Being up in London and right next to St Paul’s, the tempation was too great to resist. After lunch, and before the court got going again properly, i hied me over to St Paul’s to take a look at the tent town that has sprung up in the shadow of the cathedral.
It is humbly impressive – in a way that neither Cathedral, nor Old Bailey nor any of the other monster buildings around the place are. First reactions: oh – its just a bunch of scruffy anarchists and left-over hippies. But stop and look. Really look. And listen. And something more starts to come over.
The camp itself was set up on saturday night after the London end of global protest against the banking system washed up on the shores of St Pauls. Magically – the magic of facebook, i suggest – many of those present had tents and a camp was established.
The first night was intense (no pun intended…though i’ll gladly claim it!): the police cleared protesters who had occupied the steps of the main entrance to the cathedral. According to individuals present at the time this was done “out of concern they might graffitti the columns” and violently.
People got hit…which is certainly cue for me to bring to mind a piece of political agitprop i’ve seen recently doing a compare and contrast on a Tea Party rally in the states vs. one of these protests. The former, complete with armed attendees spouting violent rhetoric got the softly-softly treatment from the forces of law n’ order: the latter got the iron fist in the iron glove. One wonders why…
The anarchists get organised
But back to London. A young man (oh, i feel so middle-aged as i write this) introduced himself and showed me round the camp. Beneath the chaotic, unkempt surface beats a pretty regular heart. There’s an official info desk…a decision-making structure that looks pretty open and democratic.
There are book stalls and in one tent, a woman offering colour therapy. There’s a kitchen tent, serving vegetarian and some vegan food. It is absolutely stuffed with food: so successful, in fact, is the food operation that there are thoughts about catering for others on the streets who might need it.
But there’s caution too which i, in my jaded middle-aged way can quite see the need for. Those on the site are proud of how open, peaceful and inclusive they are. Yes. They are all of those. On the other hand, it isn’t altogether clear what they are there for – or how long.
Yes: they are providing a living example of co-operative society. But how long will the rest of the capitalist world allow them to stay? My guide talked positively about how well they get on with the police. How they are all under great pressure not to do anything – from violence to the smoking of waccy-baccy – that would give excuse for a Dale Farm style clearance.
The city turns its nose up
They are there, for now, on suffrance of the Dean of the Cathedral, who told the police that the campers had permission to stay – and therefore leave them alone.
But next door to the camp is Paternoster Square, home to the London Stock Exchange and now a complete no-go area to anyone not wearing the City uniform of suit and funny capitalist hat. P Square was cordoned off, behind metal barriers, on which a variety of notices regretted the inconvenience – and issued dire warnings against trespass. Inside the square itself, large numbers of police patrolled, between around half a dozen parked up police vans.
And what of the famous police-getting-on-with-protesters thing? Sadly, i reminded my young guide of Czechoslovakia 1968 where, after some months of liverty, the Russians sent in troops to clear out the dangerous democrats. And rather than risk sending slavs to quell an uprising by fellow slavs, they used units from central Asia, with no shared language.
The coppers they are making friends with now aren’t the ones making decisions: nah, that’ll be Boris and the high-ups at the Met when finally they decide this protest is bad for business and needs to be expelled. And if niceness has become an issue, it won’t even be the Met moving them on. The Kent force is often drafted in for this sort of work…
Authoritarian violence: what’s the excuse this time?
And will they find an excuse? In the brief interval that i was there a deputation from the London Fire Brigade visited the catering tent. They were of course just checking health and safety things…making sure the cookers weren’t a hazard or likely to explode.
While they nosed, a police officer quizzed the helpers: how were they dealing with rats? Huh? Round here – albeit in rural Lincolnshire – if i wnt someone to come round and check health hazards, i’m lucky if they phone me back in a week.
But for a bunch of protesters who aren’t even paying any local tax…suddenly so much interest, so much attention.
The cynic in me suspects it is not altogether altruistic.
So i leave. I wish the protesters well: and if they’re still there next week, will go back, perhaps with a donation.
If you’re in London, stop by – or if you’re not, take a look at their web site. Its a phenomenon – and worth supporting while it lasts.
Reports by some press that the protesters have been asked to leave are just a tad premature. The Mail today reported that the presence of the camp was a possible threat to the lifeblood of the cathedral – and asked all those involved to consider their options.
Correct: this is a pretty accurate reflection of a statement put out yesterday on behalf of the church.
However, the Mail further report that “Church authorities have asked the protesters to move on and a spokesperson said the camp is a ‘risk to the life of the cathedral’.”
Not so, according to the St Paul’s official press spokesperson just five minutes ago. According to her, there is an issue and – as per yesterday’s statement – people need to be thinking about their options. However, the protesters have not been asked to leave.