By Jo Bartosch, 21st June 2015
Being at a demonstration is like entering Narnia when you live in Cheltenham; and to be in the company of a quarter of a million people, all of whom care about something greater than pot holes or municipal flowerbeds, is thrilling. Of course, some of the causes that people were there to further at yesterday’s anti-cuts demo had a tenuous link to austerity. From a misguided one woman ‘Free Assange’ protest to animal rights activists dressed as badgers*. Nonetheless, all of us there yesterday were united through caring about something bigger than ourselves, and of course, in hating the spiteful privileged elite who rule us.
I learnt a powerful lesson from the anti-war demonstrations I used to go on in my early twenties; namely, that however earnest you might be, and however pure your intentions, stomping around with a placard won’t change a fucking thing. For me, that’s not the point; demonstrating isn’t just an academic form of direct democracy, being in the company of other people who want change, reminds me that I’m not alone. That feeling of solidarity re-ignites my commitment and strengthens my resolve.
We marched, chanted, danced quite badly, and picked-up as many flyers as we could. We entertained ourselves by with a game of ‘Greenie or Gay,’ inexcusably making judgements about women’s sexuality based-upon the unerring formula of waterproof, to dodgy-hair cut and sandals (as a bisexual ex-crusty I feel I’m allowed, though I am a little ashamed… ahem).
We reached Parliament Square and after hovering around for speeches we couldn’t quite hear, we sloped off & merged with the crowds of tourists crossing towards the Southbank. En route, we stopped to pay our respects to Boudicca.
I love the Southbank Centre; it’s sort of how I imagine the post-revolution arty utopia to be. Queen Elizabeth Hall is a 50’s temple to the people, where Guardian readers like me can roam free and graze the plethora of organic food stalls out the back. I cringe at what a stereotype I am sometimes. Anyway, I digress. At the Southbank Centre there were stalls and a celebration of the contribution that refugees and migrants have made to the UK. This is part of the Southbank’s Festival of Love. Unashamed to link politics, art and emotion, the exhibition ‘Adopting Britain’ explored the experiences of migrants in the UK, exploding tabloid myths and giving voice to real people’s experiences. It seemed like a fitting end to a day of loving counter culture and Tory-hating.
Sitting on the coach travelling back home, I began to reflect on the events of the day. I was thinking about the exultant chants of ‘power to the people’ and ‘we are the 99%.’ Then I remembered that sinking feeling, when watching the country turn blue I realised that most people have no idea that the 99% includes them. A diet of being drip-fed bile from the tabloid press led the great British public to vote based on fear, hatred and parochial, misplaced self-interest.
The anti-austerity demo was big, and inspiring to be part of, but ultimately it represented the interests but not the will of the people. The brutal truth is that people have the power; we’re just too scared to know what to do with it.
I was sent a letter the other day inviting me to sit in a church hall whilst disgusted local residents vented their tales of parking woe at some put-upon bod from the council. At about the same time, my partner and I desperately tried to coax, cajole and emotionally blackmail friends & family into joining us at the Yarl’s Wood demo, to show imprisoned women refugees that they hadn’t been forgotten. Three of us went from Cheltenham; I believe the church hall was packed.
Sometimes giving a damn feels futile and thankless, but by showing that we care, and being in the company of others who do, we remember why we’re fighting and realise we’re not alone.
*For the record, I like badgers. Whilst the cull is doubtless evidence of this bastard Tory governments’ massaging the oily palms of landowners in the Shires, it’s not the badgers that have had their benefits cut.