Occupy London’s last protest camp may hinder bankers’ lunchtime burritos more than their bonuses.
The brightly colored tents and banners of the protesters in Finsbury Square are yards from a site the Borough of Islington is considering for weekday lunch stalls, according to a notice at the park. As the closure of a restaurant in the square open since the 1980s shows, protests against global economic inequality and food service don’t always mix.
“The very nature of protests is to do something somewhere that someone else doesn’t want you to,” said Patrick O’Brien, an analyst at Verdict Research, a unit of Datamonitor Plc. “Retailers essentially want streets to be clear of any obstruction, whether it be roadworks or protesters blocking entrances, or anything that detracts from the visibility.”
London demonstrators inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York have been living in tents, hand-built shacks and other makeshift structures on Finsbury Square since Oct. 22. Protests in the U.K. capital began at St. Paul’s Cathedral earlier that month and a group moved to the square after the cathedral’s dean, Graeme Knowles, appealed to them to move, citing safety concerns.
The protesters were evicted from St. Paul’s on Feb. 28 and at least one restaurant found its bookings jump back to pre-occupied levels. Sales were down 40 percent to 50 percent while the camp was at St. Paul’s, resulting in two or three staff members losing their jobs, said Pollie Hall, events manager at the Paternoster Chop House.
“This isn’t the corporate fat cats they were affecting, it was average working Joes,” said Hall, who said her customers were verbally abused by protesters and she was called a “devil-worshipping mason.” A wedding scheduled at the restaurant on the first day of the protest had to be moved.
“That was two young people getting married who had nothing to do with the finance industry, who had their big day almost ruined,” she said.
The Occupy London protesters outside St. Paul’s cost City of London police more than 911,000 pounds ($1.5 million) to monitor, according to the response to a Freedom of Information request. That doesn’t include the legal costs of the eviction, borne by the City of London Corp., or policing groups outside the financial district.
Wealth disparities helped fuel protests around the globe last year. The Occupy Movement began in September when demonstrators took up residence in New York’s Zuccotti Park to highlight the plight of average Americans who continued to suffer while banks recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. The New York protests, also criticized for hurting local businesses, spread to cities around the world. The Finsbury Square encampment is one of the last remaining.
Adam Beamish, an agent who submitted the application for a Finsbury Square food market on behalf of Freebird Burritos, said he didn’t know there was a camp at the park, which is adjacent to London’s financial district. The protesters were a matter for the council, he said in a phone interview.
“We support the right to peaceful protest, but this has to be balanced with the needs of our community,” said Charles Dean, a spokesman for Islington. “The campers are trespassing in Finsbury Square and have been asked to leave.”
There was no phone number for Freebird on its website or in its planning application. Bloomberg LP’s European headquarters are located on Finsbury Square.
The local authority, which has warned protesters they are trespassing, has spent about 10,000 pounds ($16,000) monitoring the Occupy camp. The money mainly paid for officers checking on the square, Islington said in a response to a freedom of information request.
Benny Gasparini, the owner of the now closed La Paquerette in the middle of Finsbury Square, said he didn’t know what would happen to the restaurant, which had its biggest crowds on warm summer evenings.
“It’s difficult for the time being,” Gasparini said in an interview. “I have to see how things go. As soon as I hear that they are leaving... I’m thinking of other ways to work it out.”
On a sunny afternoon last week, one Occupy London activist with blonde dreadlocks, who asked not to be identified, said that people’s fear of the protesters led La Paquerette to close. She said she would eat at any food stalls if they served organic, vegetarian meals.
The protesters have “no desire ever in these situations to stop businesses from doing what they’re doing,” Richard Maggs, a spokesman for the camp, said by telephone. “There’s always ways to work with people to come to mutual understandings.”
The protest movement will return to the streets for a demonstration on May 12, according to the group’s website. On March 30, some protesters moved to Leyton Marsh in east London to halt the construction of an Olympic basketball training facility, the group said in a statement.
O’Brien said that even peaceful protests involve some sort of confrontation, and shoppers tend to steer clear of the area.
“This was the case with the Occupy London protests in St. Paul’s, where retailers were, literally, caught in the middle between the protesters and banks,” O’Brien said.
Starbucks Corp., Marks & Spencer Group Plc and Blacks Leisure Group Plc, an insolvent outdoor-goods chain, all have branches adjacent to the St. Paul’s camp.
Finsbury Square is already crowded with dining options, with at least a dozen fast-food chains, restaurants and a bustling food market within a few blocks and some proprietors say the area doesn’t need another taco stand.
Green Burrito Truck
“We’ll get less people in winter because they won’t want to walk over here if there’s a market closer to the City,” said Sarah Maxwell, who serves burritos from a green truck on Whitecross Street with her picture painted on the side, a five to 10-minute walk from Finsbury Square. “We want this market to thrive.”
Not everyone thinks the protesters are bad for business. One St. Paul’s shop owner said that while overall sales are haven’t changed since the eviction, some beverages favored by the protesters are staying on the shelves.
“They only bought beer, nothing else,” said Mukesh Patel, who owns St. Paul’s Tobacco, a convenience store.