Over the past two weeks, the media has been filled with mostly negative commentary on Occupy London and the activists who have been camped outside St Paul’s cathedral. Such criticisms have included the claim that the protest has forced the forced closure of the cathedral and that the protesters do not sleep in their tents but return to the comforts of home. So yesterday I decided to head to the camp and experience Occupy London for myself. And I am certainly glad that I did.
But before I get into what I experienced at the camp yesterday, first I just want to make it clear that this is only the second protest that I have ever attended. My only other experience was not even in this country. The first time I was ever involved in a protest was when I joined thousands of Spaniards on the streets of Seville (protests were held across Spain) to protest against ETA who were then believed to be behind the Madrid bombings (of course it later emerged that the Spanish government misled their people and the true culprits were influenced by Al Qaeda – this deceit ultimately led to the government losing the subsequent election). There have been many other demonstrations that I have wanted to participate in, but for a variety of reasons I never have.
We arrived at the cathedral at around 1pm, making our way round from the north side towards the camp. I think the first thing that struck me was the number of tents that were there. Of course we knew there would be, but you don’t really appreciate the scale until you actually see them. However, despite the number of tents that were pitched near the cathedral it was hard to see exactly what the problem was in terms of access. All the tents are pitched together to the northwest of the cathedral, leaving a clear walkway on either side to access the cathedral or the nearby shops. As you can see from the Google map below (shaded blue area represents where the tents are located), access to the cathedral is not impeded by the tents and they do not present an obstruction for pedestrians as there is a clear pathway leading both around and in front of the cathedral. I cannot see how the cathedral could possibly be closed on health and safety grounds. There appears to be very little risk at all. Of course, there are more people at the front of the cathedral than usual but if that provided grounds for closure then St Paul’s would have to close whenever a couple of coach loads of tourists arrived.
Also along the north-side of the cathedral a fence had been erected by the church to ensure that the cathedral met its fire safety obligations, ensuring there was a safe escape route in the event of a fire. To make the fence more interesting, notices have been placed by protesters related to a number of different causes from saving libraries (which was good to see of course) to the NHS to democratising the City of London Corporation. It certainly demonstrated the range of views of those engaged in the camp and it certainly appeared that this was not just a simple ‘anti-capitalist’ protest (as it has often been characterised). Most of the messages seemed to be about making the system fairer, not abolishing the system altogether. Something that seems entirely reasonable – after all, there is clearly a flaw in the system as the banking crisis has demonstrated.
The camp itself seemed amazingly well organised. Ironically, the Occupy London camp may be the best example of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ in action. One wonders why he is so eager to see it removed when it appears to be a perfect example of what can be achieved without the support of the state or undemocratic corporations. Perhaps it demonstrates how incomprehensible his scheme actually is when he even condemns the things that he appears to be encouraging. But then consistency doesn’t appear to sit well with our current Prime Minister.
Amongst the tents pitched alongside the cathedral, there are tents providing a number of different functions. There is a tent providing food and drink (no queue for Starbucks was visible), an information tent, the ‘Tent City University’ (where various talks and lectures take place throughout the day) and, I was pleased to see, even a camp library (wittily named ‘Star Books’). We managed to pop over and see the camp library and whilst it certainly wasn’t a comprehensive library service (a concept our own government do not even seem to understand), it was good to see some enthusiastic supporters of public libraries running the service. Impressively, the camp had also set up a wifi connection that was open to use across the site. Overall it appeared to be very well organised.
The reason everything seemed to be so well organised was perhaps due to the regular discussions amongst ‘working groups’ and their feedback to the rest of the camp. Not long after we arrived at the camp, representatives from each of the ‘working groups’ (responsible for dealing with a number of aspects of the camp from food to tech) fed back to the crowd at the front of the cathedral, highlighting problems that needed resolving and general issues that had been raised by those at the camp. I have to say the build-up to the talks, explaining how the group could respond to the feedback sessions using a variety of representative hand signals, left me a little cold. But, to be fair, I am not staying on the camp and they have been there for two weeks so presumably the method they now employ has been the most effective way of organising the camp. And given how well organised it appears, this certainly seems to be the case.
One of the accusations laid at the door of the protest is that it is an inconvenience and intimidating for the general public. This argument was completely undermined during one memorable event during the proceedings. A little while into the feedback sessions from the ‘working groups’ a wedding party emerged onto the steps in front of the cathedral. The speaker behind the microphone broke into his feedback and wished the couple his congratulations to the newlyweds. Upon doing so the whole crowd turned to the young couple and gave them the biggest round of applause of the day. The couple and their guests greeted the applause with waves and smiles. Considering the stress they must have been under leading up to their big day (especially considering the closure), it was quite amazing to see that they appeared to hold no grudge against the protesters and even appeared to be supportive of the camp.
Later in the afternoon a series of speakers representing a range of denominations (as well as agnostics and atheists) spoke in support of the camp from their own particular religious perspectives. Whilst I agreed with much of what each speaker had to say, being a committed atheist I found it a little difficult to engage fully in their arguments (flawed as they are from my perspective). Indeed, during a couple of the speeches, a couple of anarchists walked amongst the crowd proclaiming ‘no gods, no masters’ (again demonstrating the range of people engaged in the camp).
Amongst the speeches and hymns, a number of speeches stood out. Whilst there were some that tried to engage the crowd in prayers and hymns, others went for rousing speeches making parallels between the actions of the church, the City of London Corporation and the camp with events related in the New Testament. However, perhaps the most intriguing speaker on the day was a veteran from the Iraq war speaking in support of the protest. I thought that getting a veteran to speak at the event was important on a number of levels, not least because the protest has been painted as a rabble of middle-class do-gooders. It was good to hear someone who has fought for their country express why such demonstrations are an important part of a democracy and are a representation of what we are supposedly sending our troops abroad to defend and/or encourage (if you believe the politicians of course).
Overall, I was glad to have gone along to see for myself what the protest was all about and the extent to which it is obstructing the general public (it isn’t). Whilst I found it difficult to engage with some of the speakers on that day (I understand political commentators and leaders have spoken there on other days), it was quite an inspiring day. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming with everyone encouraged to participate and engage in the occupation. There was also a great deal of affection and support for Giles Fraser who has been particularly supportive of the right to protest outside the cathedral. His name was greeted with spontaneous applause when it was mentioned and rightly so. It is a shame that others in the church felt they could not stand behind Fraser in support for this camp is exactly the sort of demonstration you would hope that the church would support. Peaceful, democratic, welcoming and egalitarian. A sign projected onto the cathedral at the end of the evening proclaimed that the camp was there to stay. I see no reason why it shouldn’t.