Two weeks ago, the “Occupy London” protestors first set up camp outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, and it was apparent from the very beginning, as I noted the time, that the authorities were determined not to allow the movement to establish itself freely in the City of London.
First, Paternoster Square — the entry point to the London Stock Exchange, the original focus of the protestors’ indignation — was declared off-limits, and remains so to this day, as though it is some sort of forbidden territory in a war, and then the area around St. Paul’s, where hundreds of protestors gathered instead, was “contained” by the police — or, essentially, “kettled,” and the protestors bullied and physically intimidated — until Giles Fraser, the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, intervened, explaining, “People have a right to protest and I’m very happy that people have that right to protest. People have generally been respectful and I have asked the police to leave.”
With the support of Giles Fraser, the camp established itself, with a kitchen, information point, a media tent, a legal tent and a “tent university,” and with daily meetings to decide on the camp’s objectives, and sub-groups to discuss other issues in detail. I was busy during the week, but I went down last Sunday with my family, and was impressed at how it had developed into a base for an organised, but non-hierarchical response to the grave crisis we all face, as a result of 30 years of largely unregulated greed and opportunism by those involved in international finance. The “Occupy” protestors have confused those who are only able to comprehend a traditional party political model of organising dissent and challenges to the existing power structures (which also involve hierarchies and “charismatic” leaders), as they are primarily asking questions and seeking answers to them rather then being manifesto-driven, although a statement of intent was issued on October 16.
After visiting the St. Paul’s site, we also cycled to Finsbury Square, where an off-shoot of the original “Occupy” encampment was busy establishing itself, and where I spoke with one of the organisers about the movement’s strengths — the decision to permanently occupy common ground, rather than holding one-day protests, and the decision to be suspicious of hierarchies and leaders — and the main weakness of Western governments; namely, their inability to provide employment to educated young people, who have decided to take to the streets communally rather then to stay at home.
Unfortunately, although there was a vibrant atmosphere at both locations, it was clear at St. Paul’s that the position taken by Giles Fraser did not represent the position of everyone in St. Paul’s, or the Church of England as a whole. For the first time since the Second World War the cathedral was closed by the church authorities a week last Friday, on nebulous health and safety grounds that completely failed to disguise the real issues: a conflict between the left wing of the church, which Christ would obviously have recognised, and the right wing of the church, who, like right-wing Christians the world over, fail to realise — or refuse to recognise — that their interest in wealth and power is a betrayal of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
On Thursday, after the conflict evidently intensified, Giles Fraser resigned, announcing his decision on Twitter, saying, as the Guardian described it, that “he could not sanction the use of violence to rid the cathedral grounds of Occupy the London Stock Exchange campaigners.”
In an interview with the Guardian, he delivered a powerful analogy about Christ, saying, “St. Paul was a tentmaker. If you looked around and you tried to recreate where Jesus would be born — for me, I could imagine Jesus being born in the camp.” He also said that he thought Jesus “would be more extreme than him on the shape of modern capitalism,” and explained, “I mean, Jesus is very clear that the love of money is the root of all evil … Jesus wants to point us to a bigger picture of the world than simply shopping.”
In addition, although he was at pains to explain that he is not anti-capitalist, as such, he also stated:
The camp is a complex and interesting mixture of such a divergent range of views — united largely by what it’s against, which is a very legitimate anger about the way in which wealth has been distributed and the way in which capitalism is currently seen to benefit just a very few people. I think that is very legitimate anxiety. I think there’s an irony that we are having this conversation today, on the 25th anniversary of Big Bang, the deregulation of the Stock Exchange, liberalisation of the rules and regulations regulating the City.
He also reflected that it was “sad that the protesters came to occupy the Stock Exchange and ended closing down a cathedral,” although he conceded that the Church “could have done better to engage with the issues the protestors are raising,” explaining, “Money is the number one moral issue in the Bible and the way the Church of England goes on you would think it was sex. It’s easily the number one issue in the Bible … but how many sermons do you get about that? Very few.”
The comments about Christ in particular ought to have shamed the Church’s right-wingers, but to my mind the clergy opposed to the “Occupy” protestors have, like all those enslaved by their notions of wealth and class, lost touch with the teachings of Christ.
Explaining what happened behind the scenes, Giles Fraser said, “It is not about my sympathies or what I believe about the camp. I support the right to protest and in a perfect world we could have negotiated. But our legal advice was that this would have implied consent. The church cannot answer peaceful protest with violence.”
He added, as the Guardian put it, that it was “apparent” that the Corporation of the City of London was “clearer” than the Cathedral’s authorities about the “desire to see the protesters moved on,” but reiterated his resistance to any notion that the protestors should be removed en masse and against their will.
