Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What really happened at St Paul's?

The other day, I had an argument with a friend who was criticising Occupy London for 'making their protest a battle with the cathedral' by forcing it to close. Yesterday, I was told that the activist twitterati were pointing the finger for the cathedral's closure at the malign influence of its corporate sponsors. I think they're both barking up the wrong tree.

Now, at this point I should confess that I haven't really managed to make it down to St Paul's, due to work and stuff, so what follows is deduction based on prior experience and may be at least equally off the mark. But (and now I'm starting to feel like a third-rate Jonathan Creek) I've looked at it from every angle and this is the only way the sequence of events makes sense to me.

The question is, why did St Paul's cathedral swing so suddenly from welcoming the protesters with open arms to taking the pretty drastic step to close down until they leave? The anti-protester answer would be that the protest became so disruptive and unreasonable that they couldn't tolerate it any more and relations broke down. I just don't buy this. I walked past St Paul's on Thursday; a friend walked past at the weekend. We both got the impression that there was no problem with access and that things were generally – as these protests invariably are, if you bother to look past the headlines – good-natured and under control. Apparently the occupiers had rearranged their schedule so as not to disrupt any cathedral services with amplified noise, and generally went out of their way to be nice. What changed? This, to me, just doesn't add up.

The more cynical explanation that corporate sponsors were exerting pressure may be closer to the truth, but it still doesn't ring true to me. I see quite a bit of the financial sector in my day job – it's sort of my job to keep an eye on them – and frankly, I'm afraid I just don't think they care that much. In fact, it's been pretty fascinating to see the response from the more thinking elements of the investment industry, which, briefly summed up, seems to be 'yep, they've got a point'. In the last couple of weeks, I've seen fairly mainstream investors openly describe today's capitalism as 'dysfunctional' whilst commenting on the protests. To those who say that Occupy is having no impact, I'd say that admission is a sign of the times. So the conspiracy theory doesn't quite add up either.

But the cathedral's statement – all 'fire hazard' this and 'health and safety' that – forcibly reminded me of a couple of experiences I've had at the hands of people who wanted to suppress protests. And at this point, anyone who reads this blog at all regularly will know that, with tedious predictability, I'm going to point the finger at... yes, the police.

In the summer of 2008, I was at Heathrow Climate Camp, doing a shift in the kitchen. It was a bit more stressful than I'd expected, because the police made damn sure that the environmental health inspectors were round there to check us out. They did this because they were quietly confident that the hygiene standards of a bunch of hippies in the middle of a field could not possibly be up to scratch and that this would give them a reason to shut down the camp. Thanks to the awesome person co-ordinating the kitchen, who really knew their stuff and made damn sure everything was safe and clean, they failed.

A few years before that, I was sitting in Cambridge Police Station next to a friend with whom I was organising a student demo against university arms investments. And again, they made damn sure we were aware that, should we proceed in this foolhardy endeavour, we would be PERSONALLY LIABLE for the inevitable horrific injuries suffered by any unfortunate demonstrators who got mown down by rogue cyclists. The intention seemed to be to frighten us into thinking twice about organising a protest at all. In the event, all it did was to make me freak out about the need for stewarding and spend an unnecessary amount of time sourcing volunteers, hi-vis jackets and first aid kits.

My point is: this is the police's modus operandi. Health and safety concerns, and associated threats of liability, are a convenient tool for intimidating people who might think about organising or harbouring a protest. And, unlike beating disabled students over the head with sticks, it doesn't leave you on the wrong side of the argument. It's more subtle and sinister than that. Indeed, it seems to have been remarkably successful in making people – including my friend – view the protesters as the bad guys, the dicks who've forced the cathedral to close. Maybe I'm totally wrong, but to me this just has the same whiff about it as my experiences at Climate Camp and in Cambridge. I'd put good money on that the Met were, not necessarily wholly responsible for the decision to close, but certainly lurking somewhere in the background. (Something in today's news reports makes me wonder if the City of London Corporation is also at the back of it somewhere – but that's something I feel less qualified to speculate about.)

What worries me about this is that it seems to be terrifyingly easy to render a protest illegitimate precisely by restricting and circumscribing it. Occupy London couldn't go to the London Stock Exchange, because the landowners successfully got an injunction. (As an aside, I seem to remember that some FOI requests I was involved in a few years ago showed police contacting landowners to encourage them to seek injunctions against protesters.) So they found sanctuary at St Paul's. Now that the cathedral has closed – despite, it seems, the best efforts of protesters to make sure it could stay open – they're attacked for being there. To those who think Occupy London is culpable, I'd just make this small plea: I know, from bitter experience, that these things are never what they seem. Please think twice before accepting attacks, however seductive, on a protest's right to exist.

1 comment:

  1. A reply intended in good spirit from the argumentative friend