The sorry state of protest
Patrick Hayes speaks to the weird and not-so-wonderful campers facing eviction from the ‘Democracy Village’.
At 1am this morning, 60 bailiffs demolished ‘Democracy Village’, a makeshift protest campsite at Parliament Square Gardens in London. This ragtag community of peace activists, pro-democracy campaigners and the homeless have, over the past three months, turned the square opposite the Houses of Parliament into something resembling a cross between the Glastonbury festival and a cardboard city.
On the eve of their eviction, around 25 protesters gathered in the Democracy Village’s ‘peace garden’ – a circle of shrubs planted by ‘guerrilla gardeners’ – for a hastily organised demonstration in favour of ‘free speech and protest’. But the event revealed just how incoherent and insular the campaign has been.
The protesters sat in a circle discussing what to do once the bailiffs moved in. Those standing up to speak addressed the journalist filming and photographing them, rather than their fellow campaigners. It was reminiscent of the final camera confessions the housemates in the reality show Big Brother make before facing eviction.
‘Let’s go on strike’, one middle-aged woman proposed, prompting looks of confusion from fellow campers. ‘I know none of us actually work, and many of us are homeless. But we still buy bus tickets. We still consume. We could go on strike from all that. The media are looking for a new hook, this could be it’, she explained, staring into a camera. ‘We need to turn this into a new Vietnam war protest movement’, another protester enthused, explaining that all that was needed was for millions of people to march on parliament and for ‘war heroes to throw their medals into the sea’.
At this point Tracey Chumley, the self-styled ‘queen of the common people’ whom other protesters refer to as ‘her majesty’, intervened. Wearing a maroon evening dress with a luminous orange plastic cross necklace, she indicated that she wanted to speak but then walked straight up to a camera so that no one but the cameraman could hear what she was saying. At the same moment, two homeless men got into a scuffle, prompting the young man urging on a new million-strong war movement to break off his monologue, throw his hands up in the air in frustration and shout ‘that’s it! None of you are listening to me! I’m leaving!’
This lack of solidarity amongst Democracy Village protesters is unsurprising considering the complete lack of coherence of their messages and agendas. People here were demonstrating about everything from the war in Afghanistan, children’s rights, consumerism, the media, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. And there were a great deal of conspiracy theories circulating, too. The tents and banners erected on the square had hippy-like messages, such as ‘Love is lovely but war is ugly’, anti-corporate statements such as ‘Just because you read it in the newspapers does not make it news – lies sell’, and anti-war slogans including ‘Bring our soldiers home – give peace a chance’.
When the Democracy Village was set up on May Day, five days before the general election, politicians did not want to interfere. The protesters gathered there last night seemed surprised that it has taken this long for the government to get its act together and send the bailiffs in. As one of them said, pointing triumphantly at Big Ben, ‘this is the beating heart of UK politics, and we’ve been here for three months!’.
Others, however, were relieved that the end was nigh. One of them told me: ‘I’m glad we’re being moved on otherwise I think I’d go insane: stuck here on this traffic island and having to go to McDonald’s every time I need to go to the loo.’ When I asked him why he didn’t move on himself, he murmured something about not really having anywhere else to go and said, pointing to the tent of long-term peace activist Brian Haw: ‘I’m just worried if I stay much longer I’d end up like him. He hates us, he’s forgotten why he’s here and I’m scared of becoming like him.’
I decided to ask Haw, who was voted Most Inspiring Political Figure by Channel 4 in 2007, what he thinks of the eviction. ‘Quack! quack! quack!’ he replied. ‘Why do you all come here and quack at me? Why don’t you just leave me alone? Why do you want to come and talk to me?’
Chris Knight, the 67-year-old former anthropology lecturer who set up the Democracy Village, told me that he believes Haw is ‘a brilliant man’, but that he has become ‘bitter and cantankerous’. ‘He thinks we are conspiring with the police to make this protest too big so he is removed… We’re a sexy movement, whereas he’s just one man.’
Last night, standing amongst a group of people who were ranting incoherently at cameras in a filthy campsite stinking of urine, ‘sexy’ was the last word that came to mind.
One woman admitted that the camp had its downsides: ‘Bright, idealistic young people have turned up, inspired and wanting to do something but then it gets too violent. It’s become a homeless refuge… We’ve tried to ban drinking and drugs, but our signs are ignored and when people start fighting at three in the morning it’s a scary place to be.’
Far scarier for idealistic youth who want to change the world, however, would be this shattering insight into the state of the peace movement in Britain today: that it is a group of atomised, self-absorbed individuals, a ‘collective’ only in the sense they share the same space while delivering a long, inarticulate moan and waiting to be euthanised by the state, and then hoping to get some sympathy from their mistreatment at the hands of the bailiffs.
Haw’s one-man protest and the Democracy Village are unprecedented in terms of both length and political incoherence – they represent less a protest in any traditional sense and more a permanent way of life. Of course, the state has no business deciding for us what a ‘legitimate protest’ is and we should have the right to demonstrate outside parliament if we want to. Yet it is only because of the absence of any serious political movement that these eccentrics can be hyped up in the press and lauded as the bearers of the flame of democratic protest.
The protesters may have been cleared from Democracy Village – the rubbish is cleaned up and new grass is being planted at Parliament Square Gardens – but protesters have vowed to set up camp elsewhere, attempting to become a permanent thorn in the side of the government. Chris Knight has pledged that ‘we’re not going very far and we’re not going away.’
The axe may have fallen on the Democracy Village, with new grass being planted and rubbish cleaned up, but it’s a sorry reflection of the state’s impotence that Brian Haw is immune from the court order, as the very legislation introduced to remove him couldn’t be applied to him retrospectively.
The next stage of the campaign has been dubbed Operation Rolling Thunder. It’s an apt description in the sense that no end seems to be in sight for it, but wholly inappropriate in the sense that this lame protest is more of a dull drone of incoherent angst rather than a forceful movement.
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill opposed the arrest of peace protester Brian Haw – but he didn’t agree with him. He also defended the right to protest of several radical Muslims at a soldiers’ parade in Luton. Nathalie Rothschild criticised the arrest of an anti-gay protesting Baptist and attended a demo in support of photographers’ right to snap in public places. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech and Liberties.
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