Yesterday I found myself, placard in hand, standing outside the council HQ in Chatham. Hearing that a protest against George Osbornes’s swingeing budget cuts was in the offing, my significant other and I fought our way through the hellish rush hour traffic to lend our support.
Parking behind the stately Brook theatre, we made our way on foot towards the site of the demonstration. Rarely of late have we experienced such a warm summers day and I wouldn’t have complained if it weren’t for the fact that the heat conspired to intensify the noxious vapours spewing from the host of sluggish vehicles.
Trudging up the hill we shortly came across a small group of fellow travellers; mostly union members, a lady from the Green party, students and a fresh faced young Marxist lad. I estimate this happy few amounted to no more than 25 people.
Mr O and I found a spot on the pavement next to the only person we knew. For several minutes we stood gauchely pondering what was required of us. Gripped by an urgent need to wave a placard I was pleased to discover there were placards to spare. Thus armed with my chosen slogan, my confidence and sense of purpose swelled.
Disheartening though it was, to see that so few people had turned up, what frustrated me more was the reaction of the public; apart from the sporadic toot of support from the occasional car, most passers by seemed to gawp disinterestedly and people on foot scurried by with averted gaze.
The protesters themselves seemed subdued and unsure, a few tried to start a chant but it didn’t catch on. I expect greater numbers would have bolstered the feeling of confidence and camaraderie. It was a terribly polite British affair, the nearest we got to unrest was a 4 year old girl throwing an empty plastic bottle and while a few speakers tried to rally the troops over a megaphone a “gentleman” from the barracks across the street invited us to fuck off.
Whilst I know the event was at short notice and many people I know of were unable to get there for various reasons, I am still surprised at the paucity of numbers. A rising tide of frustration bubbled within me, I wanted to shake people and say, “ wake up, this is a matter that directly affects you and all around you. What will it take for you to take your head out of the sand?”
I know I’m perhaps a little naïve and idealistic, but I still believe change can be brought about when people get together en masse to peacefully express their views. The students who did come to the demo spoke eloquently and passionately, a handful though they were. Once upon a time the student community could be relied upon to turn out in numbers to stand up against government inflicted cruelty against the poor, disenfranchised and hard hit workers. Unfortunately those times have passed.
As I take in this scene and grapple with my own awkwardness the internal jukebox of my brain plays Radiohead lyrics on repeat. “I wish it was the sixties
I wish I could be happy
I wish that something would happen”
In closing I want to say that now more than ever people power matters. Let’s shake off this ennui and British reserve and put ourselves out there. I know all I did was go and stand on a pavement but if a thousand people or more had done the same, the impact would have been something to behold.