I dragged myself home in the early hours of the morning after spending the night at the Occupy London protests in Victoria Park. I wasn’t there as an observer or a note taker, but as a supporter of the broader financial irregularities the protesters were attempting to highlight. I was there at the 6 p.m. deadline the City of London had given the participants to move their tents out of the park. At 10 p.m. there had been a rumour that the City was sending some representatives over in an attempt to negotiate, but it seems to have been just that – rumour. I watched as by midnight most supporters or curious onlookers had filtered their way back to their homes, leaving some 30-40 left, including some media folks, who opted to spend the night.
Suddenly, not long after midnight the police cruisers, paddy wagons, and garbage trucks pulled up and officers began calling out for people to pack up their tents and leave the park. Looking back on it I was impressed with how orderly and peaceful it was. Police provided ample warning, worked efficiently to take down the tents, but were at no point belligerent or violent. The protesters, confused at first, showed admirable responses. Some began removing items from their tents, others continued asking what would happen, and some sat on the ground, joined arms, and waited peacefully to be carried away.
One of those seated was Dean Kevin Dixon, from St. Paul’s Cathedral, and he remains in my mind as one of the key protagonists of the day, albeit in a gentle and forthright manner. We had met in our home in the morning, discussing ways in which the local churches might offer assistance in housing the protesters should they be evicted. His parish had already shown leadership days earlier by offering to house any of the Occupiers on his church grounds. Some took him up on the offer.
For the Dean it was to prove a heartbreaking day. He visited his superiors seeking support, only to be told by the church’s insurance company that they would no longer offer coverage unless the occupiers already present on the church grounds were removed and that no others be permitted on church property. He could have hidden out, licking his wounds, but instead went straight to the park and informed the protesters himself of the decision and that although he was sorry, he would stay with them until the end. Which is exactly what he did. The last I saw of him, he was seated on the ground, arms linked with the others, as the police moved in. My respect for his actions is well-earned.
How many times do moments like this come along? When I was young in Calgary, similar protestations occurred over Vietnam and other societal ills. But now here I was again, some 40 years later, an ageing activist recalling and acting upon the ideals of my youth.
When the police finally moved in on the park, asking people to leave, I respected the law and moved out. That was my personal decision. But I have been left with some observations. I believe there was a lack of imagination on both sides of the issue. City officials would have discovered that the Occupation leaders were actually expressing their willingness to move out of the park if they could acquire a couple of small concessions from the city. That moment came and went, leaving only the police operation as the final solution. There were a number of people present seeking to help the protesters to consider alternative means of making their point and fighting another day. That moment passed as well, and the sit-in was their final solution.
I do have some deep questions for the church leaders of various denominations who left Dean Dixon to act largely alone. There has been a lot of talk lately among church leaders about how society is heading in the wrong direction economically. ironically, that philosophy aligned with that of the protesters, even if the ways of expressing it were different. Somehow the churches have to decide how they will side with society’s distressed. These protesters were “peace” protesters, just like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and the visionary religious leaders of those days sided with such movements. If you won’t endorse the Occupy protests and put the weight of the Church behind them, then when will you make your play for social justice legitimacy? If I were you, I would listen to Dean Dixon very carefully.
To London’s leaders, I only ask where were you? This wasn’t about whether we supported the protests or not; it was about a historic moment happening in our city that was fragile in nature. We all should have been there, not to support necessarily, but to ensure that the entire community worked out solutions on the ground the lent to the most peaceable outcome. It wasn’t about right or wrong; it was about us – how we watch over ourselves and seek peaceful resolutions by being there instead of watching it on television.
Do you remember when we were young? Do you recall how we protested for the equality of all people, for the right of women to be ministers, for putting an end to unjust wars, for refusing to permit corporate greed to overpower our communities? We are more sedentary now, grayer, and likely a bit more judgmental. And so we watched. But this is our place, the community where we bring up our children and pursue our passions and our hobbies. We were in an important moment and the situation required each of us, despite our opinions, to validate the peaceable nature of our community and our desire for equity above all else by being there. Next time this happens, let’s be young again and explore the potential of this city we care for.