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Church, city, media: how the message of #OccupyLondon is being disrupted

OccupyLondon's encampment is facing eviction from outside St Paul's cathedral. The Church of England and City of London Corporation are in turmoil. Meanwhile, the media frenzy is in danger of drowning out the message of the occupation.
Jamie Mackay
1 November 2011

This article is part of a series on the #Occupy movements.

Today, the Bishop of London broke ranks with the City of London Corporation over plans to evict the Occupy protestors. This latest story will be spun, distorted, and utilised to further disrupt the message of the occupation. Here, James Mackay analyses the recent developments, the media frenzy, and calls on the online community to unite in support of the protestors. 

On Friday 28th October, within an hour of each other, the City of London Corporation and St. Paul’s Cathedral released separate statements announcing the commencement of legal action against the Occupy London camp outside St. Paul’s. Whether the compact time frame under which these announcements surfaced is coincidental or evidence of an emergent shared agenda, the implications are significant for the future of the Occupy protest at that site and for discussions regarding the legal status of occupation more widely.

Arguments against the legitimacy of the St. Paul’s occupation from both the City and the Cathedral have focused around the ‘right’ or otherwise of the inhabitants of the camp to remain in that space. For the City at least, this ‘right’ is a question of legal procedure rather than ethical imperative. In the statement issued on Friday, Michael Welbank of the City of London Corporation stated that “we believe we will have a strong highways case because an encampment on a busy thoroughfare clearly impacts the rights of others”. At the time of writing this is due to be confirmed by letter asking the group to remove their tents and associated paraphernalia within 24-48 hours.

The question of weighing collective rights versus those of the individual is problematic in its own right, but this particular strategy, of injunction via legal loophole, is all the more offensive to those occupying outside St. Paul’s given their willingness to comply to the letter with the regulations of the London Fire Brigade and even the vagaries of health and safety legislation. Considering the efforts taken by the occupiers to provide clear pathways throughout the site and limit the number of tents, the use of the 1980 Highways Act as a device to evict is derisory in the extreme. Indeed, the nearby iron police barriers, erected on 15th of October to block off access to the initial occupation site of Paternoster Square, arguably constitute a greater obstruction to a ‘highway’ than the camp itself.

In fact, whether the site outside the Cathedral even belongs to the City of London Corporation is still uncertain, and as lawyers on all sides frantically rush to historical archives to pore over old maps, it is St. Paul’s position which has attracted much of the media attention. The Cathedral’s press release, which effectively rescinds their initial welcome of the occupation, has offended many Anglicans and as Saturday’s well attended, multi-faith, ‘Sermon on the Steps’ demonstrated, a wide range of religious communities are far from unanimously supportive of the proposed eviction. In legal terms too, the Cathedral’s primary welcome is significant and may yet prove to be decisive in the survival of the occupation. The initial stance taken by St. Paul’s entails that the continuation of the camp would constitute a civil rather than a criminal offence and as such the use of police force for its removal would require a court order which would be strongly resisted by the occupiers.

The tragedy here is that such matters as the intricacies of highway law and the legal significance of invitations, have diverted attention from the main purpose of the occupation. The inevitable journalese headlines such as ‘The struggle for St. Paul’s’ have erronesouly given the impression that this is a battle between a group of protestors and the Cathedral. Nothing could be further from the truth. Recent resignations by Canon Giles Fraser, Rev. Fraser Dyer and The Rt. Rev. Graeme Knowles would suggest that St. Paul’s is currently more preoccupied with internal divisions than in challenging the beliefs of the occupiers. The stance of Bishop of London, Dr. Richard Chartres, who has today called for a disassociation between the church and City will undoubtedly reveal further the frictions within the Chapter.  

Meanwhile the St. Paul’s occupation remains committed to its primary function as a site of experimentation with new forms of democracy and a challenge to unregulated capitalism. The reaction of the occupation to the lack of official dialogue with its opposing bodies is testament to this. Democratisation of the City of London Corporation has emerged as its first concrete demand, a clever move both because it situates the movement as communicative while revealing the disproportionate and undemocratic power wielded by this institution to a large portion of society who may have been previously unaware.

If indeed Occupy London becomes the next Dale Farm, as feared by Giles Fraser, it would be unfortunate if legitimate discussions about the agenda of St. Paul’s Chapter and the role of the police force in this matter were allowed to operate as a smokescreen under which the City of London Corporation could once again disappear into the background. If the occupation comes to a premature end, it may still have fulfilled an important function of revealing the unsettling status of this usually shrouded hegemony and this in itself would be a valuable development.

In spite of all opposition, Occupy London won a quiet victory this weekend, transforming the threat of eviction into a peaceful exposition of the diversionary tactics employed by institutions in their attempts to suppress the rallying call for a better democracy. While the occupation work to resist eviction, the role now for the online community outside of http://occupylondon.org.uk/ is to build on the movement’s success in publicising the indefensible autonomy of the square mile and, looking ahead, to help initiate a parliamentary petition calling to bring the City under democratic Government. If the first demand of the occupation is going to be seriously considered, it requires a large number of supporters to unify in the same way that the occupiers have so successfully outside St. Paul’s. It is time for the online community to empower and be empowered, to unite and support the aspirations of Occupy London. 

James Mackay is a freelance writer based in London.

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