It’s 9:25 in the evening I have just walked back into my flat in Birmingham. At 8:15 this morning I left my flat to get the 8:30 train to London.
I took three placards, and a rucksack full of bottled water, painkillers and a change of clothes.
I took all of that stuff because I had no idea what was going to happen, or what I might get involved in.
And I still managed to disappoint myself.
I met a friend at London Euston, and we walked together to Green Park, where we met another three friends. We then all walked to Whiteall to join a crowd of thousands of others at the entrance to Downing Street, on which sits No. 10 Downing Street, the home and office of the Prime Minister, Alexander ‘Boris’ de Pfeffel Johnson.
Together, we chanted and sand our protests against Prime Minister Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament for more than a month in the lead-up to the Brexit departure date of 31st October.
Our chants weren’t always in sync, nor were they always very loud or very polite, but we chanted and sang our anger through the air, above the barrier railings and through the metal gate which kept us out of sight of the door to No. 10.
A few of my friends left a little after 1pm. Others joined later and stayed for an hour or two. Soon, they had all left, and I remained in the crowd, with a placard in each hand. I led a few chants, joined in many more, sang along to songs like “No one voted for Boris” to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’.
Pretty heroic, eh?
I followed the crowd as we started marching down Whitehall, to outside Westminster Palace, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament. We out-chanted an embarrassingly small (less than twenty?) pro-Brexit counter-protest. We danced and swayed and chanted some more to the improvised drumming of a musical protest group.
We felt powerful.
I felt powerful.
I felt like I was part of something, something huge and vital and full of furious passion. I felt like we might make a difference, My knees shook with nerves as I led a hundred people in a chant of “When I say ‘Boris’, you say ‘Liar'” but it was exhilirating and intoxicating, especially because everybody had a go at chant leading, at hitting the rhythm of call-and-response. My voice was already hoarse, but I did what I could to keep up, still holding those placards high.
So heroic, right?
By 4pm, that gathering petered out and dispersed. I sat down for the first time in six hours to eat a Boots Meal-Deal wrap, the first food I’d had all day. I took a couple of touristy photos, then got back on my feet and wandered down to the other end of Whitehall.
So goddamn heroic. It’s okay to feel attracted to me right now because of my heroism. You’re only human.
Whitehall was mostly empty by this point. There were a few protestors still standing, but most were wandering home.
At Trafalgar Square, something else was happening. Maybe a couple of hundred protestors were in the roadway of the roundabout, defying the orders of surrounding police to move. I watched for a moment. I was shattered, so I just watched.
Then, as the police started closing in, so did I.
So, so fucking heroic.
I stood with the protestors, held my placards high, and joined in the chant. Stood in the roadway, high-visibility police on all sides, telling us to move or else be arrested. I watched as a middle-aged woman was pulled out of the crowd by eight arresting police officers. I was jostled as the police closed in futher, putting pressure on the protestors to clear the road.
Uuunnng, so, just, so, huh, so heroic.
So anyway, I made a decision that I didn’t want to be arrested and quietly moved back when I was able, to watch from a less criminal distance. I handed my placards over to people who were planning to capitulate a little less than I was, and then I stood and chatted with some other protestors, and chanted a little from the sidelines, as maybe thirty or forty more committed invididuals sat down in the entrance to Whitechapel as the police lined up and looked on.
After around an hour, I handed my remaining drinking water and wandered down Northumberland Avenue looking for a tube station, couldn’t find one, chilled on one of the Golden Jubilee Bridges for a few minutes and gave my parents a ring.
I’m not trying to be macho when I say this, but I genuinely wasn’t worried about violence. I didn’t fear being arrested in the physical capacity. I wasn’t looking forwards to handcuffs, but the police were calm and polite, the protestors were loud but peaceful, and I never felt any kind of fear response.
It’s simply that I calmly, rationally decided that getting arrested would pose too much of a threat to my job, since a criminal record would likely see me fired from the financial institution that currently employs me.
So I left. I left the actual protesting, the civil disobedience, to people who either had less to lose than I had, or who cared enough to lose more than I was willing to sacrifice.
Because I’m not a hero. I’m an arsehole, and a hypocrite, and my cowardice is destroying my own country.
On the way to Downing Street and outside of it, my friends and I chatted about how the really wasn’t going to change things, most likely. We discussed that, by turning up, staying for a bit, then going home and leaving the place exactly as we found it, we were essentially giving permission to the Government to ignore us.
