Thoughts on Demo2011, London

Tuesday, 1st February 2011 at 9:00 UTC Leave a comment

Three days ago I ran a coach to a demonstration against attacks on Education in Britain. Turnout was perhaps surprisingly good, with around 10,000 on the streets, including Trade Unionists and parents groups. We marched to Millbank, the Tory HQ, and from there to the Egyptian Embassy to show solidarity with those fighting against the same corruption in another part of the world.

Taking the march as a whole would be the ideal way to analyse it. A generation waking up to the connections between what the media treats as unrelated events. Vodafone dodge their UK taxes. Vodafone pledge to keep their mobile networks shut down ‘till order is restored’ in Egypt. A dictatorship in Egypt, a government formed from fair elections in Britain, but neither with the legitimacy of popular support. People taking to the streets as their only hope for a suitable change of course.

Getting off the coach in London, we were all pretty happy to get things under-way. We made our way to the steps of ULU to allow people to use loos, and found ourselves a few feet from the abortive attempt at an opening rally. The march got off to a quick start, and began making its way down Mallet Street to be confronted by a really annoying set of road works that meant the march was forced into a 5 foot wide alley between Harris-fences and buildings.

The march then proceeded pretty much as a march normally does. We didn’t see what happened at Top Shop, but we did spontaneously yell at them. Having not really done much of that in York, I found it good to see York students and residents taking them on. We found amply targets along the way, as if sewing a story more complex than almost any protest I’ve been on – taxes unpaid, government in cahoots with rich (Downing Street), Parliament ineffective, Police on their side (Millbank), people across the world refusing to take this crap.

Its true that our arrival at Millbank was a less than satisfying moment. The rally we expected had already vanished, and we were left to enjoy a few odd moments of theatrics; 4 girls lying down on the steps, then moving to another location – people holding banners in really dramatic ways. We then realised that people were moving onwards, and we began to follow. It wasn’t that we were being sheep and following a heard; some of us were already eager to visit the Egyptian embassy right after the protest, and had even discussed branching at Parliament Square. We followed the crowds eagerly awaiting confirmation that they were thinking in tune with ourselves.

To say the operation was a success is perhaps an overstatement – true we arrived where we should have, but we also had a couple of navigation errors in our 500-strong block. We missed two signed turnings to Hyde Park Corner, the first by Victoria station, and the one we eventually took heed of was practically in Knightsbridge. That someone had managed to lead the demonstration the wrong way for so long was a bit bizarre, but perhaps they thought a wild goose chase route better than a direct route. My legs beg to differ.

We saw a bus with a tourist advert for Egypt, the slogan of which was “Egypt – Where it all begins…”. We stopped for photos. We reached Hyde Park Corner and met another crowd, and making a huge noise, joined them in a march up Park Lane and into the dense terraces of the diplomatic district that surrounds Grosvenor Square, to where we found thousands milling around in the block surrounding the Egyptian Embassy. “David Cameron, loose your smile, lets do this Egyptian style” began the chants. There appeared the customary bonfires, police lines and people sitting down to relieve the leg pain. We convened a meeting.

It might have been simpler to simply dictate that we should head directly home, but feeling a need for democracy, I didn’t. We traipsed slightly aimlessly but generally east, just south of Oxford Street till we reached Piccadilly Circus. We stopped outside a Boots, but everyone was too tired to make the obvious point. I guided everyone to the northern edge of Trafalgar Square, where we passed the Portrait Gallery and ended up in the Chandos, a Sam Smiths pub. Cheap Ale, and the sense of Yorkshire Pride overwhelmed us as much as the pain in our legs.
Job done.

Was it right to go to the Embassy? Yes. Did it keep the message simple? No. People complain when protest oversimplifies things, and then complain when we start to draw smart conclusions. I’d rather be guilty of the latter – call it snobbery, call it academic elitism, it just feels better.

I read a post on a Labour website condemning the march and describing the movement as toxic for Labour interests to be involved. The main objection seems to be conflation of Egypt and Britain and the lack of a concluding rally to bring closure to the event. I stand by what I wrote in response, so I’ll repost it here:

“The author completely misses the point: both democratically elected and undemocratically imposed governments can find the support of the populace. Both of these have lost it, because they have packed their cabinets with business people concerned only with profits (Al-Jazeera English claim on Egypt’s, cf. number of millionaires in Britain’s). Both are places where people have no recourse to realise popular desires. Both places have governments without legitimacy.

Yesterday’s protests joined the dots between tax avoidance and austerity, and between elitist governments both in London and Cairo. Yes, numbers were smaller, but not insignificant – after all, its not like Aaron Porter is offering solid leadership, nor were student’s unions offering to book coaches.

By the way, perhaps Labour needs to reflect on the reason rallies are no longer acceptable. We younger people don’t listen to speeches because no one says anything we didn’t already know and because we have better things to be doing. The gap between turnout on marches and crowd size at rallies gets wider with every protest I attend. And besides, this shows that the youth are rejecting the Trotskyists, surely? Rallies are for the illiterate and thick. Or for people with inflated egos. The last thing this movement needs is a George Galloway alike.”


Entry filed under: Activism, Education, News, Politics, University.

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