The protest of the Occupy London activists camped outside St Pauls Cathedral for the past view weeks has focused attention on a central demand for economic justice in the world.
Much of the media attention was drawn initially by the ongoing discourse between the church and the protesters. The cathedral authorities seemed to do a complete 360 degree turn when it comes to the protest.
There was initially some sympathy from the likes of Canon Chancellor Giles Fraser, then closure of the cathedral on some fairly nebulous health and safety grounds. Much was made of the £20,000 a day the cathedral was losing in receipts from the public.
Then the cathedral re-opened but the Church lined up with the Corporation in seeking a High Court order to remove the protesters from the area. Fraser resigned. Then the dean of the Cathedral Graeme Knowles resigned and the church withdrew from any court actions. It then went further practically uniting with the protesters demands by setting up an inquiry headed by investment banker Ken Costa to look at reconnecting the financial with the ethical.
The protest though had it not been for this ongoing disagreement would not have held the attention of the media for anything like the amount of time it did. Those who said the issue of corporate greed and injustice was getting lost, amid the disagreements between cathedral and protesters were wrong. The issues stayed at the top of the news for two weeks because of the dispute and the background international machinations around the Eurozone.
The media coverage made the whole encampment seem far bigger than it actually is. In reality there are around 100 tents taking a relatively small area around the side and partially the front of the cathedral. There is no problem for the general public to walk through the area or go up the cathedral steps.
Another media claim was of the damage being done to nearby shops. Well, there are five shops bordering the encampment: Starbucks, a Marks & Spencers - Simply Food, a camping shop called Blacks and a Natwest Bank. This is also an office entrance. Most of these shops will be profiting from the encampment, not losing trade. The nearby paternoster square, where the Stock Exchange resides, is cordoned off by the police, so the shops there may be losing trade but that is not really down to the protesters.
Another media criticism voiced by Evening Standard columnist Simon Jenkins is that it won’t achieve anything. Well, who knows Mr Jenkins, for some protesting is the only way to have a say.
To date, the failure to protest has seen governments everywhere simply shovelling tax payers money into the coffers of the banks with very little in return. Indeed for the most part the bankers have said thanks very much and continued paying themselves huge bonuses.
The wider question though is do these type of protests work? Visiting the St Pauls site there are the usual suspects, seen at road, anti war and environmental protests over the years.
There is a bohemian atmosphere around, with signs reflecting a national and global outlook. So there are “Greetings for the landless of India and Ektu Parishad” alongside “Sex Workers denied decriminalisation and safety rights” and “Giving to the poor is not enough – restructure so there is no poverty.”
The site is well organised with a clear programme of events, listed at what is called “tent university.” On a day I visited there were campaigners Global Witness on “the dictator and offshore paper trails, monetary justice and the need for effective protest and a session on the history of St Pauls with cathedral guide Ernest Woolmer. In the evening there was a film Battlefield on the Bolivian revolt at La Paz. The group run a paper with a 2,000 print run called the Occupied Times. The latest edition covered what had been going on with the cathedral authorities but included a number of interesting articles on the likes of faith and finance, the end of atomism, feeding the masses and what would Jesus do? Indeed this final call is resonant throughout the protest as it puts the situation of economic injustice today into a Church context.
The Church has been challenged to engage with the issue of ongoing economic injustice, where the mass of hardworking people are being made to pay for the largesse of bankers. So far the Anglican Church appears to have taken the challenge on and reacted positively.
Those who question whether protest works often quote the march of more than one million people against the Iraq war in 2003. This huge turnout they argue was ignored. At face value this was true but that march and a succession of others around the time did have a lasting impact together with other factors on the political system. There have been other protests since, such as in favour of combating climate change, for the living wage and regulation of undocumented workers, against the government’s cuts and the policy of privatising the forests.
The latter very successful campaign was largely carried out on the internet via mass email protest. There are now many different ways to protest, physically on the street or via cyberspace. The importance of peaceful direct action should never be forgotten, with actions like those of Plane Stupid with their occupations of the likes of the roof of the Houses of Parliament in protest at ongoing aviation expansion and resulting pollution.
What the elected politicians need to remember is that over the years all of these protests have been bringing in people from different races, classes and backgrounds. Overall there must be a growing mass of people dissatisfied with how society is being run today.
This amorphous mass at present lacks representation in party political form. All three of the main political parties sit largely on the side of capital and the minority of people who hold most of the wealth. This needs to change, the parties must come to reflect the feelings of this growing mass of discontent.
Failure to respond will result in violence. While the political class did its best to blame the riots in August on individual criminality, they were in reality another form of protest. What started as a peaceful protest about the death in police custody of another black man, grew into something far bigger and more dangerous. Mob rule took over. What politicians should have looked at is why the riots took hold so easily, the tinder ground that once tapped into so easily exploded around people. Whilst much of the rioting was straight mob violence, it was also a response to a polarised society that preaches consumerism and greed as virtues. The rioters had seen bankers, politicians, the police and the media with their noses in the trough, so thought why not the rest of us?
There have been other instances over the years where failure to respond to popular protest has resulted in it taking on other forms and ultimately come to violence. The war in the north of Ireland is one of the best examples, with peaceful protest in the form of the civil rights marches repelled in violent fashion. This in turn led to violence over many years becoming the only way of expressing dissent. In the end, talks began and the peace process is now underway in earnest but there were many lives lost as a result of a totally unnecessary conflict.
It will be interesting to see how those in power in this country respond to the growing protests from groups like Occupy London to the climate change activists to the trade unions striking over cuts to pensions. It is simply not good enough to just bleat out platitudes like we’re all in it together, there needs to be a real rebalancing of society in favour of the common good of all. Until this happens the protests will continue to come thick and fast, with violence more commonplace if those in power continue to cock a deaf ear to their pleas.