And they will ignore us.
I knew, and have said before, that peaceful, obedient protest in the legally-prescribed protesting areas is not going to force any kind of change. It will not end Parliament’s suspension, it will not force a General Election, and it won’t even force Prime Minister to pass comment on the protest itself.
“Mr Johnson, what are your thoughts on the protest outside today?”
“Well, it’s a shame they’re upset.”
“Thank you, Prime Minister.”
I knew this. I knew this, and I knew that I had been saying for years that nobody in this country will fight for change whilst their wi-fi still works and they can still eat crisps and whilst they can still watch the football.
I knew this, and yet at crunch time, I still decided to rationalise and excuse and justify my political cowardice. “Well, I’ve got a job I need to keep. And I’m tired, and self-care is important. And I need to get back to post on social media and write a blog post talking about how important protesting is.”
And I wasn’t even that scared. I just didn’t want the hassle, or the inconvenience of having to notify my workplace about an arrest record.
I walked back from the bridge to Trafalgar Square again. Took some photos of the police presence. Explained to two Australian tourists why the protest was occurring. Explained that it had been bigger a few hours ago, even if it was less than a hundred people now. Took some video as the police moved in, the 6pm cutoff for protesting in Whitechapel having come and gone. Then I entered the Charing Cross tube station with my tail between my legs and my dick receeding back inside my body and I headed back to Euston.
Parliament will still be suspended in a week.
Democracy is still going to fail.
But hey, at least my job is safe.
I’m such a hero.
This is what the arseholes want. They want us angry and frustrated, but distracted, and cautious.
Did you go out today? Did you protest? Did you get some neat selfies of yourself and your friends? Did you get a few “likes” and “loves” when you posted them online?
Did you have a nice day out, being all political and whatnot?
Great. Good. Glad you had a nice time. I did too. I got to see Big Ben covered in scaffolding.
Did you get back in time for Derek’s birthday meal at Nando’s? Weren’t too late, I hope, to join him and his twenty mates who spent the afternoon watching the Villa game?
Hey, the new ‘Dark Crystal’ show is out, you should probably watch that. And you still have the last season of ‘Orange Is The New Black’ to finish off. Shall we get a pizza in? I’m soooo tired after spending an hour outside the council building today, I don’t feel like cooking.
Hey, and I guess one of you had to stay in, to look after the kids or whatever.
Seriously, it’s fine, you need to look after yourself, I get it. Radical self-care and all that. Super important. Me too, that’s why I left the protest. Got to look after yourself.
Here’s the twist, though. Radical self-care is great because day-to-day concerns should never be more important than your health.
And I hate to be the angry voice in the room, but Johnson shutting down Parliament is not a fucking day-to-day concern.
You think your health is important? Correct, it is, and your health will get an awful lot fucking worse when we run out of medicine post-No-Deal Brexit. And it will get worse again when the bastards sell off the NHS to American healthcare companies and you can’t afford medical insurance that you’ve never had to pay before.
Yeah, your job is important, your salary is vital to you getting the next consumer product you really like. You can think back fondly to the days of having a salary after the economy nose-dives and we become a tax haven for the ultra wealthy.
Fighting for democracy is not a nice day out with a few friends. And it’s not a damn selfie. It’s whole-hearted and determined and it requires more from us than a stroll into the city centre and an “angry” react.
What We Need To Do
There were fewer protestors in London today than there were at the Aston Villa / Crystal Palace game. On the train home, I heard multiple conversations about a bad referee decision, and none about the fucking shutting down of our Parliament.
Johnson and his cabal of disaster-capitalists can ignore a few thousand people calling him names in the legal protest areas.
They cannot ignore hundreds of thousands clogging up the entire road network.
We don’t need to kick in windows and tear down bus stops and tip over parked cars to make our voices heard, we just need to get enough of us together often enough to have a material impact.
And right now, there aren’t enough of us.
Here’s how we get more.
Tell people in person, people that you work with or socialise with, how important the suspension of Parliament is to you. Don’t play into Johnson’s hands by “not discussing politics” out of politeness.
Tell them how important the suspension of Parliament is, and explain why. Explain in simple terms. Don’t talk about Brexit, don’t talk about the Tories, don’t talk about anything except this:
Shutting down Parliament takes away our right to vote.
Why? Because when we vote in elections, we vote for MPs to represent us. If Johnson can make our MPs completely powerless, then we’re not voting, we’re just drawing a cross on a meaningless piece of paper.
