Notes on recent events I have been to or adventures that have been had. Use the ‘Adventures’ category on this site to see other posts in the series.
Anti-Brexit protest movement
Park Lane to Parliament Square, Saturday 23rd March.
It was the Brexit March. Or the Put It To The People March. Or the People’s Vote March. Whatever it was called, it was extremely well attended, and took place on Sunday 23rd March. To some, perhaps it was too late to change anything, but the march was still a protest against Brexit and the negotiations that have been taking place over the last couple of years. It bought together a large swathe of people from all backgrounds and with of a lot of different opinions – though I think that some of the speakers sort of forgot that. I popped my protest cherry here, and found a sense of community that I’ve not seen in central London in a good while.
The march was organised through several outlets and organisations, championed by newspapers, political groups, celebrities and campaigners. I live near the start, and if I’m serious about saying I wish we could remain part of Europe – my line of thinking went – then I don’t have an excuse not to go. Packing a bottle of water, a flask of tea, some biscuits and some trail mix, I set out for a quick stroll to Park Lane, and a long and oh so very slow walk towards Parliament Square.
You’ll read that there were a million people there. You’ll read that there were 250,000. You’ll read estimations at all levels and beyond. I’ve even read that pictures of the crowd were CGI. Being in the crowd, having functional eyes and ears, and not being a computer image myself, I’m, I don’t know, reasonably certain that the CGI claim was a bit bunk. Regarding figures, a Wired report on the march attendance notes that most large crowds are probably overestimated, and have been for a long time.
On the fun side, the day was filled with an exciting sense of camaraderie. People arrived from all over the country, from Devon to Scotland, and came together in a mix of age, background and ethnicity. Together, we proclaimed that we like Europe. After years of muted political language from the leadership, it was refreshing to hear. People were incredibly polite to each other as they made their way slowly along the route, with lots of ‘sorry’ and ‘excuse me’ as people manoeuvred themselves forward.
The protest was so peaceful that I once saw an offer in a police car, keeping himself busy playing sudoku. That the police were able to get some down time, among so many people, is a very good sign for our ability to be civilised and behaved, even in large numbers.
And the numbers were large, even if the exact count can never be known. The march started at midday and finished at 4pm. At no point over the entire protest did I see any gap in the crowds, or any sight of the beginning or end of the march. It was huge, and even raised vantage points only allowed for the sight of even more people, not an end to them. The numbers were so large that by 1pm, as my section of the crowd were still standing at the start, people started getting restless as yet another speaker took to the dais in Park Lane. The organisers had to settle the crowd by letting them know it was so big that the front had already set off an hour earlier… we were just waiting for the movement to catch up with us. That’s a lot of people.
It took two hours for my section of the march to even Park Lane and turn towards Piccadilly in an interminably slow walk. By the time 4pm rolled around, I had only made it to Trafalgar Square, and I am told that it was pretty solid from there down to Parliament Square. I was glad for packing some snacks. And tea. Only getting to Trafalgar Square meant that I didn’t get to hear the closing speeches, sadly, but could see one of the screens that had been set up nearby. The crowd around me generally watched in curious silence, but there were definitely plenty of boos that went up every time certain politicians showed up on the screens (Johnson, Farage and Mogg eliciting the largest ones).
Speeches at the start were from predominantly left-wing groups. They were interesting, but I’d say they failed to appreciate that the crowd wasn’t fully left-leaning. Some of their harsher rhetoric certainly caused extensive muttering around me. I felt that some of the speakers seemed to forget the diversity of the people before them extended into political views as well. But on the whole the message was good. We were all allied together in the call for us to be acknowledged: the leave/remain referendum was too simplistic. It was only a slim victory, it should probably have had Alternative Voting on the options, and – as we have clearly seen since the vote – it didn’t actually give a clear mandate on how to leave.
When anyone says the people have spoken, or the will of the people is [insert whatever], they are disingenuously forgetting that nearly half of the voters don’t agree with that, and no one knows for sure what the 10 million who didn’t vote think. But, I feel, no matter which side won, the other side was never going to suddenly flip their opinion, and even if there was a future referendum number two and/or Article 50 got revoked, the ‘winning’ side needs to understand that the population of this country is still extremely divided in its opinion. Without active work to re-join the sides, we will have a crippling new social division in our country unless people stop talking in black and white. Some of the people at the march, and some of the speakers guiding it on, would do well to remember that.
A lot of marchers took placards – either mass-produced political party ones, or homegrown efforts. Many were pretty amusing, it was fun to see the collective sense of humour at work. Others were, of course, deliberately offensive – there were some strong opinions driving people to the march. Chants were relatively tame, simple and invoking participation. Cheers periodically roved up and down the length of the march, and several groups of DJs or marching bands were mixed in throughout. This gave the whole thing a fairly carnival-like affair, even though there wasn’t an enormous amount of chatter within the crowd. When I met several people at a bar afterwards, they mentioned that on previous marches they’ve chatted to more people mid-march, and that this one, although polite and jovial, wasn’t good at actually generating much mingling. I think I got that feeling too. I didn’t really chat to anyone during my time in the middle of the throng.
Post-march, the bars around Trafalgar Square were extremely busy, but the bar staff admirably keep up with the volume of customers. It was here, in the bars, that I found a welcoming and highly engaging group of people. It may just have been the result of being on a high, excited after a day of being part of something, but groups proved to be very open to talking to each other and welcoming strangers into their fold. It was almost possible to tell who hadn’t been on the march, by the way they didn’t engage so readily with those around them.
I’ve often felt that the bars of London (and other environs in the UK as well) have lost the ability to let cross-socialising happen. People go out in their group, chat to only their friends, and then go home or elsewhere. I think that’s disappointing, given that pubs and bars should be a place for communities to come together and mingle. It was good to see the resistance to strangers blown apart by the people at the march, and fun to chat to people of completely different backgrounds form those I’d not normally meet.
It will be nice if this march, alongside the ever-growing ‘Revoke Article 50’ petition, does turn the course of discussion in UK politics – but I think a lot of us knew that it might not have much of an impact, in the face of such stubborn politics that seem to govern us these days. But everyone at the march was glad they were there, and glad everyone else was there. It showed a lot of us that we are not just out own little group of friends how happen to agree with each other; that we are in agreement with a lot of other people out there, too.
At the very least, it was good to see that. And good to experience my first march. And it was even better that it was peaceful. I can always say I was there and that I wanted to be counted; that I didn’t just agree to whatever nonsense about the ‘will of the people’ is being spouted.
Plus, I had tea.