bishops, tents and the city

Sharon Borthwick visited the occupations at London’s St Paul’s and Finsbury Square

Outside St Paul’s the Royal British Legion had set up a poppy selling stall, “Shoulder to shoulder with all who Serve”. From this side of the cathedral one couldn’t yet see the occupation site, and the reminder that ex-servicemen are obviously not given decent enough pensions to live by seemed especially pertinent, in a time when concessions made to the working class in the aftermath of World War II are all under attack.

The ruling class were wise then to introduce the welfare state, they knew that social unrest was brewing. The years prior to the war too were full of suffering; it truly was a Great Depression.  During the Blitz public space also came to the forefront. It took an organised committee of citizens to eventually gain permission to access the London Underground stations for protection. With 40% of Britain’s housing stock flattened, the authorities eventually had to overlook squatting. Paternoster Square was the intended site of this occupation: formerly a public square it is now owned by the Subishi Estate Company which prior to the protest, oh so gracefully permitted 24 hour access. It is fine to come to London to work and shop. The profiteers are at least spooked, The Canary Wharf Group plc has just obtained a high court injunction preventing “any persons unknown remaining on the Canary Wharf estate in connection to protest action.”

So, going round the vast edifice and coming upon the first tents, it is warming to see some party atmosphere, a group of occupiers are playing football by the first aid tent. Its then I spot a congregation of religious types. Indeed, it would be hard not to spot them, of the two guitar players, one is resplendent in Buddhist orange and the one on bongos sports purple Doctor Martens and beautifully big hair, afro style. One woman is waving an Israeli flag, while another is waving a giant crucifix. So, I’m about to give them a wide berth when a bit of a drama ensues. A City ‘gent’, so fresh from his long fat lunch that he reeks of whisky, decides to stop and give everyone a mouthful of abuse, saying they should all get out of here and get jobs. Giant crucifix woman gives him a shouting match and others stop to join in, many laughing at the preposterous drama. Two Labour politicians roll up, David Winnick and Nicholas Dakin, saying they’ve come down to offer support, reactionary man shouting, “Oh you would”, and a TV crew has set up to film who may or may not have been connected to the Labour politicians in some kind of cynical canvassing enterprise, but I didn’t see their names among those who’d signed John McDonnell’s motion of 17th October, expressing support and solidarity with Occupy LSX, agreeing the present economic system is unsustainable, rejecting cuts in public services, supporting the strike on 30th November and student action on 9th November.

Sliding away from this spectacle, where entrenched reactionary man would dismiss anything constructive and said, “smarten yourself up, get a suit, you look like a nice young man, I’ll give you a job”, I went to the seat of the main action, the bottom of St Paul’s steps which serves as a speakers’ corner. The only message I heard by ‘human microphone’ was a health and safety plea from St Paul’s to remove bicycles chained to the railings surrounding Queen Victoria’s statue, though its hard to construe how chained up bikes are menacing. I don’t think the Church likes its pomp and circumstance messed with, Bishop Chartres saying, “there is a lot of pageantry planned for next year. The Queen is not going to come to the Lord Mayor’s show if she has to push through protesters camped on the doorstep.” Though the proposed injunctions made against protesters have at least been postponed. Throughout hese high-ranking clergy have proved their rank hypocrisy beyond all doubt. Back to St Paul’s steps and a man is holding up a sign, “I don’t care about the protest, I’m just here for the violence”, some kind of irony? I’m not sure, but an anti-capitalist speaker follows who speaks well and clearly on the avaricious, exploitative system he is there to change. The saner among the protesters have also managed to produce the Occupied Times, which is well worth a read.

The message

Intending to visit the south London cross-borough anti-cuts alliance (Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham) at the Finsbury Square occupation site, I found it had been squatted by a theatre company and was full of fantastical papier mache masks. The tent is still available to the borough’s alliance, but they haven’t had enough bodies available to keep someone permanently on site. There is an air of hippydom floating about the place, but also of serious debate, so the programme of lessons planned is a good balance of creative arts and serious discussion: an Arab Spring lecture, pumpkin carving, The Spanish Civil war Poetry of Cesar Vallejo, economic history and mask decorating, for instance.

Visually, both sites are impressive, for one, just to see so many tents in a city space. There are all manner of signs, some large ones, intricately written with many paragraphs describing their anti-capitalist message. The message is spreading. Londoners are stopping to read these long missives. They are also stopping in the street to talk to each other about how their lives are being run. They are in dire need of these alternative means of information. Nowhere in the mainstream media could I find it reported that on 29th October, police armed with machine guns raided the Kurdish Workers’ Party tent on the St Paul’s encampment, supposedly getting a tip-off from a member of the public. They said they were searching for guns, but left empty-handed. Deniz Cetiner, a student, was in the tent at the time and described how this kind of police tactic was what they put up with in Turkey all the time.

The Daily Mail prefers to report that people weren’t in bed by 11pm. Talk about clutching at straws, it seems the right are wholly unable to dredge up a true argument against our movement. The moral argument is too overwhelming. Traversing the city between the two sites, you see that glistening, new skyscrapers are being erected. The financiers are still right there at the feast. However, the construction site electricians are being threatened with a 35% wage cut. The City itself is a vast banner against the greed.