Last weekend I was out on the Royal Mile preparing for a Geographies of Protest walking tour for the third year students. It just so happened that I witnessed a protest organised by Extinction Rebellion whilst I was out and about. The protest was in two parts: the first was an animal die-in in West Parliament Square, and the second was a march down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Parliament. It is always interesting to witness a protest first hand, and this was no exception.
At the time of writing this blog post in early September 2019, there appears to be no end in sight to the protests which started in Hong Kong in June. The spark which lit the tinder was a proposed extradition bill which would make it easier to transport people from Hong Kong to mainland China for questioning and trial. People in Hong Kong do not trust China’s justice system to be fair and impartial. Under pressure from protests whose intensity seemed to take everyone by surprise, the Hong Kong government shelved the extradition bill. This did not end the protests however, as the bill had tapped into a deeply held fear among the people of Hong Kong. Since being returned to China by Britain in 1997, residents of Hong Kong have enjoyed a lot more freedom than citizens of mainland China do, and they protect this freedom fiercely. For the protesters, the extradition bill was just one part of a much broader attempt to strip Hong Kong of its cherished freedom, and they are not willing to give their special status up without a fight. Over the last few months, protesters have clashed with police around the city.
At the start of August 2019, I visited Melbourne in Australia, and I was quite surprised to find a wall full of messages expressing solidarity with, and seeking support for, the protesters in Hong Kong. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been: Australia has strong connections with China. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and in 2017 there were 500,000 Chinese-born migrants living in Australia. Melbourne is known for its cosmopolitanism, and the city’s Laneways (alleys) are famous for edgy street art, shops, bars, and restaurants. The most famous for street art is Hosier Lane; it has become a popular tourist attraction. The solidarity wall is at the bottom of Hosier Lane, near the junction with Flinders Street.
The wall is made up of posters calling for support and explaining what is happening in Hong Kong, and post-it notes with messages of solidarity. It feels spontaneous, but it is actually the result of a piece by Chinese artist Badiucao. He created a piece of street art featuring Chinese leader Xi Xingping and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam, then invited people to add their own messages of solidarity. A box of post-it notes and marker pens has been left so that visitors can add their own messages. This practice has become known as ‘Lennon Walls,’ which have appeared all over Hong Kong during the protests. They are now springing up elsewhere, including Toronto and Tokyo. The original artwork of Lennon Wall for Hong Kong can just about still be seen in the above image: it is the black text on the white background peeking out above the post-it notes.
I spent a little while watching other visitors interact with the wall. Many had little interest, others seemed to be interested in finding out what all the fuss was about, and some, particularly those who appeared to be of Asian origin, seemed quite moved by the outpouring of solidarity. I would be curious to know if this message of solidarity reaches protesters in Hong Kong however: do they know how much support they have in Melbourne?
It is very important to the protesters in Hong Kong that people around the world know about their struggles and understand them, which is one of the reasons they have targeted Hong Kong International Airport over the summer; a controversial tactic which risks alienating travelers instead of convincing them that the cause is just. The Lennon Wall suggests that the message is getting through, however. It gives a strong sense of solidarity and obviously means a lot to people from Hong Kong. It also highlights the obvious overlaps between street art and resistance; a subversive medium to begin with, street art is an obvious companion to protest.
Sources and Further Reading
BBC News. “Hong Kong Anti-Government Protests.” Last modified 3rd September 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c95yz8vxvy8t/hong-kong-anti-government-protests
Clark, Helen. “Should Australia Fear an Influx of Chinese?” This Week in Asia. Last modified 30th July 2017, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2100798/should-australia-fear-influx-chinese
Dalziel, Alexander. “Post-it Protest in Support of Hong Kong Backlash over Extradition Plan.” The Age. Last modified 20th August 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/post-it-protest-in-support-of-hong-kong-backlash-over-extradition-plan-20190720-p5293c.html
Sydney Morning Herald. “Chinese Political Artist Badiucao supports Hong Kong Protesters with Hosier Lane ‘Lennon Wall.'” Last modified 20th July 2019, accessed 3rd September 2019. Available at https://www.smh.com.au/world/chinese-political-artist-badiucao-supports-hong-kong-protesters-with-hosier-lane-lennon-wall-20190720-h1ge99.html
The international environmental campaign group Greenpeace has been associated with ships since their very first protest in 1971 when they attempted to interrupt US nuclear testing on Amchitka Island in Alaska. Greenpeace now has 3 ships which it uses to conduct scientific research, raise awareness, and engage in direct action to protect the environment. On the weekend of 13th-14th of April 2019 one of these ships, the MV Esperanza, was docked in London. Greenpeace supporters were given the opportunity to tour the ship. One of those who accepted the invite was Patricia Awcock (a.k.a my Mum!), who has been supporting Greenpeace for 4 decades. Here, she reflects on the experience and what it meant to her.
