Occupy London showdown at St. Paul’s Cathedral

October 29, 2011

Lawyers for St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Christopher Wren masterpiece that dominates the London skyline, and local government authorities are expected to start court proceedings in the coming week to evict protesters inspired by Occupy Wall Street.  

Activists around the world demonstrating against corporate greed and growing inequality are clashing with authorities, who appear to be losing patience.

After weeks of lukewarm tolerance for around-the-clock sit-ins, authorities in several cities are urging protesters to move on. Others are forcing them to do so. This past week, police swooped in on protesters in Albuquerque, San Diego, Nashville, Atlanta and Oakland, where an Iraq war veteran suffered a serious head injury. There are signs of similar stirrings in other countries, including Canada and Australia.

But the protesters in London are facing an unusual foe: a cathedral.

“Legal action has regrettably become necessary. The chapter only takes this step with the greatest reluctance and remains committed to a peaceful solution,” St. Paul’s Cathedral said in a statement Friday.

The iconic London building where Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer married in 1981 was never intended to be a target of the protesters. But when they were blocked by police guarding the London Stock Exchange, they set up camp at the nearby cathedral.

In a sign of the deep divisions within the church over how to handle the protest, a popular senior priest at the cathedral, Giles Fraser, resigned this past week, saying he was concerned that evictions could lead to “violence in the name of the church.”

A junior chaplain resigned Friday, and on Saturday, more than 20 religious figures of various faiths lent their support with more than two hours of speeches.

The dean of St. Paul’s, on the other hand, has urged the protesters to move on peacefully. The bishop of London, the third-most senior member of Church of England, offered a debate with the protesters if they disband. Both are expected to address the crowd Sunday.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the former archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said the situation was a “debacle” that threatened to damage the reputation of Christianity.

The news that the church and the City of London Corporation, which jointly own the land outside St. Paul’s, were seeking injunctions came moments before the cathedral reopened Friday after a week’s closure triggered by “health and safety” concerns.

After the protesters rearranged the layout of some of their tents, the church swung open its heavy oak doors around noon Friday to widespread applause from protesters, some of whom were standing next to a sign saying “What would Jesus do?” The cathedral’s dome and galleries remain closed over evacuation concerns.

The decision to close St. Paul’s, which reportedly lost more than $150,000 in donations, was stunning, activists say. The last time the church was closed was during the Blitz in World War II — and even then, only for four days.

“Nobody knows why they closed. Presumably it was political pressure,” said Alexei Elfenbein, 23, a freelance musician who was standing close to a giant modified Monopoly board reportedly donated by Banksy, one of Britain’s most famous street artists. Elfenbein added that “anyone who wants to say we cost them loads of money, no. They cost themselves loads of money. We’ve done absolutely nothing except provide extra tourism.”

The showdown could be lengthy, with authorities saying legal proceedings could take months. Meanwhile, the multicolored tent city showed signs of settling in. The group has a library, tea tent, prayer tent, clothes market, a newspaper called “Occupied Times of London” and a “tent city university,” with sofa cushions on the ground and hourly discussions. A kitchen worker said he feeds about 500 people a day.

Stepping into the fray for the first time, British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters on Friday, “I don’t quite see why the freedom to demonstrate has to include the freedom to pitch a tent almost anywhere you want to in London.”

Some have questioned how many of the protesters are staying around-the-clock, with several enterprising newspaper reporters using heat-sensitive cameras in the middle of the night to capture how many of the tents glowed.

A recent front page of the Times of London ran a headline “St. Paul’s. 11.12pm; just one protest tent is occupied” above a photo of dark tents with an orange thermal glow emitting from only one tent in a sea of many.

The protesters hit back by creating a video designed to prove that the infrared cameras would be unable to detect bodies inside the tents.

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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