There's a lot of occupying going on at the moment. First Wall Street in Manhattan was invaded by those protesting at the staggeringly unequal societal distribution of wealth. They identified themselves as 'the 99%', in contrast to the richest 1% of the American population who have continued to profit whilst the economic downturn has affected the majority of the nation. The location of the first 'Occupy' site was chosen for its proximity to one of the global powerhouses of wealth generation, albeit for a handful of individuals. Wall Street has been an icon of money and Western capitalism for years, and now has taken on a new symbolism as a site of resistance.
Watching the USA's protest, London (and many other locations across the world) desired to get in on the act, and on 15th October 2011, Occupy London was born. The London movement claims it is protesting against the bank bail-out, ongoing cuts to government spending in the name of austerity, social inequality and unemployment. Unable to camp directly on the doorsteps of the City offices in which work those whose economic activity so angers the protesters, tents were flung up on the square in front of St Paul's Cathedral, surprising tourists on holiday and bankers on their way to work alike.
And so they remain currently. However, due to the lack of soft ground to peg the tents in to - concrete paving slabs must be mighty uncomfortable to sleep or sit on too - some of the tents have a slight list to them; rather as if they've passed a week anchored to a blowy mountainside, and a passing sheep has made off with the odd peg and guy-rope.
The Occupy protesters seemed to be mostly within their tents when an Accidental chum and I visited their encampment one evening after work. We both instantly felt rather self-conscious in our work clothes, afraid our smart attire might suggest our sympathies lay with the loathed 1%. Typical attire of the protesters was, appropriately, camping gear. Those we could see were clad in fleeces, cagoules, walking boots and woolly hats. On a plaintive sign asking for donations of camp supplies 'thick socks' featured near the top of the wanted items list.
Within seconds of our arrival at the site, both the Accidental chum and I were struck by how organised the whole exercise was. This was not a campsite run by amateurs, but by those who were well-schooled and practiced in the art of demonstration. (In fact I had a distinct feeling of being back on a school camping trip in the rainy Forest of Dean aged 13 as I looked around. Now, where does one sign up for rock-climbing?) There were posters tacked to huge stone pillars explaining why the occupiers were there; other hand-written treatises were strung on ropes fluttering above the camp, like angry, wordy washing on a line. There were schedules for what was going on that day; meetings, talks, discussions and even music sessions. A particularly roomy tent housed an upright piano around which protestors were jiggling up and down to a jolly sing-a-long. There were signs on particular tents designating them as having a particular purpose within the camp. There was a medical tent, a counseling and therapy tent, a general information tent, even a library tent jokingly named 'Starbooks', as a nod towards one of the evil multinational organisations against which protests in the face of capitalism and globalisation are constantly being held. Starbucks however, a branch of which sits opposite the site, has taken the higher moral ground in allowing the earliest protestors to use its cafe's lavatories until a couple of blue and white portaloos were established among the tents.
One of the greatest controversies surrounding the Occupy protest has been the manner in which St Paul's Cathedral has become so much more than simply a backdrop to the camp. As the number of tents and protestors grew they began to present an obstacle for tourists keen to visit the cathedral. After a few days the decision was taken to close the doors of the cathedral, sealing it up against the encampment, and the tourists' entry fees, outside. The response of the Church of England's clerics has been heavily scrutinised and criticised, despite many of them extending a thoroughly Christian hand towards those protesting, even sympathising with their struggle. Senior Church of England clerics, including the Dean of St Paul's, have felt under pressure to resign their posts, which has created much debate amongst religious leaders, politicians, protestors and the public. Whether this protest is really a matter in which religion should have become involved, by its choice of location St Paul's has been unwittingly dragged into a complex social debate. And, even closed, this building - an icon of the city - looms strong and proud above the camp. In the years since it was built, this cathedral has seen it all. It can be closed and darkened, the people can be removed from within, yet, like the protestors beneath, it will not be moved.