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London economic protest draws thousands

Ahead of a G-20 summit in London this week, protesters called for sustainable development, help for the poor and punishment for those responsible for the economic crisis. More protests are planned.

March 29, 2009|Henry Chu and Janet Stobart

LONDON — Thousands of people marched through London on Saturday to demand punishment for bankers, power to the poor and protection of the environment at a protest meant as a wake-up call to world leaders gathering here this week for an economic summit.

It was one of the largest demonstrations this city has seen since massive rallies six years ago against the invasion of Iraq. The turnout, estimated at 35,000, reflected the depth of popular anger over Britain's economic crash and the perceived greed of bankers and other high-fliers whom many people blame for it.

Beneath a sea of banners, marchers representing trade unions, charities, environmental groups and churches snaked through the streets to converge on Hyde Park. Placards called for "People Before Profits" and "Jobs, Not Bombs," in a nation suffering its worst unemployment in more than a decade.

"It's people that make changes, not governments," said Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite, one of Britain's largest unions. "There should be more investment in public services and housing, not less, [and] greater help to get people back into work."

The leaders of the Group of 20 nations, representing the world's largest developed and emerging economies, will meet here Thursday to discuss ways to pull the global economy out of its hole. The G-20 meeting will be the first major summit for President Obama, who is hugely popular in Europe but is having trouble reaching an agreement with European leaders on how best to combat the global recession.

In Berlin, raucous protests drew thousands of demonstrators Saturday, and hundreds congregated in Paris. About 6,000 students, union members and others marched in Rome to protest a meeting of the Group of 8 industrial nations' labor ministers there. The London demonstration attracted participants from across Europe, such as 11.11.11, an umbrella organization of Belgian volunteer groups.

"We want governments to give a voice to poorer countries," said Benedikt Raets, who runs the organization's website. "The poorest countries are paying the highest price."

Saturday's protest here offered a foretaste of demonstrations planned for this week -- and of the security nightmare they present for London police. Several activist organizations have scheduled events Wednesday, when many of the G-20 leaders are set to arrive, and some underground anarchist groups have threatened to storm buildings in the financial district.

All leave has been canceled for police officers in order to mount a full-scale security operation that could cost more than $10 million. Anti-terrorist and intelligence agencies are also on high alert.

But critics accuse the police of overstating the threat of violence to justify heavy-handed tactics. Last week, influential members of Parliament expressed concern that the police have bullied and harassed peaceful demonstrators, including filming them and invoking anti-terrorism laws against them.

"I'm worried about the spectacular smear stories that the police are putting out in advance of the day," said Peter McDonald, an activist with the environmental organization Climate Camp. Previously, "there have been similar tactics used to get everyone a little hysterical in the run-up, and they've never come true in practice," he said.

McDonald agreed that both the global economy and the global climate are in urgent need of attention, but he said that the recovery of one should not worsen the other.

"Telling people to consume more to get the economy back on track, in an age of climate change, is frankly obscene," he said. "There's a very widespread sense that things can't go on the way they were before. There's an opportunity for something new to emerge from this." The group is planning to hold its annual camp Wednesday in the city center, with the slogan "Nature doesn't do bailouts!"

Many activists agree that the crisis offers perhaps the best chance in years to get across their pleas for greater social justice and environmental vigilance, brushed aside in the rush to buy stocks and SUVs during the boom times.

"All the cards are in our favor now. The true nature of the economic system is revealed; the true quality of political leadership is revealed," said Mark Barrett of G-20 Meltdown, a left-wing group that embraces noisy street theater to spread its gospel of decentralization and anti-capitalism.

It is organizing a "Financial Fools' Day" protest Wednesday outside the Bank of England, and has called on members to descend on the summit venue and knock on visiting leaders' and officials' hotel-room doors in the middle of the night to disrupt their sleep.

"We have a chance to get some really great ideas into the public realm," Barrett said. "And it's mainly, completely, because of the financial crisis."

That openness was sorely tested last week, however, when one G-20 Meltdown leader, Chris Knight, an anthropology professor at the University of East London, told a radio show that bankers could wind up "hanging from lampposts" and "things could get nasty" if change did not come to Britain. The university has suspended him pending an investigation.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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