The first thing I noticed was that this was a very different type of protest. I’ve been going to protests since my late teens – my first one was the X case in Dublin. In the UK, I’ve been to several of the big ones and even organised music for a couple. It’s fairly easy to predict the type of crowd – artists, left-wingers, Green Party activists, SWP. There will be the hardcore protesters who will do the usual ‘fuck the police’ sort of schtick.
Today was different.
I didn’t get to the protest until a bit later in the afternoon and, coming out of Westminster Station, I noticed the crowd seemed fairly substantial still. Many were crowd around a drummer using call and response. The way they were interacting with him was deeply tribal and not something one often sees in the UK. The last time I’d felt anything like this was in the West Country, in Laurie Lee’s pub in Slad, where I felt the pumping of blood in the veins at the entrance of strangers – are they friends or foes? Today there was a similar pumping energy, the anger hidden deep under layers of tolerance and stoicism in deference to the enlightened mind. Placards with ‘Il Buce’, ‘Cummings Stain’, ‘Irrelevant’ (about the Queen).
Protesters of all ages. Two little older ladies with elegant blue hats adorned with yellow flowers, something in the way they clutched their placards indicating they would happily beat Boris to a pulp. Young men who wouldn’t look out of place in Sloane Square, looking slightly bemused, as if they had arrived from a different planet, but were entering into the spirit of things, chanting and clapping and whooping approval at the anti-proroguation slogans. Different organisations – Another Europe is Possible, the SWP, Labour, the Lib Dems, Stop Brexit, the Greens – united in their common cause. People from all backgrounds, visibly showing up.
I walked a bit further up Whitehall, and came upon a group shouting anti-fascist slogans. I went a little closer and saw there were police surrounding some Tommy Robinson supporters (I later found out one of the was Robinson’s sidekick Danny Tommo). There was a group in front of the police with linked arms, barricading their exit. Someone turned around and asked would anyone take their place. I said yes and stepped in. I didn’t think about it.
I could see the police officers were a bit nervous.
‘You have plans for the rest of the day?’ asked one of me.
‘No, not at all,’ I said. ‘What about yourself?’
‘No, I can stay here all night,’ he said, before looking a bit askance as he realised the possible implications of what he had just said.
I could feel the people I was linking arms with trembling – I sensed that this might have been their first protest. As I later found out, they had not expected to be fronting off against the police, but they too had stepped in. One was from Welwyn Garden City; the other, a Londoner from Chiswick. We chatted to the policemen. Apart from the obvious power dynamics going on, it was pretty pleasant.
About a half-hour later, the group unlinked as the police started to escort the Robinson supporters, and in turn were escorted by anti-fascist protesters to make sure they did not reach Parliament Square. It’s a weird thing to have realised; but I knew denying them access to what they see as their parliament with their prime minister was striking a blow against what they see as ‘their’ entitlement. These are small things; but they matter.
Past the Cabinet Office, festooned with placards. Some protesters and tourists alike had gathered around Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard. Not normal, yet normal. A group of protesters in their 20s past, shouting something along the lines of ‘Boris! You liar! Get back on your zipwire!’ Energised. Enervated. Something stirring. I made my way to Trafalgar Square where traffic had been stopped by a sit-down protest, which was later to result in the arrest of the Green Party councillor Caroline Russell. A little boy of about 10 with his father arguing with a blond girl of about 15 about how she was wrong, and that shutting down Parliament was wrong. Her friend, a mixed-race girl, stood sheepish and silent. I wondered which friendships had been broken over this period.
A young police officer came over to me and started his ‘if you can move on please’ speech. I interrupted him and said:
‘Do you mind if I ask you something?’
‘No, go ahead,’ he said, a bit taken off guard.
‘Do the police have a plan in the event of a no-deal Brexit?’
‘Erm…well, yes, we’ve been briefed on it, and there are plans in place…’
‘You do realise it’s going to be a lot worse than today if that goes ahead?’
‘Erm, yes, but we have a job to do and that is to uphold the peace…’
‘I’m aware of that, and I’m not having a go at you. I know you have a job to do. But I’m curious – what are you defending?’
‘Well, we’re defending London, that’s our job. And we’re defending London’s economy and jobs…And the law’
‘Right. However, I think London is a big enough economy that it can withstand a day, or even a few weeks of protest. But when Parliament is shut down for such a long time – it’s preventing the people who sit in there, the lawmakers, from doing their jobs for us. So, in essence, law-making is being stopped.’
‘Look, miss, I’m not saying we don’t agree with you, and if we were in a pub and talking about this, I might have some very different things to say. My day off has been cancelled, and I’m tired, and I’m just doing my job.’
‘I totally understand, and again, I’m not having a go at you. I know that everything that is happening is probably way beyond your pay grade, and I feel for you on that. I am just saying that you might have to take sides in the coming weeks or months. And the law isn’t always right.’
The crowd moved. I lost sight of the young police officer. He seemed sweet and totally out of his depth. It’s hard. We probably could have had a really nice drink and chat in that pub.
A belligerent, red-faced man came in our midst with his wife, shouting ‘Bo-Ris! Bo-Ris! Bo-RIS!!’ Over him I shouted ‘Fascist’ to drown him out. The crowd around us joined in. We locked eyes as the chants, ever-changing, battled each other. I could see how this will be – mano a mano, till one side overcomes.
I left, more convinced than I had been at the beginning, that this was a very different type of protest. It goes beyond tribalism, beyond background, beyond class, beyond political affiliation and speaks to something much deeper: the soul of a country, the soul of its people. Neither side might win, but one side will definitely prevail.