I have been a proud member of Greenpeace for 40 years. Even then, I understood the dangers facing our planet and I also knew that I am not a natural protester or activist! That is why I have been happy to contribute to Greenpeace; I saw the value of their activism and just knew that someone had to do what Greenpeace was prepared to do. I have followed the campaigns through the years, but always from a distance. I was extremely pleased and excited, therefore, to be given the opportunity to visit MV Esperanza when she was docked in London at the weekend.
I was surprisingly moved when I caught my first glimpse of MV Esperanza. She seemed to be completely dwarfed by the high-rise buildings that represent the centre of capitalism, but the Greenpeace colours, rainbow, and painted dove shone so brightly in the sunshine that she seemed to act as a metaphor of optimism and resilience. Esperanza means ‘hope’ in Spanish, and she really did send out a message of hope; the West India Millwall Docks, so close to Canary Wharf, was the perfect setting!
The visit helped me to understand, however, that the Greenpeace ships are not just a symbol of an organisation that is willing to take on large corporations in such a dramatic manner. They are gritty, smelly, basic working ships that undertake vital work, in extremely dangerous conditions. They are not only engaged in direct action campaigns, but are also involved in scientific exploration, helping to provide vital evidence that is needed in the fight to protect the oceans. This mixture of direct action and scientific exploration is what, I believe, makes Greenpeace such an important organisation.
I have always had great respect for the volunteers who put their lives on hold, and sometimes in danger, to join campaigns for many months, but seeing the reality of their living conditions and learning about the daily responsibilities and duties made me even more appreciative of what they are prepared to do.
Over the last 40 years, I have frequently become despondent about the increasing negative impact humans are having on the planet. I have often wondered whether I am wasting my money by donating Greenpeace. What are they actually achieving? Visiting MV Esperanza made me realise, however, just how important the work of Greenpeace is, and that the symbolism of the organisation is just as important as their activism and scientific exploration.
Maybe one day I will actually take part in a protest, but in the meantime I am just so grateful that Greenpeace is carrying out such vital and dangerous work in my name.
Every two years, the Defence and Security International exhibition, known colloquially as the DSEI arms fair, takes place in the vast ExCel Centre in East London. People come from all over the world to see and purchase the latest weapons and defence technology at one of the world’s largest arms fairs. Every year, there are protests attempting to stop, disrupt, and draw attention to the event. This year, at the same time, the 12th-15th of September, a very different kind of exhibition also took place in East London, with the aim of raising awareness of the DSEI, an event which most Londoners have no idea exists. The Art the Arms Fair exhibition took place at SET Studios in Capstan House in Poplar. It was preceded by an art event on the 9th of September at the ExCel Centre, where artists produced works in a variety of mediums. The exhibition displayed art that responded to the arms trade. Events, such as spoken word and comedy, were held in the space in the evenings. Works were sold to support the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), an organisation which aims to end the international arms trade. I have always been a little sceptical about the significance and power of art, so I went along to see if I could be convinced.
