Last Monday I went on the ‘Emergency demo against Trump’s #Muslimban and UK complicity’ outside Downing Street in London.
I was a little apprehensive about attending. Unlike the previous Women’s March, which was heavily organised and planned, this was just an impromptu thing planned on Facebook. I know if the organiser had sought ‘permission’ or jumped through the inevitable administrative hoops ‘good’ protests are supposed to. I also wondered if it were actually legal to protest so close to Parliament, since they passed that odd law arising from the stop-the-war protesters actions in Parliament Square. Whilst the Facebook post had a list of speakers, a time frame (6pm-8pm) and a location (Downing Street), it didn’t have any other details. I really had no idea what to expect.
However, I did feel the urge to do something. The situation with Trump and May in the previous week was, frankly, vomit-inducing. The fact that our Prime-minister had run over there so quickly, and had known about the ‘Muslim Ban’ before it came into being, and had stood next to Trump and denied having any problem makes me ashamed. I truly believe that it is against the principles of a civil society to discriminate in such a way, and it’s not hard to see the justifications for both Trump and May’s actions are predominantly based on poor reasoning/false evidence, or on philosophical positions I consider morally lacking.
However, in the end my attendance at the demo came down to a few important points:
- I didn’t want to just stand by and be complicit. It’s hard to work out how to do anything to change what our governments do, but I want to be able to say ‘I stood up and protested, I did what I could think of‘.
- People say protest doesn’t work. Sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it’s not. But fundamentally I wasn’t protesting to ‘achieve’ anything beyond joining with thousands of other people to say ‘We don’t agree. We don’t accept this‘.
- I wanted to be part of a community that shared my opinions. Protests are diverse, but in the end, it’s rejuvenating to realise that you are surrounded by thousands of people who also believe similar things to you. It’s a powerful medicine against the day-to-day pressure of dealing with the negative, racist, selfish, isolationist opinions of others.
- The slightly non-specific (e.g. there wasn’t an overall ‘aim’ accept to show objection to recent events) made it a good ‘pilot-study’ protest to attend: I wasn’t emotionally invested in a specific outcome, I wasn’t expecting anything in particular, and the protest seemed low-risk and relatively safe. There are a number of protests coming up that are of interest to me and closer to me heart, and I wanted to undertake a little ‘research’ before attending those.
What was the protest like?
- The atmosphere was good. I haven’t protested since the stop-the-war days, where kettling was pretty common and the police were often present in high numbers and riot gear. Overall the atmosphere from protesters was relaxed, engaged but not angry, and not overexcited or anxious. Despite there being far more people at this protest (they filled the Mall from Leicester Square down to Westminster) then some of the much more heavily policed stop-the-war protests, I hardly saw a police officer. When we left the protests, c.8pm on the Westminster end, there were two distantly-spaced lines of officers we had to pass through, but that was the first time I saw police. There were clearly police horses present at some point, but they’d been withdrawn by the time we passed out of the area.
- The organisation was non-existent. This was definitely a ‘protest’ rather than one of the organised marches. There were no wardens, no volunteers, no one organising anything. We turned up, walked as far as we could towards the mass of people (in my case, as far as the Cenotaph) and then stood for two hours and chanted. If there were speeches, we didn’t hear a damn thing, despite being within sight of the Downing Street gates where the protest was supposed to be centres.
- It was friendly but not wildly so. I didn’t make friends with anyone new, or do more than exchange a few words. I’d gone with two friends, and we spent the time between chanting catching up with each other. I don’t know how much I’d have enjoyed it if I’d have gone on my own, but maybe if I’d been on my own I’d have been more pushy about talking to people? I don’t know.
- It wasn’t (at) all about Trump. By the time of the protest, it was actually mostly aimed at our Prime-minister. Trump was definitely a big part of it, but I’m actually glad that most of the focus of the chanting and placards was on what our government was doing.
So it felt safe, it wasn’t difficult to participate in, it was spontaneous and enjoyable. Did it achieve anything? Well, I felt better for catching up with like-minded people. I felt encouraged, and supported, and galvanised to do more. I felt relieved that I could stand up and say ‘not in my name’. I got some introductory practice in preparing for and participating in protest actions, and it feels like that in this climate that is also important.
Did other people have a good time, and would it have been worth you going? Hard to say. This definitely didn’t feel like a coherent ‘movement’. It was a bunch of people, some with quite different motivations, hanging out to make it clear they didn’t agree with what the government was doing. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – I think it demonstrates how galvanising the issue was.
Are more of this kind of protest likely to happen? I just don’t know. Politician’s don’t cave to protests…well, not until those protests reach the kind of extent and power that we haven’t seen in the UK for a very long time. But politicians aren’t blind or deaf. They see the protests and they see the anger. And other people, in our country and around the world, see that there are many of us who are fighting for a different way. It’s important to show those people that they’re not alone either – or that not everyone tolerates their views. That’s important, and I think that’s good enough.