Just after 2:30 on Saturday afternoon, the 2,000-strong crowd on and around the steps of London's St. Paul's Cathedral began to buzz. Then they started to applaud. And then came the cheering. They had assembled to rebel against the global financial system and the ultimate rebel had just arrived in their midst: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Protesters cleared the way as he was ushered to the top of the steps and was handed a megaphone. Dressed in a leather jacket, his distinctive white hair glinting in the sunshine, Assange addressed the crowd. "This movement is not about the destruction of the law," he shouted. "It's about the construction of the law."
The movement Assange was championing was London's version of Occupy Wall Street. As part of the hundreds of protests planned around the world for Oct. 15, thousands of people had pledged via Facebook and other social-media sites to occupy the London Stock Exchange.
Though the crowd that arrived on Saturday morning was substantial, it never managed to occupy the exchange. Police barricades were ready and waiting, so as an alternative, the crowd settled for protesting outside nearby St. Paul's Cathedral. There, they echoed the protests taking place in New York City, replete with chants of "We are the 99%" and placards condemning the global banking system.
Of course, London has seen its share of protests over the years with a spike since the coalition government launched its deficit-cutting measures. Earlier this year, massive demonstrations against government cuts led to dozens of injuries and more than 200 arrests. And with memories still lingering of the mass riots that engulfed the city in August which were triggered by protests from neighbors and friends of a North London man who was shot and killed by police there was concern that this movement could tilt toward violence. Hundreds of officers, many armed with riot gear, were called in for the protest and riot vans lined the streets around the cathedral. One officer told TIME that he didn't think things would get violent, but "you just never know."
Even some of the protesters were wary. Mark Raven, a 26-year-old who works for a nonprofit, said early on in the day that though he hoped for a peaceful event, he suspected it wouldn't take much for things to get out of control. Harry, a student who declined to give his last name, said he believed that maintaining calm would depend on the officers' actions. "We want to have a peaceful protest," he said. Nodding toward the line of police bordering the street, he added, "They're thugs."
Yet throughout much of the day, all was calm as protesters stretched out on blankets, set up tents and huddled in small groups. Some painted signs, others read, and a game of soccer broke out on a stretch of road. While the police formed a tight circle around the area, preventing more protesters from joining the group, they seemed fairly relaxed. In fact, apart from the relatively brief Assange appearance, the crowd was liveliest around dusk, when a small group began playing samba music and protesters started dancing.
All of which was good news for Spyros Van Leemnen, a 27-year-old who works in p.r. and helped organize Occupy London. He said that keeping the protests peaceful was one of his top priorities. "We'd lose our argument," he said. "We want to make it clear that [violence] isn't what we want."
And though it wasn't immediately obvious what the protesters wanted as with Occupy Wall Street, everything from peace to socialism was being advocated it was clear that many were intent on staying. Makeshift bathrooms and kitchen areas were hastily constructed, and shopping lists were periodically tweeted out in the hopes that people would take supplies that would allow protesters to hold their ground. (Assange would not be one of them; he had to return to his residence in the British countryside, where he is currently under house arrest and is facing extradition to Sweden.)
Organizers maintained they would camp out for as long as it took to spur change, like a government pledge to increase regulations on banks one of the movement's primary demands. The first day of protests was relatively conflict-free (there were some seven arrests reported), but participants are sure to face increasing opposition the longer they occupy the area around the cathedral. However, the four-week-old Occupy Wall Street movement has also inspired a steely resolve. "It won't be easy," said an undaunted Van Leemnen. "[But] it's global. We're feeling for the first time that people have a common goal."