Art The Arms Fair Exhibition

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Poppies in a rocket (2017) by Anonymous. One of the pieces on display at the Art the Arms Fair exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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Capstan House in Poplar, the location of  the Art the Arms Fair exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Art the Arms Fair was not housed in what I would describe as a typical art gallery space, but I think that only added to its impact (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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The ‘Make Your Own Art Section’ of the exhibition. The piece suspended from the ceiling is Half scale Tomahawk missile by Joseph Steele (2017). I think this is what made me connect with the exhibition so much (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Some of the art produced by visitors to the exhibition (I’m not going to say which one is mine!) (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

Cable Street 80

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.

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A campaigner outside Altab Ali Park, where the march began. The park is named after a Bangladeshi textile worker who was killed in a racist attack in 1978. Anniversary marches of the Battle of Cable Street have started in the park since the 60th anniversary in 1996 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The commemoration was organised by Cable Street 80, a loose coalition of community and campaigning groups. David Rosenberg (pictured here in the blue vest), a local author and historian, played a key role in organising events (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Sadly there are not many people left who were actually present at the Battle, but many people on the march on Sunday had parents or grandparents who were there (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A large number of different groups were represented on the march. This is Sarah Jackson, one of the co-founders of the East End Women’s Museum,  a fantastic project to commemorate the lives and activism of women in the East End (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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GMB is a general union which has its roots in the Gas Workers and General Union, formed in the East End in 1889 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street has become a source of inspiration and pride for many on the political left, so a large range of different groups and causes were represented at the march (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march sets off from Altab Ali Park (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march makes it way along Commercial Road (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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As time went on and migration brought new communities into the area, the Battle of Cable Street came to be symbolic for whole new generations of East Londoners. It has come to stand as rejection of xenophobia of all kinds, not just anti-Semitism. The Bangladeshi community in East London faced prejudice and violence in the 1970s and 80s, much like the Jewish community had 50 years earlier (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street is continually connected to new and ongoing struggles. For many who marched on Sunday, it was as much about demonstrating a determination to combat the rise of the far-right in Europe today as it was commemorating an event that happened 80 years ago (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march makes its way down Cable Street, which looks very different now to how it would have done in 1936 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The march arrives at the Cable Street mural, on the side of St. George’s Town Hall. The mural itself is nearly 40 years old, and has an interesting history in its own right (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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In 1936, the Irish community in the East End also took part to prevent the BUF marching, when many doubted they would. The Connolly Association campaigns for a united and independent Ireland (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Battle of Cable Street also has a Spanish connection, which explains the presence of the Spanish Communist Party. The Battle’s slogan ‘No Pasaran’ is Spanish for ‘They Shall Not Pass’, and comes from the Spanish Civil Way, which was underway in 1936. Many participants in the Battle of Cable Street went on to volunteer in the International Brigade to fight for the Spanish Republic (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Unsurprisingly, there was a strong anti-fascist presence on the march. There are large number of anti-fascist groups in the UK, as evidenced by the amount of anti-fascist protest stickers I have found on the streets of London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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After the march there was a large rally in St. George’s Gardens, near the mural. Speaking here is 101-year old Max Levitas, one of the few remaining veterans of the Battle of Cable Street (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This is Michael Rosen, the well-known author and poet. His parents were both at the Battle of Cable Street, and he is a keen supporter of the process of remembrance (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The ‘headliner’ was Jeremy Corbyn, controversial leader of the Labour Party. He is a constant presence at protests and rallies of all kinds (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

London’s Protest Stickers: Housing

The fencing around Chiltern House on the Aylesbury Estate, which was occupied after the March for Homes on 31/01/15.

The fencing around Chiltern House on the Aylesbury Estate, which was occupied after the March for Homes on 31/01/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

This sticker refers directly to the occupation at Aylesbury, and was photographed on 13/04/15 at Elephant and Castle.

