted by The Guardian this week revealed overwhelming support for the movement, despite its current nebulous state. Support, too, has come from a surprisingly wide range of media sources and public figures, including the Financial Times, Richard Littlejohn and  Reverend Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul's, who said he was happy for people to "exercise their right to protest peacefully" outside the cathedral. Speaking in London last week, though, the noted linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky suggested that Occupy Wall Street's early demands, including the dissolving the Federal Reserve, were "unrealistic". While advocating action and commending the protestors for taking a stand, he used the Arab Spring and the American workers' and civil rights movements of the 1930s and 1970s to point out the need for patience. These revolutions built up over many years of assiduous planning. People, he said, should be willing to endure, and should devise goals which are achievable in the long-term, through the accomplishment of incremental, short-term objectives.

OLSX should heed Professor Chomsky. There is a perception that society is, to an extent broken, which the government cannot ignore forever. Growing inequality is spawning disillusionment and change is needed, but clarity, realistic and rational goals and unity are essential to accomplish change. As we leave, some people are in the process of nailing together a wooden structure: a symbol of permanence, of digging in your heels. People here have had enough, and that they aren't planning on being quiet any time soon.