You may have heard about the tent village which has been set up outside St Paul’s cathedral in the heart of London, to the consternation of many authorities.  The occupants are part of the global Occupy movement.  They represent anger at the excess of greed with which large financial institutions have caused the current economic crisis, frustration at the apparent inability of governments, shareholders and ordinary citizens to rein in these excesses, and a fundamental rejection of the capitalist system which they believe is morally flawed.

The Occupy movement began in New York in September 2011 and has rapidly spread to nearly 100 cities worldwide, inspired by Arab Spring protests, particularly in Cairo, and also mass demonstrations over the summer in Spain.  In October, demonstrators set up camp in public spaces in London and 15 other British cities.

The occupation outside St Paul’s was initially opposed by the police, but the Dean said he was happy for them to stay, and 150 tents sprang up.  A few days later he asked the protesters to leave the immediate vicinity so as not to impede access to churchgoers and tourists, but they refused, realising that they had gained valuable publicity as the UK media blew the issue into a crisis.  The Dean announced the closing of the cathedral on ‘health and safety’ grounds, much to the outrage of the press, who reminded us that the cathedral hadn’t been closed to visitors since it was bombed during the Second World War.  Although the cathedral reopened only a couple of days later, the crisis forced the resignation of three senior cathedral staff.  The police have not helped to calm the situation, seemingly treating the Occupiers aggressively and adding them to their lists of terrorist suspects.

It is possible that the real reason for the confused response of the St Paul’s leadership is that they are morally compromised in this issue.  While wanting on the one hand to be a voice for the poor and needy in society, St Paul’s is painfully aware that many people who work in the surrounding financial district form part of its congregation (and are therefore donors towards its massive upkeep costs) or are people to whom the cathedral is trying to reach out.  While the cathedral was closed to the public, it was alleged to be losing £23,000 a day in donations from tourists.

Meanwhile, the British public, egged on by the media, seems more concerned at accusations that the Occupiers are anarchistic workshy layabouts who are living on state handouts than they are about considering why people are driven to protest, in hostile conditions and worsening weather.  The stoic British are more concerned about their lovely cathedral than they are about the issues which inspire people to protest against capitalism and demand global democracy.  Are the Occupiers in fact unsung heroes like the Greenham Common Women or Brian Haw?

So what do the Occupiers think they can achieve?  They claim to be trying to initiate a dialogue about finding a way forward in shaping a more equitable society.  They hold public meetings and claim that many people who work in financial services are engaging with them, albeit very quietly.  They are also working hard on their public image, and while the camp appears scruffy it is free from litter and other waste matter.  While there have been isolated accusations of graffiti and urinating in the churchyard, the Occupy leadership are at pains to encourage the appearance of  responsibility.  One small example of this in action took place when I was visiting Occupy on a cold and very wet day in December.  I watched while one of the volunteer cleaners swept a huge puddle on the public pavement towards a drain, and when it failed to disappear, he lifted up the drain cover, thrust his hands into the mud and pulled out litter until the drain was clear.

Are they making an impact?  They have a well-presented information tent and even on a miserable midwinter day there was a steady trickle of visitors, making donations, signing the visitors book, and finding out more.  They have over 35,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 25,000 on Twitter, so there is a good groundswell of interest.  Yet they have not yet found a forum to get their voice heard nationally, which is why they can so easily be portrayed as a group of idealists dropouts.  And although left-wing heavyweights like Tony Benn and Billy Bragg have been public in their support, Occupy is (almost by definition) so outside mainstream that they are failing to attract wider political or media patronage.

The Occupiers originally tried to occupy Paternoster Square, right outside the London Stock Exchange, but were ejected by the police on the grounds that it was private property.  So they set up camp next door in the grounds of St Paul’s.  There is an interesting irony in this location which has not been noticed by commentators.  Could it be that deep in their subconscious the Occupiers are looking for a voice that will speak out on behalf of the poor and marginalised, that they are seeking moral leadership from the one institution that they know should speak out?

But are they looking in the wrong place?

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