Normally, the City of London — Britain's equivalent of Wall Street — is all pinstriped suits and bowler hats with high-flying bankers and financial traders rushing in and out of their gleaming glass-and-chrome offices or popping in and out of scores of champagne bars in the area, but for the past one week it has become the open-air “headquarters” of the country's anti-capitalist movement.
In a symbolic “occupation” of the City, protesters demanding an end to “corporate greed and inequality,” have been camping outside the historic St. Paul's Cathedral, close to the London Stock Exchange, in colourful tents complete with portable toilets and improvised kitchens. A large banner with the message “Capitalism is crisis” flies across the churchyard under the shadow of the imposing dome of St. Paul's.
What began as a small gathering has swelled to several hundred, prompting a backlash from the cathedral authorities who want the protesters to quit citing “health and safety” considerations. There had also been complaints from tourists that the protesters were obstructing the approach to the 350-year-old cathedral. Souvenir shops and restaurants reported drop in business as tourist numbers fell.
On Saturday, the cathedral was shut down after the protesters refused to leave insisting that they were determined to stay put “for as long as it takes” to put across their message. This is the first time since the Second World War that it has been closed. The last time it was done was for four days in September 1940.
The Dean of St Paul's, the Rev. Graeme Knowles, said the decision to close the cathedral to the public was made with “heavy hearts.” It was “simply not possible to fulfil our day to day obligations to worshippers, visitors and pilgrims in current circumstances”.
“With so many stoves and fires and lots of different types of fuel around, there is a clear fire hazard,” he said.
Ironically, it was at the intervention of the cathedral authorities that police had allowed the protesters to set up the camps.
When they first arrived last Saturday, police wanted to move them saying it would be “illegal and disrespectful” to camp in front of the cathedral. But the canon chancellor of St. Paul's, Reverend Giles Fraser, said he was happy for people to “exercise their right to protest peacefully.”
A spokesman for protesters said they had already reorganised the camp in response to concerns about safety and were in talks with the police and cathedral officials to resolve the stand-off.