This sticker refers directly to the occupation at Aylesbury, and was photographed on 13/04/15 at Elephant and Castle (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many of London's poorest inhabitants are being pushed out by rising prices and redevelopments, leading to accusations of social cleansing (Aylesbury Estate, 02/04/15).

Many of London’s poorest inhabitants are being pushed out by rising prices and redevelopments, leading to accusations of social cleansing (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Aylesbury Estate, 02/04/15).

Many homes are bought by investors, kept empty and then sold off for profit a year or two later once the price has risen (08/03/15, Elephant and Castle).

Many homes are bought by investors, kept empty and then sold off for profit a year or two later once the price has risen (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Elephant and Castle, 08/03/15).

This sticker was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, along with several others featured in this post (Flint Street, SE1, 05/05/15).

This sticker was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, along with several others featured in this post (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Flint Street, SE1, 05/05/15).

Over the past few months, it has come to light that some property developers build separate entrances for the social housing in their developments.  This sticker is calling for an end to these 'poor doors'.

Over the past few months, it has come to light that some property developers build separate entrances for the social housing in their developments. This sticker is calling for an end to these ‘poor doors’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Elephant and Castle, 03/03/15).

Some of the detail on this sticker is hard to make out because of the weathering, but I think it is calling for the Bedroom Tax to be replaced with a 50% Mansion Tax (Cable Street, 25/02/15).

Some of the detail on this sticker is hard to make out because of the weathering, but I think it is calling for the Bedroom Tax to be replaced with a 50% Mansion Tax (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Cable Street, 25/02/15).

This sticker was obviously made by the same people as the previous one,  but it is slightly different. Also, 'Vote for Class War' has been changed to 'Fight for Class War' (Borough High Street, 18/02/15).

This sticker was obviously made by the same people as the previous one, but it is slightly different. Also, ‘Vote for Class War’ has been changed to ‘Fight for Class War’ (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Borough High Street, 18/02/15).

This design was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth. The picture was taken in East Street, which has recently got attention because of resistance to raids by the UK Border Agency (East Street, Southwark, 04/06/15).

This design was produced by Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth. The picture was taken in East Street, which has recently got attention because of resistance to raids by the UK Border Agency (Photo: Hannah Awcock, East Street, Southwark, 04/06/15).

This design was also produced by HASL, and also refers to social cleansing (East Street, 04/06/15).

This design was also produced by HASL, and also refers to social cleansing (Photo: Hannah Awcock, East Street, 04/06/15).

End Austerity Now Demo

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.

The marched started outside of the Bank of England, a symbolic location. The route went through the city, along Fleet Street and the Strand to Parliament Square, where a rally was held.

The marched started outside of the Bank of England, a symbolic location. The route went through the city, along Fleet Street and the Strand to Parliament Square, where a rally was held (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The words on this banner is a stanza from the poem 'The Masque of Anarchy' written by the poet Percy Shelley after the Peterloo massacre in 1819.

The words on this banner is a stanza from the poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ written by the poet Percy Shelley after the Peterloo massacre in 1819 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The People's Republic of Brighton and Hove was 'founded' after the general election, when the city's two constituencies were the only two not to elect a Conservative MP in the south-east.

The People’s Republic of Brighton and Hove was ‘founded’ after the general election, when two of the city’s constituencies were the only two not to elect a Conservative MP in the south-east. The Republic already has a flag and a passport, and a policy of deporting all Conservatives (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

People of all ages attended the End Austerity Now demonstration, and I saw several pensioner's organisations represented.

People of all ages attended the End Austerity Now demonstration, and I saw several pensioner’s organisations represented (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Unite's big floating balls were a very visible presence.

Unite’s big floating balls were a very visible presence (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Everyone loves a reference to popular culture, but the image of David Cameron's head on Miley Cyrus' body is not one I will forget in a hurry!

Everyone loves a reference to popular culture, but the image of David Cameron’s head on Miley Cyrus’ body is not one I will forget in a hurry! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

The City of London provided a meaningful backdrop to the demonstration, but does tend to be empty at the weekends, so there weren't many spectators until the march made it to Westminster.

