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Jonty Langley Headshot

Preoccupied At St Pauls

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ST PAULS
PA

The policeman preventing our exit from the protest said to me: "Your t-shirt is a bit of a giveaway." It wasn't a fashion criticism. My shirt had 'poverty is political' printed on it. And that was enough of a reason to keep me and my friends within a police-cordoned area from which they were only releasing those not involved in Saturday's Occupy the LSE protest.

Now, you may question the wisdom of responding to an attempt to occupy a public space by not allowing protesters to leave (or indeed my commitment for wanting to leave at home), but beneath the silliness is something a little sinister.

In the Middle East and North Africa, when people challenged vested interests and the structures of power ('rulers and principalities', if you will), those powers responded with beatings and bullets. In democracies they sometimes respond more subtly. If you will consort with people of a certain political persuasion, if you will express your outrage at the worship of Mammon that has come to dominate our government, if you will not censor your mildly political t-shirt, you are quite literally separated from other citizens and you no longer have access to the same rights as them. You are encouraged, in short, to be a little bit afraid.

More violent regimes do not need to shoot all protesters. Just enough to frighten the others back home. Police here, where we dissidents are softer and currently less desperate, only need to 'kettle' people once or twice for its threat to be enough to discourage many from demonstrating at all. Low-grade, subtle intimidation is the name of the game. If you wish to leave you must show us some identification. If you participate, we will take your picture. We will know who you are.

It's hardly Tunisia, but it doesn't have to be. There, similar tactics were often used on Christians. Secret police would be outside churches, taking photographs and names. Going to church was not illegal, but the intimidating power of such simple observation was profound.

This is not, of course, a criticism of the people serving as police themselves. In my experience they are usually very polite and reasonable. But let's be in no doubt who they are working for. Their presence last week was not as a neutral thin blue line any more than police in Tahrir Square were.

This was a disorganised, poorly thought-out protest, to be sure. And occupying St Pauls is not much of a statement about anything. But far from being a criminal threat, the behaviour, slogans and placards I saw expressed nothing more than what many of us feel instinctively: that too few people have far too much. That there is something wrong with a world financial system that can produce millionaires with gold toilet seats and computers that are essentially disposable and yet will not feed the hungry. That governments of all political stripes seem to care more about the rich and their businesses than they do about human beings. I don't think anyone, however timid, should be made to feel afraid to express these things.

When we read of how on World Food Day this weekend, one in seven human beings on the planet went hungry and so many of us threw food away, surely we all sensed the system was broken? When we saw last week the empty office space and eviction-cleared homes and read about the growing numbers of homeless on our streets, surely we knew in our hearts that it was not right? When we contemplated government using taxes to save big businesses but planning to reduce help for distressed people, did we think God was pleased?

You don't have to be a Christian to sense the injustice here. In fact, one of the best signs at the protest was carried by a young Muslim woman and said something like: 'What did you expect from a system that accepts usury?'

As this movement grows, I hope the Christian Church, too, will choose to stand on the right side of the cordon.

This piece first appeared in The Baptist Times