As any regular reader of this blog has probably noticed, I have attended quite a few protests this year. While my exact motivation varies from issue to issue, overall, I like speaking out for what I believe in, joining up with other people who support the same cause and making a statement. It also feels like doing my bit to contribute as history is made, as Brexit, the Trump presidency and the climate activism movement are certainly events for the textbooks of the future. It also seems worth noting that I like attending protests. I think it is important from a sociopolitical standpoint, sure, but I genuinely enjoy heading out with my camera and taking to the streets with thousands of other people. Part of the reason being part of political demonstrations is fun is because I have never, not once, feared for my safety or my life while I am taking part in a protest. As I wrote about earlier this year, this is not the case for everyone, and has certainly not been the case throughout history.
With that in mind, I have started to look at the fractious relationship between the people and the government through a different lens. Obviously, violence is bad, and I can guarantee that I would be 1000% more reticent to protest if there was a real chance I would be met by a sea of machine guns. If the current political situation in the UK devolves into something more aggressive, as may well happen given the predictions of increased social unrest, then the depressing effect of Brexit on the national consciousness will take an even darker turn. Of all the things you can say about the UK, it is a broadly safe place to live (though definitely safer for certain people compared to others). Guns are banned, the army is not sent out into the street to beat back dissenters and we are not at war (unless you count Brexit as some kind of psychological and cultural civil war, but let’s not get into that). However, as has been the theme of much of my writing this year, I am not naïve enough to believe that that couldn’t change. Nothing lasts forever, least of all peace.
Peaceful protests have a (huge) place in making your voice heard. I mean, if it was good enough for Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, it’s good enough for us, right? But part of me remains sceptical that there aren’t limits to their political utility. If there is no fear on the part of the government that the people will revolt in a way that is truly impossible to ignore – the guillotine that defines the French Revolution springs to mind – then surely peaceful methods of resistance are only useful to a point. Over a million people marched against Brexit in March, in one of – if not the – biggest protest in British history. Over six million people signed a petition urging the government to revoke Article 50, making it the most signed petition of all time. And yet, on some level, I knew that none of it would matter. I had no belief whatsoever that, following the protest and the petition, the government would turn around and say: “you’ve convinced us! Brexit is cancelled!” I knew that we were marching to shout these opinions loud and clear, make it known that this is what we wanted and be part of something bigger than ourselves. I did not think that Theresa May saw the historically large protest as a game-changer for even a second. If it becomes clear that all we are going to do is sit outside the Houses of Parliament and yell… well, that’s not necessarily something to be afraid of, is it? As long as you can cope with the knowledge that millions of people despise you, of course.
In the same vein, it is easy to protest when you are 99.99% confident that police won’t start bludgeoning people to death or that the army won’t roll in with their tanks, as still happens in many countries around the world. I’m not saying that it is somehow more noble to protest when there is real danger, but it certainly requires a much higher risk tolerance. Protesting takes on a whole different meaning when you are saying “I am so angry about this that I will risk my life to take a stand.” Of course, no one should ever have to do that to demand their human rights, but unfortunately, people still do have to in many places, and it clearly requires bravery that goes a little deeper than marching on a sunny Saturday with your friends when the police are there to protect the protestors, not marginalise them. The absence of fear is good for wellbeing, but may well fundamentally change the nature of the protest and of the government-citizen dynamic. When both sides are confident that no one will react violently, that ultimately serves those in power, as they are free to continue their machinations without fear of substantial retaliation.
Our governance is in a bad state. There is a lot of distrust, infighting, lying and illegality, none of which does anything to endear people toward those in charge. After years of austerity, which enacted a subtler kind of violence but nevertheless claimed many lives, we are now living through the indignities of an extinguished empire gone bad in the form of the crushingly frustrating Brexit negotiations. As a nation, we have breathtaking levels of inequality. I find myself wondering more and more frequently when will we reach our breaking point with this bullshit. Revolutions are scary, because people get killed. It’s all well and good until you are the one in the firing line. But revolutions do make change, and they do make a point. Lately, I have been wondering where this ends. I have been wondering where we will go when we feel too trapped by the staggering incompetence and disrespect of many of our leaders. Let me know if I need to sharpen my pitchfork.