The City of London provided a meaningful backdrop to the demonstration, but does tend to be empty at the weekends, so there weren’t many spectators until the march made it to Westminster (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Some protesters turned themselves into placards, like this gentleman.

Some protesters turned themselves into placards, like this gentleman (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Another witty homemade placard that I quite like.

Another witty homemade placard that I quite like (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There was music of various forms along the march.

There was music of various forms along the march. These supporters of Hare Krishna seemed to go down particularly well. (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

There was a large bloc of students and teachers on the demonstration, and thanks to this inflatable they were hard to miss!

There was a large bloc of students and teachers on the demonstration, and thanks to this inflatable they were hard to miss! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

It is estimated that a quarter of a million people came on the march.

It is estimated that a quarter of a million people came on the march (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Fire Brigade's Union were another group who made an impression.

The Fire Brigade’s Union were another group who made an impression (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Sister's Uncut is a women-only group that uses direct action to try and protect domestic violence services. They also have some pretty good chants!

Sisters Uncut is a women-only group that uses direct action to try and protect domestic violence services. They also have some pretty good chants! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

Housing, and many of the issues and protest tactics that surround it, like squatting, is a particularly contentious issue in London.

Housing, and many of the issues and protest tactics that surround it, like squatting, is a particularly contentious issue in London (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This gentleman had some rather good songs about Ian Duncan Smith.

This gentleman had some rather good songs about Ian Duncan Smith (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Various unions were present on the demonstration, and their banners are always works of art.

Various unions were present on the demonstration, and their banners are always works of art (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I'm not sure why David Cameron is a crab, but this costume is fantastic!

I’m not sure why David Cameron is a crab, but this costume is fantastic! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

I couldn't resist taking a picture of placards in front of Big Ben- it's democracy in action!

I couldn’t resist taking a picture of placards in front of Big Ben- it’s democracy in action! (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

The bedroom tax is a highly controversial government policy. Lots of people with banners and placards stopped along Whitehall, presumably to promote their cause as the rest of the march passed by.

The bedroom tax is a highly controversial government policy. Lots of people with banners and placards stopped along Whitehall, presumably to promote their cause as the rest of the march passed by (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Turbulent Westminster: Time to Act and Million Women Rise Marches

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.

People had come from all over the country to protest against issues related to climate change in their local area, but  there were several London groups.

People had come from all over the country to protest against issues related to climate change in their local area, but there were several London groups (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

People of all ages attended the march....

People of all ages attended the march…. (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

...from the young...

…from the young… (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

...to the old, several generations were represented by the demonstrators. I think climate change marches tend to be more friendly and safe events than protests around some issues.

…to the old, several generations were represented by the demonstrators. I think climate change marches tend to be more friendly and safe events than protests around some issues (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This group stopped in front of a McDonalds to help make their point.

This group stopped in front of a McDonalds to help make their point (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As usual, there were generic placards printed large numbers by groups such as the Green Party, the CND, and Left Unity...

As usual, there were generic placards printed large numbers by groups such as the Green Party, the CND, and Left Unity… (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

...as well as home-made efforts, which frequently take a comic approach to the issues.

…as well as home-made efforts, which frequently take a comic approach to the issues (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Lots of issues were represented in the Time to Act march, including fossil fuels, TTIP, runways and Trident. Drax is a coal-fired power station in Yorkshire that provides about 7% of the UK's electricity supply.

Lots of issues were represented in the Time to Act march, including fossil fuels, TTIP, runways and Trident. Drax is a coal-fired power station in Yorkshire that provides about 7% of the UK’s electricity supply (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This contingent from Oxford brought their own band. Music is a really important part of protest marches, helping to left the mood and keep the marchers upbeat and energised.

This contingent from Oxford brought their own band. Music is a really important part of protest marches, helping to left the mood and keep the marchers upbeat and energised (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Whilst fracking was a popular topic of disdain for the marchers, this gentleman decided to focus on tar sands.  Tar sands is not a method of fossil fuel extraction that is used in the UK, but many contemporary activists take an international approach to their campaigning.