“I cannot countenance the idea that this would be about Dale Farm on the steps of St Paul’s,” he said. “I would want to have negotiated down the size of the camp and appeal to those there to help us keep the cathedral going, and if that meant that I was thereby granting them some legal right to stay then that is the position I would have had to wear.” He added, however, “I believe that we embarked upon a course of action that would lead to a place where I didn’t want to go.”
Undeterred by Giles Fraser’s principles, the Metropolitan Police acknowledged on Thursday that, although the land around the cathedral is within the City of London, the Met and the City of London police were working together to decide how to proceed. Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said the police were “in the last stages of assessing whether to clear the demonstrators under section 14 of the Public Order Act,” whereby they “can forcefully remove the protesters outside St Paul’s and those gathered in Finsbury Square if they believe the disruption to the public and the people working in the area is ‘serious.’”
“Serious” disruption, in this context, is obviously in the eye of the beholder, but as the police deliberations continue, with the Guardian today reporting that lawyers, acting on behalf of both the Corporation of the City of London and St. Paul’s, will “serve notice on activists camped out around St Paul’s Cathedral as early as Monday,” while the police finalise their plans to “forcibly remove them” if a case can be made that they are causing disruption, another clergyman at St. Paul’s, the Rev. Fraser Dyer, a chaplain, also resigned, stating that “he was ‘left feeling embarrassed’ by the decision of the dean and the Chapter.”
“I do not relish the prospect of having to defend the cathedral’s position in the face of the inevitable questions that visitors to St Paul’s will pose in the coming weeks and months, particularly if we are to see protesters forcibly removed by police at the dean and chapter’s behest,” he said.
As plans for the eviction proceed, they threaten to overshadow the significance of the first list of demands issued by the protestors, focusing specifically on the unaccountability of the Corporation of the City of London, effectively, as the Guardian explained on Friday, the “local authority which controls the UK’s financial centre.”
Over six days, 17 members of the camp put together the statement, which says that “democratic reform” of the Corporation of the City Of London is “urgently needed,” and describes City institutions as “unconstitutional and unfair.”
The statement also “calls for an end to the corporations’s own police force and judicial system which affords the square mile vast amounts of freedom to run its own affairs,” as the Guardian described it, or, in the protestors’ own words, “The risk-taking of the banks has made our lives precarious — they are accountable to no one but themselves, unduly influencing government policy across the centuries both at home and abroad. This is not democracy.”
The statement also calls for “an end to business and corporate block-votes in all council elections, which can be used to outvote local residents,” the “abolition of existing ‘secrecy practices’ within the City, and total and transparent reform of its institutions to end corporate tax evasion,” the “decommissioning of the City of London police with officers being brought under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan police force,” the “abolition of the offices of Lord Mayor of London, the Sheriffs and the Aldermen,” and the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to examine corruption within the City and its institutions.”
Labour peer Maurice Glasman welcomed the statement, saying, “Until today, the reclamation of the public space around St. Paul’s by protesters has been confused … It was better theatre than politics and that was frustrating because the backdrop, props and themes were superb.” He added, as the Guardian put it, that St. Paul’s Cross was “the site of the most ancient known democratic practice in the UK and it was the most appropriate spot to make a claim for the extension of citizenship.”
“By declaring that the point of their protest is the democratisation of London,” he explained, “the meaning of the occupation is transformed. It opens a prospect for civic renewal and the challenging of unaccountable power elites. The protesters have stumbled upon the source of financial power within the British state. This could get interesting.”
In addition, Nicholas Shaxson, the author of Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World, about the global epidemic of tax evasion, called the demands “incredibly powerful.” He said, “The City is something that has flown under the radar for so long, people have occasionally noticed the pomp and ceremony of the City but never really grasped what it is. This is a medieval commune dating back 1,000 years which represents the interest of international finance. If you go to the City they will say, ‘We’re just a poor little local authority with a few thousands souls — don’t worry about us.’ But their influence runs far and deep both in the UK and overseas and they have supporters all over the place.”
Bryn Phillips, one of the authors of the statement, told the Guardian he hoped it would be “the beginning of the restoration of our democracy.” That may be a grand hope, but the support of Maurice Glasman and Nicholas Shaxton indicates that they have hit an important target, and as Phillips added, “We refuse to be evicted without first landing a blow to the corporation.”
If eviction is to take place soon, I too hope fervently that we do not see Dale Farm on the steps of St. Paul’s, but I also hope that this first movement against the unacceptable power of the City — where the profit motive is no longer even vaguely connected to the common good — will not be permanently removed by those who either do not care, or who, like far too many of the senior clergy of St. Paul’s, have been seduced by those who do not care, and have chosen money and power over justice and the poor.
Note: The “Occupy London” camp has just produced the first edition of its newspaper, “The Occupied Times of London,” available here as a PDF.