To begin with, SET Studios is not your typical art gallery. SET is an initiative that provides artists with affordable studio and project space in buildings that would otherwise be empty. Capstan House is a stylish new office block, with an imposing foyer and fancy elevators. SET occupies the seventh floor, with beautiful views across the Thames to the O2 arena and the Emirates Airline Cable Car. You can see the artists’ studio space through the glass walls that are so fashionable in modern offices. The art, some of it attached haphazardly to plywood display boards, sits oddly in this environment. But none of that detracted from the effect the exhibition had on me. In fact, it might well have contributed to the disconcerted feeling with which I left the exhibition.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not a great believer in the power of art. I did not need to be convinced that the arms trade was a bad thing; I was already a strong believer in the futility and cruelty of war. But I left the exhibition feeling a lot more emotional than I expected to. Whilst I thought some of the artwork was good, I think what really affected me was the opportunity to ‘Make Your Own Art’ on blank postcards. Attempting to focus my response to the arms trade on one small rectangle of white card clarified and crystalised my feelings in a way that I was not expecting.
The Art the Arms Fair exhibition was powerful and emotive. It’s main stated goal was to make the DSEI arms fair visible, to make people aware of its existence. It would be hard to say how far that goal was achieved; the exhibition was nowhere near the ExCel Centre, and the area didn’t seem like the kind of place that people just pass through, so it was unlikely to attract many people who didn’t already intend to visit. I do wonder if an art exhibition in an out-of-the-way office block in East London is really the best way to raise the profile of the DSEI. Nevertheless, it hopefully raised some money for CAAT, and provided a space for creative opposition to the arms trade. At the end of the day, I am reluctant to criticise anyone who is attempting to make a positive difference in the world, as doing something is very often better than doing nothing.
The 4th of October 2016 marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street, a well-known protest in which around 100,000 people prevented the anti-Semitic British Union of Fascists (BUF) from marching through the East End of London, which had a large Jewish population at the time. Since the late 70s, it has become tradition for the 5- and 10-year anniversaries of the Battle to be celebrated with a march, and a rally in St George’s Gardens near the Cable Street Mural. On Sunday the 9th of October I went along to the latest commemoration, Cable Street 80.
Recently, housing has become one of the most contentious issues in London. The city is growing faster than its housing stock, which is putting real pressure on Londoners. Many, particularly those with low incomes, are struggling with high prices, soaring rents and a chronic shortage of council housing. A numbers of campaign groups, such as FocusE15 and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, have started to combat the problem by raising awareness, protesting and intervening in evictions.The recent March for Homes is just one of the examples of the actions taking place. This focus is reflected in London’s protest stickers, and housing is one of the most common specific issues that stickers refer to. Most of the following pictures come from the area around the Aylesbury estate, an section of which was occupied after the March for Homes in protest of the estate gradually being sold off by Southwark Council for private redevelopment.
On Saturday the 20th of June, the People’s Assembly organised a massive national demonstration in London opposing the Conservative government’s policy of austerity, called End Austerity Now. The People’s Assembly is a coalition of anti-austerity campaigns and groups, so there was a wide variety of places and interests represented on the demonstration. Thousands of people turned up protest against the cuts, and I was one of them.
Westminster was very busy on Saturday (the 7th of March), with both the Time to Act and Million Women Rise marches taking place. No sooner did the end of the Climate Change march pass Trafalgar Square towards Parliament Square, than Million Women Rise entered the square for a rally, demonstrating just how important this small area of London is to British politics. The marches represented very different issues, with Time to Act calling for urgent changes to the way we deal with climate change, and Million Women Rise demanding an end to male violence against women, tying in with International Women’s Day on the 8th of March. The beautiful weather combined with the bright placards creative chants and upbeat atmosphere to create a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. Here are some of my photos from the day.
Today I took part in the March for Homes, a demonstration calling for more affordable housing in London. There were 2 marches, starting in Elephant and Castle and Shoreditch, that met at Tower Bridge and then proceeded to City Hall for a rally. In this post are some of the photos I took of the event, with a few of my reflections thrown in.
I was on the march starting in Elephant and Castle, because I live in the area, and I see the effects of the housing crisis every day. There are at least 2 major developments going on there at the moment; One the Elephant, which can be seen in the above photo, and the redevelopment of the former Heygate Estate. The amount of social housing that is included in these two developments is tiny, and laughably insignificant. The housing crisis in London is something that I feel very strongly about. I am lucky enough to have funding for my PhD and no dependents, so I can afford housing quite easily. But there are many thousands who are not so fortunate, and although I love London, I know that I won’t be living here long term, because the city is simply not affordable, even if you manage to get a decent job.