Whilst fracking was a popular topic of disdain for the marchers, this gentleman decided to focus on tar sands. Tar sands is not a method of fossil fuel extraction that is used in the UK, but many contemporary activists take an international approach to their campaigning (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This protester brought his bike along, presumably to promote the environmentally -friendly form of travel. The placard in his basket is a play on Shell's logo and name.

This protester brought his bike along, presumably to promote the environmentally -friendly form of travel. The placard in his basket is a play on Shell’s logo and name (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

One of the last placards of the Time to Act march was this one, calling for spectators to join the march.

One of the last placards of the Time to Act march was this one, calling for spectators to join the march (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Million Women Rise march arrived in Trafalgar Square just as the last Time to Act protester passed by. They too had many mass-produced placards.

The Million Women Rise march arrived in Trafalgar Square just as the last Time to Act protester passed by. They too had many mass-produced placards (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

But there were also home-made placards too, like this one.

But there were also home-made placards too, like this one (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Although violence against women is a more focussed topic than climate change, other issues were still brought in by demonstrators, such as this sign about migration.

Although violence against women is a more focussed topic than climate change, other issues were still brought in by demonstrators, such as this sign about migration (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Lots of different groups were represented on the march, from a huge variety of backgrounds. From Essex… (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

 

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…to Kurdistan, each group had a different style and approach (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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This was one of my favourite banners from the day, with the bright colours and striking imagery. Unfortunately, I doubt it will ever be seen in the National Gallery! (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Most marches end with a rally, witch speakers, and sometimes music. The Million Women Rise stage was set up in front of Nelson's Column.

Most marches end with a rally, with speakers, and sometimes music. The Million Women Rise stage was set up in front of Nelson’s Column (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The March for Homes

The March for Homes finished with a rally at City Hall.

The March for Homes finished with a rally at City Hall (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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The marchers starting to gather in Elephant and Castle (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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Large groups often provide placards for demonstrations, like this made by the Socialist Workers Party (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A speaker at Elephant and Castle from the National Union of Teachers.

A speaker at Elephant and Castle from the National Union of Teachers (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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Another placard at Elephant and Castle (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The march set off towards the empty wasteland that used to be the Heygate Estate.

The march set off towards the empty wasteland that used to be the Heygate Estate (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The south route of the March for Homes went through several large areas of social housing (Source: March for Homes, 2014).

The south route of the March for Homes went through several large areas of social housing (Source: March for Homes, 2014).

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.

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The march went right through the middle of what used to be the Heygate Estate (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Many groups were represented at the March for Homes.

Many groups were represented at the March for Homes (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Some creative editing of a hoarding for a development by L&Q (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A placard in front of Tower Bridge, one of London’s most famous landmarks (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

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Some placards were home made, but these are often the most creative (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Anarchist groups also took part in the demonstration (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

 

The rally at City Hall, although I doubt Boris Johnson was listening from his office.

The rally at City Hall- I wonder if Boris Johnson was listening from his office (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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.

 

 

Trafalgar Square ‘Unity Rally’: My Thoughts

Trafalgar Square on Sunday evening (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

Trafalgar Square on Sunday evening (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

(Photo: Graeme Awcock).

The French flag was projected onto the National Gallery (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

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.

(Photo: Graeme Awcock).

People left candles and pens in tribute and defiance (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

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.

(Photo: Graeme Awcock).

The atmosphere was subdued but positive (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

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.

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The fountains in Trafalgar Square were lit with the colours of the French flag (Photo: Graeme Awcock).

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.

