Protest

Published in the Wells Street Journal, Issue 13: “Disruption in the City” (2020)

It was a bright cold day in June and the clocks were striking thirteen. We were two hours in, standing in front of Downing Street when the skies opened up. The rain came first as a sprinkle, then a shower, then receded, cycling through these stages with maddening regularity. Umbrellas sprouted up from the crowd, bristling like legionnaire’s shields into a loose phalanx. Above the bustle, the shouts, and the patter of the rain, an MP was speaking.

“These are our streets,” she said with confidence, standing atop a stage covered by a simple tent. Raindrops rolled off the black canvas and fell to the concrete below. Police officers ambled around the crowd, puffing their chests out and making furtive small talk.

These are our streets. But are they? The MP was referring to the abstract, not the concrete. The path that the narrative will take, not the road that serves as its setting. Her claim was akin to that of protestors worldwide, though my mind leapt to Ferguson, to Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’s documentary Whose Streets?. The filmmakers interviewed people on the ground, reclaiming the narrative of the protest from a media that had demonised it, had turned it upside-down and ugly. 

The man whose narrative we were fighting outside Downing Street is a master of the upside-down and the ugly. His disregard for facts goes well beyond simple spin doctoring and into the realm of the pathological liar. From the stage, Richard Burgin quotes James Baldwin, saying, “ignorance, allied with power is the most ferocious enemy to justice”. But this absolves our enemy of too many of his sins. He is not merely ignorant and powerful. His hatred is pointed, maniacal, and intentional. 

In the rain, we were waiting for his version of the narrative, which came in the form of a tweet, as per usual. A spurious claim that we were there to support him. I will reply with the only language he seems to understand, a retweet, as selective as the memory and imagination of the man himself: “It was quite the opposite.” 

Walking among the crowds that had gathered beneath Nelson’s Pillar, the evidence of opposition was everywhere, and not just against him. Signs and placards, pamphlets, chants, and costumes, all advertising our discontent. We were against the Tories, against Boris, against privatisation of the NHS. We were against Brexit and the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestine. We were anti-antisemitism, anti-misogyny, anti-pollution. We were against Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia. We were against it all. Especially the hair. 

That ubiquitous hair. Somewhere between orange and gold and recognisable as Mr. Peanut’s monocle. Put the hair on a baby, a dog, a chicken, a toilet, and the analogy holds. We hated that hair. 

But I wondered, is it enough to hate? Can a group of people be united in such disparate and multitudinous antagonisms? Where was the agenda? What was the solution?

The solution remains to be seen, but the effort is all we have. The standing-in-the-rain, shouting, screaming, kicking, dancing, loving struggle is our only weapon against a mounting danger. It is a danger that goes by many names, as many names as there were signs above the crowd. But the danger is real. It is poisoning our rivers, our mouths, our minds. It is stealing from the poor and filling the vaults of the rich. It is in every bullet fired from a police officer’s gun and in the hands of every man who grabs at a woman. And it is in the narratives that protect those bullets, those hands. 

Across the barrier, past the reporters and photographers, I saw a sign: “Rights are won only by those who make their voices heard – Harvey Milk”. A chant of “Stand up fight back!” tore through the crowd and I joined in. I do not know what will fix the problems of the world. But in order to own the narrative we must sing. We must sing, and sing together, for nothing will be won with a solo. It is going to take a chorus. 

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