As St. Paul’s and the Corporation of London suspend action to legally evict the protesters, Occupy London have little cause to celebrate. The Corporation has declared a mere ceasefire, not an end to hostilities. And the overtures emanating from the cloisters of St. Paul’s must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Humility is the buzzword of the day. The Chapter of St. Paul’s ‘unanimously’ committed themselves to ‘[setting] out on another path’. But, as Raziat Butt explains, this alternative ‘path’ is not a new one. The new initiative to reconnect the financial with the ethical was something already being undertaken by the St. Paul’s Institute.
This change of tone will, I’m sure, have come about in good faith. But it is difficult to remain entirely un-sceptical. The reputation of the Cathedral was in crisis following the events of the past week. The Cathedral had all but lost a credible voice and indeed it was the Cathedral’s untenable actions that forced a third resignation.
The suppression of a report, compiled by the St. Paul’s Institute which investigates the ethics of City pay, is another miscalculation on the Church’s part, a ‘cover-up’ that has fuelled accusations that the Cathedral are in collusion with Mammon.
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s silence, until now, has spoken more loudly than he would have liked and more shamefully than he could have hoped. His passing reference to the ‘larger issues’ is formulated to avoid association with the occupation. Even with this U-turn, the Church is at pains to not be seen to side with the protesters. The Reverend Michael Colclough, speaking on behalf of St. Paul’s said plainly that ‘we would not want to be on sides’ and insisted that the Church now hoped to be a ‘bridge-builder’ between ‘the camp and the City’.
We must remember that Richard Chartres, who now claims credit for spearheading the Cathedral’s U-turn,only days earlier said that legal action to evict the occupiers was ‘sensible’. His justification, that the camp might be taken over by people ‘very different’ to the present peaceful protesters betrayed his cynical view of the occupation.
The Corporation’s news release also offers the protesters scant relief. The Corporation have merely paused, not suspended, their plans to take legal action. The pause is one that will last ‘days not weeks’ and the Corporation are adamant that they will not ‘[back] away’ from their ‘responsibilities as Highway Authorities’. Stuart Fraser, the Corporation’s Policy Chairman, makes clear that the pause has been made to ‘support the Cathedral’. So for those that hoped that the Corporation had changed their mind, the press release will be yet another disappointment. The prospect of a legal, perhaps forcible, eviction remains as real as ever.
If legal action were to be pursued, a case would be decided on the balance between the rights of expression and assembly and any public nuisance caused by the camp. The legal argument will be predictably semantic. By evicting the protesters, the rights to freedom of expression and assembly will not be denied, merely curtailed. As lawyers so often do, the form-substance distinction will be hidden behind to produce a technically sound decision, invulnerable to challenge, regardless of unsound consequences.
George Monboit’s expose sheds light on the anachronism that is the Corporation of London. Inscrutable, invisible, intransigent, The Corporation of London has revealed itself to be a public authority turning against a public protest.
Ultimately, the political waters remain hostile for the protesters. The Conservatives seem capable of nothing other than contempt. Senior officials in the Mayor’s office have suggested ‘high powered sprinklers‘ be used to prevent ‘shanty towns’ being formed in public spaces and Boris Johnson complacently called for the protesters to ‘move on’, having already ‘made their complaint‘. Cameron’s latest words on the matter are also cause for great concern. The inference from his failure to understand ‘why the freedom to demonstrate has to include the freedom to pitch a tent almost anywhere in London’ is that he proposes to clamp down further on the right to protest. But even more troubling is the inference that he plans to take away the public nature of public protest. To say that there is a right to protest, but not a right to protest ‘here’ is to open the way to hide public protests altogether. Out of sight, out of mind. As Madeleine Bunting persuasively argues, the occupation is camped outside St. Paul’s not simply to be seen. The location is a ‘key symbolic space – this is the politics of geography – in a city designed to facilitate only three activities – working, transport and shopping’.
It is an inadvertent success of the Occupation that deep flaws in London’s major institutions have been exposed. 14 days, it would seem, is the most the City of London is prepared to tolerate a protest that is both an embodiment of and advocate for a national frustration. In deciding to pursue legal action the Cathedral and the Corporation have shown a lack of foresight. Recourse to the courts has always and will only exacerbate the problem, an injunction will not end a movement determined to stay it will merely displace it. And the shadow of police violence remains a fear. Violence has shocking precedent in such occupations. If the eviction were violent, it would also beg the question: What faith can be had in peaceful protest and civil disobedience if it is only to be crushed by police brutality? All we can hope is that the promises made today, of reaching a measured solution, hold true. Only then can our faith be restored.