It was the protest camp that sprung up in the heart of the City, shamed the established church over its apparent cosiness with the financial élite and forced a debate on corporate greed and inequality within modern Britain.
But after four months of permanent protest and a lengthy battle in the courts, the bailiffs finally came to clear Occupy London Stock Exchange. The largely peaceful eviction – which began with the arrival of riot police in the small hours of yesterday morning – came as little surprise to the protesters, who last week lost their court battle against the City of London Corporation to keep their permanent demonstration going.
But there was considerable shock and anger directed towards St Paul's Cathedral following accusations that the church had allowed police to clear the building's steps of demonstrators, some of whom were praying as they were dragged away.
Although much of the pavement outside the building is the property of the City of London Corporation, demonstrators believed they would be safe from eviction on the cathedral steps, which are not covered by the eviction order. When bailiffs and riot police began evicting the camp shortly after midnight, a handful of protesters and Christians gathered on the steps of the cathedral in prayer. They were mostly left alone until shortly after 3am, when police began to forcibly remove them. Symon Hill, a protester from the Christian think tank Ekklesia who was present at the eviction, told The Independent: "I was removed three times by police from the steps whilst I was praying. It was deeply shocking. One of the questions that must be answered is, 'when did St Paul's give permission to the police to evict praying Christians from the cathedral's steps?'"
A carefully worded statement released by St Paul's after the eviction made no mention of the forcible removals from the steps of the cathedral. Instead, it effectively welcomed the clearance of the camp, stating only that the cathedral regretted that such a removal had to be done by bailiffs.
"In the past few months, we have all been made to re-examine important issues about social and economic justice and the role the cathedral can play," the statement said. "We regret the camp had to be removed by bailiffs but we are fully committed to continuing to promote these issues through our worship, teaching and [the St Paul's] Institute."
In a video obtained by The Independent, City of London police officers were filmed telling protesters they had permission from St Paul's to remove them from the steps. But when pressed for further comment, the cathedral denied giving specific instructions to the police. "The police did not ask for permission from us regarding any aspect of the action taken last night, but we were clear that we would not stand in the way of the legal process or prevent the police from taking the steps they needed to deal with the situation in an orderly and peaceful manner," a cathedral spokesman said.
Canon Giles Fraser, a senior Anglican clergymen who resigned from St Paul's in protest at the early attempts by the cathedral to evict the protesters, said it was "sad day" for the church. "Riot police clearing the steps of St Paul's Cathedral was a terrible sight," he said.
Rumours that an eviction was imminent first began to swirl around the camp shortly after midnight, when a large number of police officers started gathering nearby. Many of those inside the camp began packing up tents early in anticipation of the bailiffs. Gary Sherborne, 50, said: "We haven't got any choice and I'd rather protect the tent for another day without it being destroyed."
Others decided to make a final stand atop a jumbled collection of wooden pallets erected in front of the cathedral. Riot officers surrounded the makeshift fort as bailiffs removed the protesters one by one. Police officers said the removals were largely peaceful, although there were sporadic instances of missiles being hurled at police. About 20 people were arrested.
In a statement put out after the eviction, Occupy London Stock Exchange promised that it would return, hinting that another large-scale action would take place in May.
"Be assured that plans are already afoot: plans of some ambition, employing a diversity of tactics and delivered with the aplomb you would expect from us," the group's statement said. "All will be revealed in time. May is one of our favourite months."
But the number of spaces open to Occupy protesters is rapidly diminishing. Overnight there was also a second eviction at another Occupy site – a building in Islington that had been taken over by the protesters and dubbed "The School of Ideas".
Bulldozers quickly moved in following the eviction to pull the building down, as investors plan to turn the block into new flats. That leaves only one Occupy site left in London at Finsbury Square. So far there has been no attempt by Islington Council to evict the site, but they have not ruled it out.
Occupy protesters insisted they would return to the City despite the loss of the camp. As George Barda, who had camped outside St Paul's for the past four and a half months, said: "We will very much be back to this space where people have been assembling for 800 years."
From all walks of life: Voices from the occupation
Peter Danbi, 47, Twickenham
I am a private stock market investor. I wasn't your usual occupier, but I had seen the injustice in our corporations, with directors paying themselves huge bonuses at the expense of shareholders.
I would go down to the camp every day. It was certainly a lifestyle change – formulating economic policy in a tent, with a gale blowing and snow falling outside. But it was an extraordinary experience. We were a little microcosm of humanity, with its positive and negative sides. The site attracted a lot of people with problems with drink and drugs. It made debates on policy difficult when you had someone there shouting. It was frustrating and made us realise that making society better is not a simple thing.
But I think we did change a lot. Stephen Hester and the rail bosses dropping their bonuses, the Labour Party policy on tax loopholes, Nick Clegg's policy on a "John Lewis economy" – all these things owe something to Occupy, even though not all politicians would admit it.
"There was nowhere else occupiers wanted to be. The St Paul's spirit will survive"
Harjeet Kaur, 35, Berkshire
I'm no economist, but I've known things haven't been right for some time. I work in supported housing, with some of society's most vulnerable people. I see the daily struggles that the people at the bottom go through and it's for them that I went to the St Paul's camp.
Occupy could inspire people. One woman who had come all the way from New York kissed me on both cheeks and told us she loved what we were doing. Parents and even grandparents would sometimes come to show their children and grandchildren what was happening.
It was hard at times – sleeping in a tent when its -5C outside is always going to be hard. But there was the pleasure you got from being there with people with shared ideals. At the most difficult times, there was nowhere else an occupier wanted to be. We are a team now, with a strong foundation and the spirit of the St Pauls camp will survive.
"Being part of Occupy has made me believe people can make a difference"
Saskia Kent, 47
I went to join the Occupy camp only days after it was set up. Modern social media had shown me everything that had happened in London and across the world. I felt like I had to go and support it. I had waved a few placards and attended a few protests but I had never done a thing like this before. I just felt so appalled by the social and economic injustice – by the stranglehold that large corporations have on our politicians, so that as a voter, you feel powerless.
Occupy was an opportunity to stand up and be counted. We had a community where everybody's voice was heard – the antithesis of the boardroom culture of the UK. That will be my most important personal memory - being part of that Occupy family. It has made me believe that people can make a difference.
"The place became the most important thing in my life. Slowly we found our voice"
Jack Dean, 26, Brixton
After attending the first protest that established the camp, I would go back every day after work. The place became the most important thing in my life. At first, my girlfriend and I just went to listen. We would sit in at all the meetings and just absorb it all. Slowly we found our voice and became more involved. That's what the camp society did. It made you recognise that part of living in any society – big or small – is taking responsibility for its future, being prepared to speak out.
I'll miss the atmosphere of the camp. There were so many beautiful, poetic moments. I remember a gig one night under the cathedral, and just as the music began the snow began to fall.
I feel like the shared vision of people in the camp is such a powerful thing it won't leave those of us. After the camp, you can't go back to just whingeing about things that are wrong. You have to take action.
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