Recriminations for St Paul’s after City clears Occupy tents

29 February 2012

CHRISTIAN ACTIVISTS removed from the steps of St Paul's while praying during the eviction of the Occupy protest on Tuesday morning have expressed shock and sadness at what they see as the cathedral's complicity in violence.

Bailiffs and police arrived at the cathedral at midnight on 28 February to clear the Occupy camp, which first arrived in October. A small number of Christians were already present, having pledged to form a ring of prayer around the protesters. While praying on the steps of the cathedral, they were forcibly removed by the police.

 

"The image of a row of police blocking the doors to the church is quite an upsetting one," said the associate director of the think tank Ekklesia, Symon Hill. "There were at least five of us removed while praying. In total, I was removed three times. It was really shocking."

 

He said that resistance to removal was "overwhelmingly" non-violent: most protesters linked arms or held on to things, and reported that the police seemed "confused" about whether the cathedral had author­ised the removal of people from the steps, given that the court judgments sanctioning the eviction applied only to land owned by the City of London Corporation.

 

"The cathedral Chapter and the Bishop of London have urgent questions to answer," he said on Tuesday. "Did they know when the eviction was due? Did they give per­mission to clear the steps, and, if so, when and why?"

 

Siobhan Grimes, who was also removed, said: "Christianity is not about using violence against people seeking economic justice. It is not about protecting the most privileged. It's about responding to the need of the world around us with confidence, humility and courage. I chose to pray at the eviction because I think that's what Jesus would have done."

 

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An initial statement from St Paul's, issued on Tuesday morning, said: "We regret that the camp had to be removed by bailiffs, but we are fully committed to continuing to promote these issues through our worship, teaching, and Institute." The cathedral had been made to "re-examine important issues about social and economic justice and the role the cathedral can play".

 

On Wednesday, the Chapter in­sisted that the police had not asked for permission from the cathedral regarding any aspect of the eviction, but confirmed that "we were clear that we would not stand in the way of the legal process or prevent the police from taking the steps they needed to deal with the situation in an orderly and peaceful manner." A spokesman rebutted claims that police officers had been spotted on the portico of the cathedral. No police were in or on the cathedral, but "plenty of staff" were present, he said.

 

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Ekklesia, says that he was kicked in the back while being removed from the steps. During the eviction, he filmed an interview with a police officer, who said that the police had been given permission to clear the steps by the cathedral, and cited Section 14 of the Public Order Act. Speaking on Wednesday, Mr Bartley described the cathedral's latest statement as "weasel words".

 

"It is tragic we have got to a situation whereby Christians who were praying on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral were violently dragged off, and I think St Paul's needs to reflect on the part they played not only in bringing about this situation but causing it to happen," he said.

 

The events of Tuesday morning had vindicated Canon Giles Fraser's resignation of his St Paul's canonry in October, Mr Bartley said.

 

George Barda, a former Winchester Cathedral chorister, and one of the evicted protesters, said on Tuesday that the events had exposed a "theological faultline".

 

"The lack of inspired political agency applies to the Church as much as others. I hope fervently that many more Christians will be inspired, as things get more terrible, to take up arms in this crucial historical fight. Long live the compassionate revolution. We just need to ignite the belief that it is worth fighting for the world we want to see."

 

Speaking before the eviction, an­other protester, Tammy Samede, the defendant named in the eviction pro­ceedings, said: "I am dis­ap­pointed, as the Church could have come out of this so much better. It could have been a source that could have helped the cause of social and eco­nomic justice. I wish they would have joined forces a bit more and helped us out with that . . . rather than help out the City of London unofficially."

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By Tuesday morning, nothing remained of the camp except a single Portaloo. Much of the deep clean ordered by the City had been done.

 

The policy chairman of the City of London Corporation, Stuart Fraser, said that it was "regrettable" that the removal had had to take place, "but the High Court judgment speaks for itself." The High Court ruled On 18 January that the City of London Corporation had "behaved both responsibly and fairly throughout" the occupation.

 

The City of London said that it had ensured that any vulnerable people at the site were helped and supported to find appropriate accommodation in partnership with Broadway, a homelessness charity.

 

On Tuesday morning, however, Gbolagade Ibukun-Oluvwa, who was removed from the camp during the eviction, said that the accommoda­tion provided had not been appro­priate for his needs as a disabled person in a wheelchair. He had been given a letter directing him to Miriam Lodge, a hotel in Dartmouth Road, where he had been driven during the night; but, he said, the hotel had not had disabled access that would enable him to get into his room.

 

Speaking on Wednesday, Howard Sinclair, chief executive of Broadway, confirmed that six members of his staff had attended the eviction besides City of London staff, and had stayed at the site until they were satisfied that vulnerable people had been cared for. Broadway would now be working with homeless people to link them to relevant services, which might involve directing them back to their region or country of origin.

 

Mr Sinclair praised the City of London's approach. "In terms of how they have thought about and catered and planned for vulnerable people who were attracted to the camp, they have acted with real integrity and thought and care, and I do not say that about every local authority," he said on Wednesday.

 

Occupy London has promised to continue its protest.

 

"The City of London Corporation and St Paul's Cathedral have dis­mantled a camp and displaced a small community, but they will not derail a movement" the protesters' press team said on Tuesday. "Be assur­ed that plans are already afoot: plans of some ambition, employing a div­ers­ity of tactics and delivered with the aplomb you would expect from us."

 

Some of the protesters are now occupying Finsbury Square on the northern edge of the City. A spokes­man for Islington Council, which manages the Square, said that the pro­testers did not have permission to be there. It was "closely monitoring" the situation.

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"We support the right to peaceful protest, but this has to be balanced with the needs of the community," he said. "At a time of huge government cuts to our budgets, we are very reluc­tant to waste vital money on expen­sive legal action, but we have not ruled it out if we are left with no choice."

 

The City of London estimates that the St Paul's camp has cost £590,000 since October in legal fees, policing, bailiffs, and cleaning.

 

The director of the Contextual Theology Centre, Canon Angus Ritchie, said on Wednesday that the challenge for the camp now - "and for us all" - was to "turn anger into practical action".

 

A poll organised by the Bible Society after the eviction on Tuesday found that 56 per cent of the 800 Christians who responded thought that the protesters should have been allowed to stay.

 

On Saturday, Occupy Southend was urged by the diocese of Chelmsford to leave the churchyard of St Mary's, Prittlewell, immediately or face legal action. A diocesan spokes­man described the occupation, which started on 19 February, as "unlawful, disrespectful, and inap­propriate".

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