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Dean Ison reflects on Occupy - one year on

Ahead of the first anniversary of Occupy London, The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, answers a number of questions about the legacy of what took place outside the Cathedral and what lessons have been learned.

How is the legacy of Occupy being felt both in St Paul’s and the wider City?

For London, I guess that the legacy of Occupy depends on who you are.

For some it was and continues to be a highly important defining movement, which offered them a way to express and engage with their concerns for our society and the wider world. For many others it will have been an interesting period, but things will have moved on. And for yet others it will have highlighted uncomfortable questions with no easy answers. My own perception is that the City of London as a key centre of the financial industry continues to grapple with issues of morality, integrity, financial regulation and policy. Occupy has not driven that process, but by its work has and does keep it in the public eye as a priority for policy makers.

Some members of Occupy until recently were coming weekly to St Paul’s steps to meet together: and rather more are expected to come back to the site of their camp to mark the year’s anniversary. Although the camp and not St Paul’s has been their focus, there has been an effect on visitors, worshippers and particularly staff. There has been a legacy of hurt and anger on all sides from the camp, whether for the protesters  local residents and businesses, people involved in the City of London, or cathedral staff who had to deal with very challenging physical and emotional situations; and there has been considerable financial cost as well for all involved, in a difficult financial environment. We have worked with our staff in various ways to help address the personal issues which the camp left behind, and are conscious of ongoing hurts inside and beyond the Cathedral which we want to help resolve.

What major lessons have been learned by St Paul’s?

We have identified three main areas of learning:

(a) We need to be clear about our Christian values and what we stand for as a Cathedral. St Paul’s, as a large and iconic building, acts rather like a screen onto which people can project their negative as well as their positive feelings. Many of our visitors and worshippers are very positive in their view of the Cathedral, but the experience of the camp was that a lot of anger and frustration was directed onto St Paul’s and its staff. Some very vocal voices among protesters people in the City, church people and the media co-opted St Paul’s to be a part of their story, in a way which was very difficult for the Cathedral to withstand.

The fact that, on the one hand, many protesters believe that St Paul’s represents the ‘Establishment’, and on the other that many City people believe that the Cathedral was far too sympathetic to the protesters  shows that the reality was much more complex than the simple narratives being told about ‘what really happened’. We are currently working on clarifying our values and our vision, so that St Paul’s will have a strong identity which is less vulnerable to the projections which people bring, while being open to listen to the voices of others.

(b) Coming out of that, we recognise that our communications were not as good as they should have been. How many people know that the Chapter of St Paul’s had numerous meetings with both representatives of Occupy and with the City of London, in order to find a way through the situation which could honour the concerns of all sides? The unfortunate reality is that modern media work by looking for a narrative of simple conflict between two positions rather than exploring complex issues in depth, which is a major reason why the story of the camp at St Paul’s turned from an attempted occupation of the London Stock Exchange into a story about a confrontation between the protesters and St Paul’s. We are reviewing our communications structure and strategy in order to work with the media more effectively, including being better-equipped to cope with a fast-moving crisis.

(c) Partnership is the other area which the protest highlighted. The Cathedral did work with Occupy and the City, but it was not always successful, and we could have worked better with other people and organisations who have similar concerns, as well as making more use of the expertise available to St Paul’s. In particular St Paul's Institute has been engaged in work around social justice issues since 2003, and we shifted our focus onto finance with a significant programme on 'moral capitalism' in 2009. Since the Occupy camp's arrival last October we have hosted a dialogue with Michael Sandel on 'What Money Can't Buy' which received an audience of 1,800 people on the cathedral floor, and seminars in partnership with other groups on topics such as the Welfare State, predatory lending practices, the new norms of Capitalism, and an examination of models for direct democracy that included a facilitator of Occupy London general assemblies. We are looking to develop further effective partnerships for the future.

Have the wider population’s views of the financial world been shaped by the Occupy movement?

I met a couple of people yesterday, and in the course of conversation asked them what their profession was. They both apologetically said that they worked in banking. I don’t think that was directly because of Occupy, but I do think it’s because of some of the feelings that Occupy was expressing. The Occupy protests were an important symbol of people’s frustration with the lack of health of our financial and social institutions, and the ways in which they conduct their business which can impact negatively on the lives of most citizens, as the global financial crisis has done. The other side of the coin is that we still depend on financial institutions for much of our national income and pensions as well as day by day functioning of the economy, which means that simplistic views are easily dismissed by those in power. In my experience, many people are still looking for a positive way forward because they recognise that issues around global capitalism are difficult, but know that they have not found the right answers yet.

Is Occupy still needed as a movement and what should its next steps be?

The two key messages of Occupy are about the need to reform financial structures and to engage everyone in building a society more focused on sustainability, in order to work for the common good of all. That’s a message which we can all support. How we attain those goals is the difficult part. Occupy can bring a positive contribution to the process of working together to identify ways to reach those goals, and I hope that they will do so. How they do that is for them to decide.

Was Occupy’s message weakened by its refusal to leave the steps of St Paul’s?

‘Occupy’ as a word is associated with invasion and control, which as a general principle doesn't fit well with Occupy’s stated aims to build a sustainable, peaceful and just economic and political structure for the world. Occupation is a strategy for achieving an aim, and not the aim itself. The refusal by some protesters to stop occupying land around St Paul’s when requested to do so reinforced the message in the media that the object of the Occupy protest was St Paul’s rather than the financial and political institutions of the city and the country. St Paul’s wants to keep the focus on addressing the vital issues which our country and our world face, while looking at what these say to us about how we have acted in the past and what we will do in the future.