My First Protest

by Katy Preen 2 years ago in activism

No, it’s not the name of a Ladybird book; I went on my first ever political protest this weekend.

My First Protest

The Conservative Party Conference was in Manchester last week, and plenty of people were unhappy about it. This isn’t a huge surprise as they’re lagging behind in the polls, social problems are rife, and the government is single-mindedly pushing through a disastrous exit from the European Union — a move that will leave the UK worse off on just about every metric. Still, we have to respect the Will of the People — even if they’re too uninformed to know what’s good for them (the UK media and government have become notorious for downplaying the EU's successes in Britain and exaggerating the negatives).

Not so for those gathered in Manchester city centre this weekend, though. The message was clear: we want the Tories out. There was a diverse mixture of political parties and community groups represented, all Left-leaning, but this is Manchester after all. It’s one of the safest Labour seats in the country. Many had joined us from further afield — I saw banners for socialist groups from as far away as Exeter and London.

It’s only fairly recently that I’ve gotten involved in politics, although I wish I’d done so much earlier. It’s through virtue of moving to a large city that I’ve had my eyes opened to the real problems that affect the less fortunate (and by extension, all of us) and to how sheltered and privileged my earlier life had been. I used to vote Conservative, but I feel that the Conservative party has lurched too far to the right since then, and they prize the pursuit of money to the exclusion of all other goals. Public services don’t generate a profit, but Neoliberalism has reduced every organisation, and every individual within it, to a profit-and-loss account.

The range of political interests was huge. I feel that the Left is divided into lots of very small parties when we actually have a lot in common. Well, we stood together for one day, at least, avoiding scenes like in The Life Of Brian. PFJ and JPF standing shoulder to shoulder against the common enemy.

There was also another protest at around the same time which joined with the #ToriesOut march near to the conference centre. This one was specifically pro-EU, although the Tories Out group had both Remain and Leave elements. The police would only allow us to get within about 50 yards of the venue, which was probably best for everyone’s safety. We did get to spend a good five minutes there chanting at the Tories, though, which was rather satisfying.

The march was scheduled to start at 11 AM, but I could have had an extra few hours in bed as we didn’t go anywhere until after 2 PM. I turned up fairly unprepared with nothing but what was in my pockets. Not to worry because numerous groups had set up stalls along the start of the route to hand out placards, leaflets, and to sell copies of The Socialist. We met at the Castlefield Bowl, an open-air amphitheatre by the canal. It’s a decent-sized space; they managed to fit all of us in with no problem, and there was loads of room for the pre-march entertainers and a stage for speeches.

During the three-hour warming up period (or cooling down, from the police’s point-of-view), there was a fair amount to see and get involved with. There were thousands of other people to chat with, and some of them had set up displays championing whatever their niche cause was. The main stage was dominated by a roster of short speeches from any of the groups that had registered beforehand, mostly trade unions.

Random steel drum band. For context, there are drummers at literally everything in Manchester.

Beyond the railway arches, and near to the faux-beach, bands were playing. I turned up halfway through a socialist rap outfit (what can I say, all tastes were catered for), which was followed by a poetry reading and then The Commoner’s Choir — who I’d also seen the night before at a community project. They are wonderful — a professional choir singing about the political issues of the day with a bit of humour. Their best song by far was a rhyme about Jeremy Hunt (the Health Secretary) which somehow managed not to resort to coarse language…

The Commoner’s Choir also joined us on the march impressing us all with their voice and lung capacity — it’s hard work walking and chanting, let alone singing in tune! When walking along the route, it was great to see many people out on the streets in support and looking down from the apartments above. The police lined the route, walked alongside us, and generally kept us safe and well-behaved. I have not heard a peep from the mainstream media about how peaceful the protest was — it’s such a shame because activism’s not all violence and vandalism. We just wanted our voices to be heard without creating a full-blown riot.

This is a sign from the conference that someone "borrowed" and turned into a placard.

The supportive nature of the policing was very reassuring. We knew that there would be armed police surrounding the conference, but most of those looking after the protest were unarmed. They would have been able to call upon them at a moment’s notice should the worst happen, but the softly-softly approach that they took ensured a mutual respect between protesters and police. It was so orderly that I don’t even think a cup of tea got knocked over. The police will also be smarting from the public sector pay cap brought in by the Tories, so I’m sure they would have stood in solidarity with us — they are people too!

Turns out that they had the usual snipers up on the roofs, but this has become normal for any political event of this size. It's sad that it's no longer sensationalist to report on it. Mind you, the snipers are only getting a 1% pay rise as well, so solidarity with them too, I guess.

The march ended at Piccadilly Gardens right in the city centre. It was now time for some closing speeches and to clear up after ourselves and make our way home. Placards were neatly stacked by the waste bins for removal by the council (seriously, no one ever talks about the protesters who are good citizens, only the ones that cause trouble), and spare leaflets and flyers were gathered up. I met up with some friends for pizza, and we spent the next couple of hours discussing politics and vowing to meet up for the next event. There’s likely to be a lot happening politically — Theresa May is doing a poor job and hardly shows her face in public, and there’s quiet unrest over Brexit. My family urged me not to get involved in politics when they sent me off to university nearly 20 years ago. I think it might have been a product of the poverty we lived in, that it was “not for us.” But the poorest in our society are currently the hardest-hit, and someone has to stand up for them. Theresa May and the Tories want an easy ride; we mustn’t let them have one.

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Katy Preen

Research scientist, author & artist based in Manchester, UK.  Strident feminist, SJW, proudly working-class.

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