On Tuesday 23 June I found myself back on the streets, holding a placard and shouting anti-fracking slogans to the passing cars. All this in Preston, UK, as Lancashire County Council deliberated over proposals from Cuadrilla to start fracking in two sites in the county. Voicing my opinion in public, in the company of like-minded others, has been, for me, a normal activity, having gone to university in 1968, one of the key years of rebellion and sit-ins that flowed across the channel from Paris. Collective demonstrations and marches were part of what it meant to be a university student for many of us – protesting against the apartheid system, nuclear weapons, wars.
These recent anti-fracking demonstrations have contributed to positive results so far, thankfully. In Preston the County Council finally rejected both proposals for fracking licenses. (This will not be the end of the fight though as the current government is threatening to overirde these crucial, local decisions). I’m sure all the petitions and expert submissions to the consultation were the main cause of this happy outcome in Lancashire, but a street presence was important too, with
Mr Frackhead, a huge puppet bellowing out his greed for the fossil fuels under the ground, hot polar bears and Lancashire ladies in rollers tucked under headscarves, brandishing their feather dusters.
The demonstration was noisy but humorous and considerate to other users of the street and I felt instantly at home when I joined in. There were not, though, the few thousands of people I had hoped to be there for a national demonstration. Has demonstrating become a minority activity in England these days? Where were all the students?
I wonder if the long-term lack of success of big street demonstrations has reduced the numbers joining in these collective actions here in the England?
My own view on the value of demonstrating had certainly become less positive by the end of the last century. So much so that I was very reluctant to join in the series of anti-Iraq invasion marches when Blair was prime minister. ‘What was the point?’ I asked myself. However, when the farce about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction grew more and more ridiculous I, like millions of others around the world, got up at the crack of the UK dawn on February 15th 2003,and sat on a coach as it headed down the M6 to the capital. I remember the rising excitement as we spotted coach after coach on the motorway, all heading the same way, with banners and placards at the windows. There was certainly no disappointment about numbers that day as we joined the huge snaking tail of the march, and danced behind the bands and chatted with fellow marchers, my cynical coat tossed into the gutter.
I felt privileged to be part of the huge diversity of the protestors, reflecting the larger population – people of all ages and colours ; people proclaiming their differing faiths, families with young children, local communities and organsiations. Here is a short extract from my journal that I wrote the next day:
Near Picadilly a man and a woman stood at the side of the road with handwritten placards- one of which said, “I am Iraqi and I give thanks on behalf of my people.” We saluted them – a moving moment – the two of them were brave and proud and humble all at the same time.
There was a feeling of coming together, across different identities, lives and beliefs – a very tenuous and fragile union of different peoples – but present none the less.
I was so glad I had shrugged off my layer of cynicism and became a part of that very special day. It showed me, once again, that my passions and values were also the passions and values of a large and diverse section of the country I am a citizen of. Yet Blair, like Thatcher before him (I’m thinking of the miners’ strikes), refused to be swayed from his rigid perspective by these millions of people marching in his own city, and across the world. As Patrick Barkham wrote in the Guardian on the tenth anniversary of this march, this failure led to mass disillusion about British democracy (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/15/iraq-war-mass-protest) . It could, I think, be argued that the continuing decline in voting numbers for general elections, and the increasing distrust of politicians has been fuelled by Blair’s refusal to take account of this huge anti-war protest. Its immediate failure certainly cemented my own disillusionment about the power of the mass demonstration. We still have nuclear weapons in the UK and we are still trying to safeguard the planet.
Like many other women I had also been part of two of the larger rallies at Greenham Common, demonstrating against the presence of American Cruise missiles in this country. On those days I experienced the power of solidarity with other women, and the courage born from it.
Now that was a successful collective action, eventually, thanks to the dedicated team of women who gave up their daily lives, and sometimes their freedom, for the time it took to free England from these weapons of mass destruction. This success only came out of dedication, perseverance and committment though. It required much more from those who achieved it than the odd day of getting up early and joining together with a mass of others sharing the same values. More recent collective actions such as Occupy have learnt this need for committment to a more enduring identity of protest.
Is there a future for the shorter, mass gathering on the streets (or in threatened green spaces) with other citizens in this country? Our TV and computer screens show that this is a form of action very much alive in other countries where goverment decisions are seen to have a more immediate impact on their lives.
Barkham argues that the huge anti-Iraq war led to disillusion, but that it also shaped the future lives of many of those who took part in the protest and led to new forms of protest. He interviewed some of the younger people who joined that march, including a volunteer steward, Shamiul Joarder. He quotes Joarder as saying, “You can’t go to one protest and think that things are going to change for ever. You can’t email your MP once. We have to engage in a long-term process,”. Greenham Common showed this too. To create change takes more than a day on the streets with a placard.
Street protests may not bring about immediate change but I think they still have a place within the array of political and
social activities. My recent short stint on the streets of Preston has helped me to trample on my heavy coat of cynicism. These gatherings are important to build solidarity with likeminded others, to renew our energies and proclaim those values that are so important to us. I shall be back!
Photographs of the Preston demonstration were taken by Mary Hamilton.