Speakers at Elephant and Castle included many representatives from local housing campaigns. I believe that the fundamental cause of the housing crisis is that housing in London is viewed primarily as an investment. Houses and flats are bought as a means of making money, and the owners don’t even need to bother renting them out, because prices are rising so fast that they can make plenty of money anyway, just by selling them on after a year or two. The fundamental purpose of housing is providing a space of safety and warmth, but this has been forgotten, or is ignored, by those in charge. As a result, people suffer.
We marched through several large council housing estates on the way to City Hall. These are the areas in which people are directly affected by the crisis, and I hope that some of those took heart from the sight of us processing down the streets in the rain. Protests can be an expression of solidarity as well as a method of publicising a cause, and I hope that we did both today.
This was very much a London-focussed demonstration. The marches culminated at City Hall, the seat of power for London, rather than Parliament Square, the seat of power for the UK. Housing is a problem in many places across the country, but today was specifically about London. The protest aimed to get the attention of the government of London, not the government of the UK, and this was reflected in the routes and locations of the demonstration.
Despite the foul weather, I really enjoyed myself today. It was my first protest in a while, and I’m glad that it went off peacefully for my own sake, even if it perhaps means we won’t get any major news coverage. After I left, a breakaway group occupied some empty council houses on the Aylesbury Estate in elephant and Castle, and I will be following events there carefully. The housing crisis in London is a very real problem, and it needs to be tackled. Nothing will happen overnight, and the March for Homes is just one step in a process that will, in all likelihood, be very long. But I’m glad I was there, standing up to be counted for something I believe in.
On Sunday afternoon, I was in Trafalgar Square during the vigil expressing sympathy and solidarity for Paris in the wake of the shocking events of the past week. The global condemnation of the shootings in Paris were instantaneous, and deafening. Gatherings took place around the world on Sunday to commemorate those who died and celebrate free speech. In London, several landmarks were lit up in the colours of the French flag including Tower Bridge and the National Gallery. People also gathered in several places including the French Embassy and Trafalgar Square. I don’t really know what to call what took place in Trafalgar Square, it seemed simultaneously to be protest, memorial and vigil. The BBC describe it as a ‘unity rally,’ but that doesn’t feel quite right to me either. It was obviously officially sanctioned and organised; Nelson’s column had been fenced off so that the French flag could be projected onto the National Gallery. To me, it felt like an expression of solidarity, sympathy and defiance. There were clearly lots of French people there, so it had a more personal feeling of grief too.
As the tweet below by comedian Frankie Boyle suggests, the location of such gatherings are not insignificant, so it is important to consider why such events occur in the places that they do. Boyle makes a valid point, and it is true that Parliament Square is regulated by specific laws that do not apply anywhere else in the country. I do think that there has been an attempt to depoliticise events in Paris, or at least situate them outside of the normal party politics. Commentators across the political spectrum have been quick to rush to the defence of free speech, although of course free speech is mediated and limited by laws and the government, so it is a political issue. Therefore there may have been a conscious effort not to involve Parliament Square in Sunday’s events, to try and maintain their apolitical status.
As ever however, I think it is more complicated than that. Trafalgar Square has been a focus for large gatherings of people since it’s completion in the mid nineteenth century. Public events range from Bloody Sunday in 1887 t0 the celebration of London being chosen for the 2012 Olympics in 2005. The square has been a focus of public life in London for the last two centuries, so a less cynical interpretation of events is that it just didn’t occur to people to gather anywhere else. On balance, I think it is probably a combination of these reasons.
The gathering in Trafalgar Square on Sunday was not a typical protest. There were no demands, no chants, no placards. It was less subdued that a vigil, too quiet to be a rally, and less ceremonial than a memorial. Whatever it was, it was a powerful expression of unity and solidarity, and I’m glad I was there.