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St. Paul’s Cathedral reverses opposition to Occupy London Stock Exchange

The cathedral endorses protester rights; next challenge comes from City of London Corporation.

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Protestors from the 'Occupy London Stock Exchange' demonstration continue their occupation outside St Pauls Cathedral in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

LONDON, U.K. — Today was supposed to be D-Day for the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp site that has been set up alongside St. Paul's Cathedral. Protesters were expecting the cathedral's leadership to go to court to have them removed.

But in one of the biggest u-turns in public life here in many years, the Bishop of London, Dr. Richard Chartres, announced that the Chapter of St. Paul's was suspending its legal action.

In a statement on cathedral letterhead (which noted that today is All Saints Day) the bishop said:

The alarm bells are ringing all over the world. St. Paul's has now heard that call. Today's decision means that the doors are most emphatically open to engage with matters concerning not only those encamped around the Cathedral but millions of others in this country and around the world.

The bishop's announcement was followed late this afternoon by one from the Corporation of London's policy chairman, Stuart Fraser:

The church has changed its standpoint and announced it is suspending legal action on its land. Given that change, we've pressed the 'pause' button overnight on legal action affecting the highways, in order to support the cathedral as an important national institution and give time for reflection. ...

... We're hoping to use a pause, probably of days not weeks, to work out a measured solution.

It was business as usual at the encampment around lunch time today.

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St. Paul's is a gigantic building, shoe-horned into a cramped urban space. The tents of the Occupy London folks are jammed into a curving area along the west and north side of Sir Christopher Wren's architectural masterpiece. There are probably no more than a hundred tents on the site.

As in New York, the place is incredibly well-organized and self-policed for questions of order and cleanliness. It is also well-organized for the practical stuff: food, toilets, communications, medical treatment and legal advice as needed.

This isn't to say that the protest itself is clear-headed. There are posters aplenty for a grab bag of causes from stopping the war, finding alternatives to capitalism, and ending experiments on animals.

Still as office workers went past the encampment it was possible to detect a genuine curiosity and occasional admiration for what the protesters were doing.

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Theda Kimmerling, an accountant who works in the City said, "I support capitalism. I don't support the excesses of capitalism we see around the bonus culture."

Kimmerling grew up in South Africa and wondered what the protesters hoped to achieve by a non-hierarchical demonstration. She mused out loud about the Sharpeville Massacre — a massive protest that ended in bloodshed after police opened fire in the township, effectively sparking the anti-apartheid movement — and asked whether the demonstrators would be willing to risk their lives to make their point.

The limits of open democracy were on display at today's 1:30 general assembly meeting, an open forum to discuss Occupy business. A fellow of African ancestry dressed in dark robes and a very odd crown effectively hijacked the meeting with a comic rant based on his "Holy Book of Racial Government."

After five minutes he was politely asked to sit down. He refused. There followed a stand-off and then organizers tried to hustle him away. "Is it because I'm black?" he laughed, refusing to step aside. The police watched and didn't move.

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Eventually the meeting broke up amid mutterings that the guy was a paid provocateur. A possibility. The man was odd but not crazy. In any case, the organizers were unable to restore order.

Around the narrow pedestrian walkway from the action, Eloisa, manager of Dion's Wine Bar was philosophical about the protest. Her business is off. Last week, a long-standing booking for a party of 250 people was canceled.

"Don't get me wrong. I understand why they are there but business has to go on. Otherwise I'll be sleeping in a tent with them," she said.

Now that the cathedral has endorsed the protesters right to be on church property the main threat to the survival of the Occupy London tent city comes from the City of London Corporation.

In the legal advice tent, I found myself speaking with Terry (he wouldn't give his full name). Terry is not a lawyer but says, "I have lots of practical legal experience ... as a defendant."

He reckons the pressure will build up the weekend after next when two major events are set to make use of St. Paul's: the Lord Mayor's Show, an annual pageant, and Remembrance Sunday.

Per Stuart Fraser's statement about days rather than weeks, look for legal eviction moves to resume early next week.