On February 15th 2003, I was one of millions of people who took part in various anti-war marches across the world. It was the first protest I’d ever been on, and I was nervous. But as the world was teetering on the brink of something terrible, I simply had to get involved.
On the train journey down to London that day, I got talking to a man who was taking his wife and two young daughters on the march. “It’s important that my daughters get the chance to do this,” he said. “The last time I protested against anything, it was 1967 and I was marching against the Vietnam war in Washington.” In comparison, I’d only protested once before, eight years earlier, when I decided to stick a dictionary definition of “soap” to the wall of the toilets at college, with a scribbled demand that the cleaners refill the perpetually empty dispenser.* Still, it’s the taking part that counts.
To be honest, I don’t normally talk to strangers on trains. But on that particular day I felt like I could. The instant icebreaker was that we were all making the journey for the same reason. We were all on the same side. It meant that I could instigate a conversation with someone without worrying that they were going to pull out their mobile phone and film themselves kicking me into a coma.
There was just a wonderful feeling of solidarity. I marched alongside young families (kids holding handwritten placards and pushchairs with ‘Not in my Name’ balloons tied to them), groups of old women passing around tins of homemade biscuits, a group of operatic Italians singing rude songs about the Bush administration, demonstrators with blood-soaked hands, and people operating ten-foot papier mâché effigies of Bush and Blair. The march was also scored with a deafening chorus of whistles, which you could hear travelling towards you in an unstoppable wave of puffed chests, pursed lips and enthusiasm. (Oh, and I also saw Robert Newman and Miriam Margolyes!)
When my sister and I eventually reached Hyde Park that day (just as everyone was about to head home), it was announced that we’d been part of a two million strong march for peace. We threw our arms around each other in delirious celebration, as if George W. Bush had just announced that all U.S. military personnel were to be issued with Super Soakers to ensure that any incursions into Iraqi territory would be playful and ultimately cooling. And that shock and awe would involve nothing more than carpet bombing with bouncy, coloured balls so that Baghdad would look more like that Sony Bravia advert and less like a smouldering pile of death and rubble.
But of course, the war did happen. Tens of thousands of people died and we couldn’t stop it. However, as the wonderful Tony Benn explained in Michael Goldfarb’s Marching into History, the anti-war marches of that time, though unable to prevent the war, played an important role in shaping public opinion against it.
As with any protest, it’s important to be out there; to be visible. To be noisy and united.
The 2003 anti-war march was the first and last protest I went on. But it occurred to me the other day that the two daughters of the father I spoke to nearly eight years ago may well have been marching again recently – as protesting students.
I’m fully behind the student protests, and it’s been truly heartening to see consistently good turnouts at the marches that have been organised so far. However, I must admit that I’ve struggled to stifle the occasional groan whenever I’ve seen footage of violence and criminal damage being perpetrated by a minority of rampaging arseholes.
We all know that the press and news media loves to highlight the sporadic violence and mayhem of protests rather than cover the reason people are protesting in the first place. If one million people march in protest against something, but one person decides to take a piss against Starbucks’ window, the protest will inevitably end up as the supporting act to the headlining piss anarchist.
That protesters see the police as the enemy is perhaps understandable. After all, they’re sort of like The Man’s Praetorian Guard. They’re on the front line. But I’m always baffled by the fact that the press and news media are rarely viewed in the same way, yet they have the power to misrepresent, under-report and generally paint whatever damaging picture they like of the protests. It may as well be Kay Burley decked out in riot gear punching students in the face.
There always seems to be a scrum of well positioned photographers at the heart of any protest trouble. With their index fingers hovering in anticipation above their shutter-release buttons, acts of mayhem seem to magically appear before them. Surely, it would be better to starve the media of the images they crave?
When I think about what the press and news media has served up so far in relation to the student protests, it’s easy to think about the following:
There was one student (admittedly, one of several) who kicked in the window at Millbank Tower with such enthusiasm that it eventually fell out of its frame and crashed down onto him. The startled expression on his face suggested he was about to fall to the ground in a pile of fleshy, scalloped pieces. But instead, he quickly padded himself down to make sure he was still intact – like a cartoon character might after flying through a wall of cheese wire on the back of an Acme rocket – before charging into Tory HQ, whooping, pointing and winking at the scrum of photographers inside. (Imagine how the Fonz might have looked if he’d entered Al’s Diner through a smashed window in an extended ‘riot’ episode of Happy Days.)
I saw another student on the news who was furiously punching a police van with his bare hands. It was almost as if the van itself had briefly transformed into a robot, guffed in the student’s face (leaving him floundering in the eggy fog of an inefficient catalytic converter), before sputtering out a mechanical-sounding belly laugh at the prospect of his difficult, loan-saddled future.
Thankfully, another student protester – with a bigger brain and more common sense – called time on the pugilistic student’s fight with the van, and he swiftly moved on.
The other poster boy of the student protests was a lad who looked like a ropey Billy Idol skin from The Sims (he was wearing a waxed jacket, so presumably he’s a Billy Idol character you could go hunting and fishing with in Sim World). Stood in front of a vandalised and abandoned police van, he also wore an affected sneer and a police helmet, while giving the finger to a phalanx of delighted photographers. You can almost hear the photographers shouting at him: “You, over there! Put that helmet on for a minute, son! That’s right. Now stand in front of that vandalised police van and sneer a bit. Maybe give us the finger. Yeah, that’s the stuff. Beautiful! BEAUTIFUL!”
The photo could win an award for ‘image most desperate to be considered iconic’, but it just isn’t. Iconic photos are not made of tossers playing at being hellraisers. Iconic photos are made of this. (Strange how the photo of the schoolgirls linking hands to form a peaceful human barrier around the police van wasn’t splashed across the front page of the Mirror, eh?)
I think it was Billy Bragg who said that no one would’ve noticed the student protests if they’d marched peacefully and politely through the streets of London, before quietly making their way home. I do sort of agree with that. But on the other hand, a load of students smashing stuff up come across as no better than your average teenage delinquent knobends kicking in bus shelters on a Saturday night.
I much prefer inventive and mischievous protesting. I particularly enjoyed the fact that demonstrators at yesterday’s UK Uncut protests managed to super-glue their hands to the inside of Topshop’s window in Brighton. Great photo opportunity, and not a smashed police van or hurled fire extinguisher in sight.
I always thought it would be a great idea for a load of protesters to dress up in specially designed jumpsuits and crash helmets, adorned with a variety of wobbling, lubricated dildos. These protesters would make up the elite ‘Porncupine Division’ and would offer a line of defence against the police (and bad press coverage). I’d love to see the Daily Mail’s picture editor attempting to find a suitable protest photo for their damning front page headline, when all they have is 500 images of police hopelessly grappling with a wall of 12-inch cocks.
And behind that impenetrable wall of slippery sex toys, other protesters could be laying foundations rather than smashing stuff up. In the students case, why not cement a load of memorial plant pots in the middle of the road in memory of their higher education (before the ConDems got their hands on it).
When the Bush-Blair years ended, I thought we’d have nothing else to unite against. Nothing else to protest. Nothing else to fight. But it seems like direct action and protest marches are necessary now more than ever. Let’s just make sure we do it right.
For every idiot kicking hell out of a police van or shop window, I very much hope there are ten high school students like 15-year-old Barnaby. He and students like him are the future. Good thing too – his speech will give you chills.
*I had soap within 24hrs.