Samba under fire from Stop the War
An interesting debate sparked on UK IndyMedia a few days ago, as part of the Stop the War Coalition’s post-op briefing from the supposed anti-Trident march was reposted for all to see. The part in question concerns the actions of the Samba Band in which I played. Its got me thinking a bit about the way Samba bands work on route marches, and about the whole issue of ‘space’, as opposed to ‘route’, when protesting.
The great thing about being a Samba band is the effect you have on space when your playing. When you play on a march, you can gather huge numbers of people around you, simply because you’re more interesting than the rest of the march. When it comes to blockading, you can effectively block a large entrance area, either by yourselves or by drawing people into your blockade. The problem is, often we’re more powerful than we realise, and sometimes we completely mishandle our space-making and space-filling capacities.
On the protest in question, our decision to stop wasn’t really a decision, it was more the effect of the narrowing of the road at Piccadily Circus, and the crowds of people dancing around us. Our whole section of the protest got a bit clogged, with the people dancing ahead of us preventing us from going anywhere. As we came to a standstill, the party seemed to intensify, the street held open for those around to celebrate. But why?
It isn’t all a statement of defiance to Stop the War, though most of us are sick and fed up with the suffering marchers attitude, the one that says “we’re going to all the effort and hardship of being here”. Actually, Samba players do undergo hardship, you should have seen the size of some of the blisters people got that day! I think the idea seems to be to show some kind of alternative, some kind of refusal to let the state of the world drag us down.
Its about reclaiming the space from those who seek to control the way we communicate our politics, and challenging the assumptions that are being made about it; that it is a somber space, that it is an ordered space, that it forms part of a continuum which delivers people from point A to point B, or more correctly, from a starting location to somewhere we can be subjected to speeches. And on this occaision, they were particularly dire.
The odd thing about the letter and those few who defended it on IndyMedia is the assumption that somehow only the band wanted the band to be where it was. As it happened, there were around 500 people dancing around us and many more who seemed content with the situation. Most people felt that when they got to the square, the fun would be over, so the refusal to get there in a hurry made some kind of sense.
Sometimes I call this tactic/tendency “arrival avoidance”, and I’ve got quite good at it, even removing a smaller band to play on a traffic island just beside the march, about 50 meters before Trafalgar Square. Passing marchers enjoyed our presence, and we were able to give solidarity to a group who’s friends was arrested, effectively helping them plug-up the march and demand their friend’s release. We weren’t successful, but we made the statement anyway.
When you go on protests which are a little less well stage-managed, things get much more interesting. The No Borders protest a few weeks back comes to mind as a great example. We got off the bus and played as we walked along the pavement. When we reached the entrance to the detention centre, we admired the ‘pig pen’, the area surrounded by waist-high fencing, and decided not to enter it. The problem was, most people in the band didn’t go straight for the large area of empty space between the band and some of the asylum seekers, who had marched right up to where the police tried to establish their line.
The gap was almost painful to watch, as it became clear that Samba needed to take it, first to allow more of those in the Pig-pen to get out (we were blocking the entrance), and second to solidify the group right at the front. The police could have much easier pushed them back into us before we eventually shuffled forwards, by which time, they’d have had to move a band and a handful of asylum seekers with banners. In a sense, we created the space into which asylum seekers felt able to bring their message.
Samba bands can claim space, empty space, fill space and more besides. I just wish we’d learn to use our space-shifting abilities in a more effective way.