Playful Protest: Popular Culture and Humour in Hong Kong and London

As I’m sure many of you have, I’ve been following the events of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong very closely. The protests, known to some as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ because of protesters using umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas, have been going on for some weeks now. The protesters accuse the Chinese government of reneging on multiple promises to allow Hong Kong a free and fair democracy by placing restrictions on who is allowed to run for the position of Chief Executive, effectively Hong Kong’s leader, in 2017 (for more information about the Hong Kong demonstrations, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-29413349). An end appeared to be in sight as talks between the government and the protesters were scheduled for this Friday (the 9th of October), but they were called off the day before they were due to take place. One of the things that struck me as I have watched events unfold is the many similarities between the protests in Hong Kong, and many recent demonstrations in London. One example is the playful, light-hearted approach some protesters take, evidenced in placards and banners made and carried by the demonstrators.

This design was mass produced on placards and posters during the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in 2010.

This design was mass produced on placards and posters during the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in 2010 (Source: Author’s own).

Placards, banners, and signs are an integral part of a demonstration or protest. Along with the shouting of chants and slogans, they convey the message of the demonstrators to observers. Many, such as the poster in the image above, are mass produced by large groups and organisations involved in the demonstration. But many others are home made, painted or drawn onto pieces of cardboard and old bedsheets. These allow individual protesters to express themselves, publicly declaring their own opinions and perspectives. For many the placard is a temporary object, the streets after a demonstration are often scattered with them, and they are sometimes used as fuel for impromptu fires. However in 2011 the Save our Placards project (see http://saveourplacards.blogspot.co.uk/), run by Goldsmiths and the Museum of London sought to change that, collecting placards after the Anti-Austerity March for the Alternative on the 26th of March. They collected over 300 objects, 10 of which are now in the Museum’s collections. The project demonstrated the vast amounts of creativity and variety that can be involved in placards and has shown that they are worthy of attention by those studying protest.

One thing that placards make clear is the playful attitude of many protesters to issues they are trying to draw attention to. In both the recent Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and student demonstrations against austerity and raised tuition fees in London in 2010 and 2011, protesters have taken an irreverent approach through the use of humour and references to popular culture.

In the top right of this image a banner references  Les Miserables (Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03056/sing_3056506k.jpg)

In the top left of this image a banner references Les Miserables (Source: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/03056/sing_3056506k.jpg)

A placard at an anti-austerity student protest in London in 2011 (Source: author's own).

A placard at an anti-austerity student protest in London in 2011 (Source: author’s own).

The above two images, one from Hong Kong and one from London, contain references to popular culture. The first, a photo from Hong Kong, is a banner which says ‘Do u hear the people sing’, a line from one of the most famous songs from the musical Les Miserables, which culminates in the 1832 June Revolution in Paris. The second, taken in London, asks ‘What would Dumbledore do?’, probably a reference to the phrase ‘What would Jesus do?’ sometimes used as a way of making decisions. Dumbledore is the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the fictitious school of magic in the Harry Potter book and film franchise. The people who made both of these signs are using their knowledge of popular culture to articulate their own opinions and demands, one a demand to be heard, the other a call to the British Authorities to consider their actions.

A humorous placard in the recent Hong Kong demonstrations (Source: http://scontent-b.cdninstagram.com/hphotos-xpa1/t51.2885-15/927173_309133819274872_1878847170_a.jpg).

A humorous placard in the recent Hong Kong demonstrations (Source: http://scontent-b.cdninstagram.com/hphotos-xpa1/t51.2885-15/927173_309133819274872_1878847170_a.jpg).

A humourous topical placard at a demonstration opposing a threefold increase in tuition fees in London in 2010 (Source: Author's own).

A humorous and topical placard at a demonstration opposing a threefold increase in tuition fees in London in 2010 (Source: Author’s own).

The above two photos show placards which take a more humorous approach to protest. The second, taken in London, is particularly topical as it was part of a demonstration against the UK coalition government’s plans to raise the cap on tuition fees from just over £3000 to £9000 a year in 2010. Humour is a common way of dealing with upsetting or traumatic situations, and I think humour in protests is no exception, making the difficult and strenuous task that is activism easier to cope with.

I am often struck by the similarities between different protests around the world. You don’t have to look very hard to find multiple connections and links. A playful approach to protest is one of these similarities, and I’m sure it can be found around the world, not just in Hong Kong and London.