It is easy to remain dubious over the efficacy of well-stewarded A-to-B protest marches, and I certainly felt pangs of apprehension as the march for Gaza set off from the Israeli Embassy yesterday (26th July 2014) – already hemmed in by barriers, stewards informed those not behind the organisers’ lead banners which side of the road we were permitted to stand on as the march began, and shouted at those who ventured onto the pavements as it progressed. Unnecessary control of marches (the NUS protest of 2012 being another example of a large-scale march whose predetermined route minimised interaction with those not participating), and protests more broadly, seems detrimental to aspects of protest so crucial to its success and appeal – genuine sentiment, spontaneity, energy, acting out of the norm – and being chastised by event organisers for simply walking on the pavement may cause protesters to question their future attendance, when we should be celebrating the fact that so many people are willing to stand up for what they believe in, particularly given the current trend towards further criminalisation of protest. It may also do the police’s work for them through pre-emptively minimising any potential ‘disturbance’ to the public: “you may exercise your democratic right to protest but in clearly defined (and increasingly limited) ways and locations”.
But, it is in disturbance and disruption that the key to protest must be found; that is not to necessarily advocate civil disobedience in all cases, but we must recognise that situations where the status quo is disrupted permit greater possibilities for change – whether that be through inconveniencing those in power, or forcing members of the public currently unaware or disinterested to take notice.
Increasingly there is a personal risk inherent in protest, particularly in direct action, and we should commend those willing to take that extra step to engage in more effective dissent – in relation to Gaza, this includes individuals in Bristol occupying a BBC garden in protest of their reporting bias, and those willing to attempt an occupation of Parliament Square yesterday (although this did not come to fruition).
Despite the stewarding, barriers and designated march route, there was an all too obvious police presence at yesterday’s event (at what cost to the public purse?), which was particularly visible as we cycled along the route on our way to meet the protest at the Israeli Embassy. The often overwhelming police presence at protests (DPAC’s occupation of Westminster Abbey being a recent example), along with the increasing criminalisation of protest, serve to discourage those wavering at the outskirts whilst simultaneously engendering an air of illegality and violence around protest (which are almost always non-violent), thereby minimising public sympathy and support. Further, heavy-duty policing, combined with rigid restrictions, render protest boring and repetitive, discouraging participation and ensuring maintenance of the status quo.
Symbolically ending at Parliament Square, yesterday’s march for Gaza initially took us through areas of London all but abandoned at weekends, again limiting the protest’s impact (although, of course, the internet allows for far greater visibility beyond the direct witnessing of events). However, when we did encounter members of the public, the sheer size and spectacle of the protest stopped them in their tracks (not least because they physically couldn’t move past the wall of people); mouths left agape, smartphones called into action. One of the speakers at Parliament Square informed the crowd that the march had been the largest on the current situation in Gaza to date, but as always estimates on numbers vary dramatically, ranging from 15,000 on the BBC website (interesting in itself as the BBC has been a target of much anger due to its alleged under/biased reporting of the situation), 45,000 by the Met and 60,000 by one of the organisers, Stop the War.
All this is not to say that yesterday’s protest was futile or unproductive – the combination of large numbers with regular action in multiple countries is pulling the frankly disgusting situation in Gaza, and Palestine more generally, up into the priorities of those in power, and is causing embarrassment for those still supporting Israel as increasing reports of their indiscriminate, and barbaric actions come to light. It feels like we are reaching a tipping point in terms of public awareness of the situation, as the incongruity between the images/videos/stories coming out of Gaza and what we are being told in the media and by certain leaders becomes glaringly obvious – Jon Snow’s recent report demonstrates the desperation felt by those having experienced the situation first-hand. If non-action by authorities follows these reports, and the vocalisation of disgust by the electorate, then the tens of thousands of people who spent their Saturday out on the streets of London will be reminded that those in power rarely have the views of ordinary citizens’ at heart (I’m sure many out yesterday will remember the million person march against the Iraq War in 2003, and its outcome) – this questioning of the motivations of authorities can serve encourage much needed scepticism, and desperately needed action.
Not only do I believe that yesterday’s march was not futile, but I believe that something hugely positive can be garnered from the desperate situation that made the march a necessity – this being not only the huge numbers of people out on the streets just one week after the last large-scale march through London, but the demographic of those in attendance. A huge variety of people took to the streets – passionate and united – calling for action on an issue which does not directly affect many of them, but which they know to be deeply wrong. This collection of individuals included a notable number of children and young people, who were not only joining in the chants, but leading them too; many of them were too young to fully understand what they were participating in, but had had their eyes opened, and interests piqued. And this links to another benefit to protest, even those which at first glance feel too ‘safe’ and choreographed to be effective – they enable a bonding process to take place, and a feeling of ownership over the issue at hand. This camaraderie and sense of agency can again motivate those interested (but perhaps not fully engaged) into action, as well as support links between previously isolated sub-sections, increasing the overall strength of movements.
As the chants of ‘we are all Palestinians’ flowed through the crowd yesterday tingles went down my spine. We are fed so many lies, but yesterday’s action reminds us that we are not so different. It reminds us that the enemy is not one another, but those who would seek to hurt us, or divide us.