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.