If the 2016 Brexit Referendum comes up, don’t talk about “non-binding results” or “Cambridge Analytica”. Talk about the fact that a single referendum can’t be used to shut down other forms of democracy, no matter the result.
Talk about the fact that even if we voted to leave the EU, we never voted to shut down Parliament. We never voted to lose our representation.
Ask your friends and colleagues if they think voting is important. If they do, find a way to convince them that shutting down Parliament is the same as taking away their vote. If the referendum is important to them, make them understand that they may never get another referendum on any subject because, with the ability to suspend Parliament, governments no longer need to worry about being held accountable for anything.
If they say that Johnson’s following through on his promises, point them to his Wikipedia page, point out all the times he’s been sacked for lying, been caught out on his lies. Ask them if they really think he’s suddenly started telling the truth.
And don’t play into his hand by portraying him as a clown. Don’t call him “Bojo”, don’t call him an idiot, or a fool. These things make him harmless, and approachable, and he knows this. Johnson is a smart, calculating and manipulative operator. We all ought to be a lot more scared of him than we are.
The same goes with Rees-Mogg, and the rest of them. Destroy their image. Break the glass. Scrape away the veneer. The current cabinet is a scary bunch of liars motivated solely by self-interest. Rees-Mogg is not a dorky public schoolboy in a top hat – he is a shrewd investor who has made millions off of Brexit already.
Don’t allow the current government to seem harmless, or bumbling, or stupid. They are determined, and intelligent, and motivated.
And whilst you’re doing all this, do it with kindess. Don’t put your colleagues and friends on the defensive. Don’t make this about political issues beyond the matter of our democratic rights. Don’t force them to account for their action, or lack of action – just give them reasons to care, as though you’re doing them a favour. Give them reasons to doubt their own apathy, to talk to their partners about it, spread the doubt a little further.
And don’t engage with detractors. If a rowdy white male football fan tries to stick is oafish oar in, ignore it. Just move on. Don’t argue, because you won’t win, because he’s not trying to win an argument – he’s trying to derail it. Brexiteers want us to get bogged down in statistics, voter turnouts, vote shares. They want technical terms like “prorogue” and “non-binding” and fucking “backstop” to be sticking points. They want us continually explaining these things over, and over, and over.
Stick to the message.
Suspending Parliament takes away our right to vote.
Be friendly. Be nice. Be helpful.
Stick to the message.
Be passionate, but not outraged.
Stick to the message.
The next step is to talk about the positive experiences you’ve had protesting. Talk about the festival-like atmosphere, the feeling of power, of conviction. Be honest. Relate how you really felt, and the reasons you would want to go back again.
Talk about feeling part of something. Of making a difference. And talk about how easy you found it, if you found it easy. If your experience at a protest was in any way rewarding, relay how rewarding it was.
Because we may not win people over solely with our cause. We may need to appeal to their ego, too.
The Next Steps
I thought I had done enough when I walked away today. But I will never have done enough until the suspension of Parliament is cancelled. Because if it goes ahead, and if it lasts, then I clearly could not have done “enough”. By, like, definition.
So there will be more protests, and marches. I will need to make more placards. I will need to keep working on my message, refining it. I’ll need to keep writing, and I’ll need to keep making sacrifices. For now, just sacrifices of my free time, my energy, and my money.
Will I have the courage to risk arrest? To fully engage in civil disobedience? Even revolt?
I hope so. But right now, I’m a coward and a hypocrite, trying to convince you to be better than me. To realise that every day we decide to rationalise away our uncertainty and our dislike of inconvenience, we hand over a little more power to Johnson and his cabal.
They don’t fear a militant oppostion. They fear a militarised one. Not militarised with weapons, but with unity, determination and coordination. They’ve never had to face anything like that before, so let’s make it an appealling prospect to as many people as possible.
If you end up being “that person in the office who’s always talking about politics,” well, a few social connections is honestly a fairly small price to pay for liberty. Hell, my career is a small price to pay for liberty. The protestors in Hong Kong are showing us exactly what they’re willing to pay for liberty, and honestly, they’re putting us to shame.
Make it normal to be political. Make it normal to be proactive. Make people feel like they can make a difference.
And if someone says they feel ashamed for not doing more, don’t rush to correct them. Just tell them “Yeah, it would have been good if you had been there.”
Because we are genuinely running out of time.