Now everyone demonstrate!
Last weekend I experienced the fun of cycling through a crowd of tens of thousands of people in central London, having forgotten there was a protest taking place.
Before I get going, don’t get me wrong, I love a good protest. The Man needs standing up to and regularly defeating. That’s what’s great about democracies — you can say what you fucking like, call out hypocrisy, challenge authority and antagonise those in the wrong. Yet this protest was the most incoherent I’ve seen. The “message” diluted like the last of the orange.
There were a lot of angry people. Who can blame them? But walking around Trafalgar Square on a Saturday, during the pandemic, meant the only people they got their message to, were themselves and some confused tourists. But what was that message?
My first encounter was with a score of anti-vaxers. (They were standing close to the anti-mask wearers — who were imploring the crowd to wake up and realise they were all being conned, presumably by the fabric makers’ cartel.) The anti-vaxers collectively presented a confused message of their own. They claimed the vaccines were rushed and so can’t be safe, that they are a government conspiracy to dope and control the masses, presumably with an extremely advanced technology they’ve managed to keep secret, even after it has entered the arms of 44 million people; and that the vaccines were just another part of the unprecedented theatrics of a staged pandemic. (The reason why every government on Earth was able to agree and coordinate (and keep secret) a complicated, self harming policy intervention on an unprecedented scale when they still can’t agree we should save our planet from rapid destruction, wasn’t mentioned.)
It’s easy to laugh and mock their views. I just did — I’ll come back to whether one should. But it’s the incoherence I want to labour on, much like the incoherence of the whole march. Effective campaigning requires a clear message, better still, a clear, simple and deliverable demand. Yet what turned up that day was a morass of competing rationalisations to what is presumably an underlying fear — a fear emerging from confusion, embarrassment of ignorance and worry that the believable story you were told might be true.
Back to mockery. Do you like being ridiculed? I thought not. Yet those who laugh or get angry when faced with a challenge to our rational, clever minds are usually the Metropolitan Educated Elite. Which I am assuming you, dear reader, are like me, part of. We, maybe rightly, don’t try to enter into a discussion because we sense these views are so deeply held, like faith to a god they will never meet, that they will never change their minds. Because to do so would likely involve giving up a part of themselves because it would require admitting that those closest to you, who likely explained this believable story, lied to you.
And yet, my rage was fairly immediate and uncontrolled. How can these people say something so dangerous, selfish and obviously untrue? Why are they putting people’s lives at risk?
But on reflection, I know empathy would have served me and them better. I am privileged to have been taught the scientific method. My interactions with the state, although strained many times, has not been so bad that I distrust the institutions that exist to protect us. I have the ability to search for balanced news coverage and I can judge facts from myth. If you are struggling every day, if the government is the one paying you a pittance, if your kid’s school isn’t all that — an outlet for your rage may as well be the story that sounds believable. I mean, this vaccine was developed remarkably quickly — don’t you think?
Back in the crowd, I slithered on passing team Free Assange, Ban the Nukes, something about Universal Credit, a white woman saying Britain is institutionally racist, a huge Free Palestine contingency, a battalion of Extinction Rebellion (very unclear message by the way, guys), Kill the Bill, Fake Pandemic, End Global Satanic Abuse, BBC Are The Virus, BBC Is Propaganda, Lockdown is Illegal (weird given the Coronavirus Act 2020), something about rivers, cladding/don’t let people burn to death because they are poor and you are greedy, police corruption and much more. Lots of valid issues mixed with lots of fear and some great pure madness.
My overriding feeling, though, as I cycled away leaving them to it, was sadness. So many people so angry and so unable to be heard, that they must take to the empty streets in hope someone will listen. This is not the triumph of democracy but the sign of one in trouble.
If more people felt they had more control over their lives, over the things that matter most to them, and if decisions taken in their name were better explained and they had some input into the direction taken, then marches might be reserved for the most important things the government has got wrong, to show a strong united opposition and the desire to keep going, whatever it takes, until those in power do the right thing*.
*not that this worked for the war in Iraq, mind. Or climate change. Or poverty. Or racism etc.