Tales From A Seasoned Activist

5 July 2005

Saturday 2nd July

It was 4 in the morning. We were lost and my shoes were leaking. York University’s intrepid mission to bring democracy to Gleneagles was not looking good. Armed with a map of Leeds’s labyrinthine one way system, a bag full of lentils but no sleeping bag, we had set out to meet up with our transport and co-activists, a collective known as The Common Place, but so far all we had got was wet, tired, and very, very lost. Fortunately fate smiled, or rather smirked at our plight, and soon we were on our way to Edinburgh, the G8 and a week of camping and direct action.

By the time we arrived in Edinburgh we were napped and dried, and soon sprang out of the bus, eager for our first taste of action, the Make Poverty History march in the centre of town. Our timing was perfect, the park was packed. Liberated from the crushing weight of our rucksacks, we sprinted past a sea of corralled marchers, a seething mass of white t-shirts and exotic banners, to stand by the gate just as the procession began to move. We stood at the gate as the fence was drawn back, realizing suddenly that none of us was wearing white. We quickly pushed such thoughts to the back of our mind in order to attend to a far more pressing and urgent task, handing out inflammatory literature. We stood for hours, lost in a seething white mass, trying to fight the current and avoid low hanging banners, handing out leaflets and reminding everyone that real Poverty History could be made by marching to Gleneagles on Wednesday.

I began to wander along with the crowd, the front of which by that time had managed to encircle the city and rejoin the back of the crowd in the park, forming a white band across Edinburgh and completing the demonstration. The crowd marched on, and I began to march with them, stopping to chat with demonstrators and stall owners, and occasionally pause to read the competing literature that had been thrust into my hands.

The crowd in the park had been fenced in to a series of enclosures, presumably in order to manage their quantity and the related quality of the human white band. Many people had been waiting for hours before they had even started their circuit of Edinburgh, but nonetheless exhibited a restrained enthusiasm and patience. As I watched a troupe of African drummers pass, it occurred to me how quiet this demonstration was in comparison to many of the others I had been to. Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between the size of a demonstration and the amount of noise it has to make, but I could not help but wonder at the rather restrained character of the proceedings, I wanted more dancing and singing, more joyful exuberance, a more prominent tone of excitement and fun. The Africans and Europeans provided much of the music and the chanting, and the Clowns (C.I.R.C.A) certainly put in a good show, but on the whole I felt that people seemed to have come with the attitude that they were there to do a job, and while certainly no chore, it was a job that did not demand and unnecessary silliness.

Undoubtedly a testament to the mass appeal of the Make Poverty History campaign, the people I spoke to overwhelmingly told me that this was not the kind of thing they usually got involved in, on several occasions people started with the line “Well, I’m not an activist, but....” before going on to say that they felt that it was just something that they felt had do be done, that the demonstration was necessary to 'show them that we care about this stuff'. I asked people what they felt this demonstration meant, and whether they honestly believed that their leaders would listen to their message, did they expect a radical program to come out of this G8 summit? Overwhelmingly they didn't. The belief in the power of such a demonstration to effect small change prevailed, along with a firm belief that the leaders of the democratic nations cared little about what said in events like this. But why protest at all, I asked? People seemed to feel that while their voice was often ignored, it was necessary to express it nonetheless, and that even if little is achieved at this summit, we will be one step closer for having tried.

I could not at time help being sceptical of such idealism, especially as it seemed to come with an intuitive distrust and disapproval of a hidden 'dissident element'. People seemed to feel that this was not their territory, that the business of protest and political demonstrations were the realm of troublemakers and Anarchists, the likes of which were lurking around the edges today, waiting to spoil things.

The media the next day certainly lauded the 'protesters', and the police, for having  overcome any violent or destructive elements and behaved itself. The association of violence with political dissidence or opposition seems firmly established both in the media coverage of the events leading up to the G8 and within the popular consciousness of many marchers with MPH, the feeling that the business of direct action, and by association political demonstrations were the territory of the 'crazies', or orchestrated by lunatics hell bent on the destruction of decent society altogether.

The White, uncritical approach and vagueness of the demonstration began to convince me that this was a demonstration not of political will, but of faith -- faith that whoever was up there would listen to reason and set things right, so we could all get on with what we were doing before. The people I talked to were certainly not unaware of the issues, but as one American man I spoke to pointed out, 'I see a lot of labels here today'. Reebok, Nike and others sat uncomfortably next to chants and banners calling for 'TRADE JUSTICE'. That being said, I do not for a second doubt that those who marched on saturday left with a strengthened resolve to apply the principles the marched for to their own lives, and that the demonstration acted as a wake-up call for its participants, a reminder that it is possible to fight for trade justice in their habits, as well as their prayers.

After some time we left the demonstration to press on to the Rural Convergence Centre, a camping site for all those planning to stay for the week of demonstration and protest against the G8 on the outskirts of Stirling. On arrival we were warmly welcomed, told to find our neighborhood, stay out of the river, and get to work.

The site represents the culmination of months of planning and organisation by various dissent groups throughout the UK and Europe, and is an amazing experience, a huge political experiment in direct democracy, 'horizontal organisation' and getting involved. The camp is divided into Barrios, and the organisation of the site has sought to draw from the labour movements of Latin America, keen to implement 'alternative' politics, right down to the digging of the toilets. Each Barrio or neighbourhood is responsible for its own kitchen, water, power and facilities. Each neighbourhood meets to discuss what has to be done and people volunteer to do it. Meetings are held according to the principles of 'consensus', avoiding votes, leaders and hierarchies. Representatives from the neighborhood meetings communicate important information back and forth via big meetings with representatives from all the neighbourhoods, ensuring important organisation and information is distributed around the camp. It is an ambitious project, and perhaps the first real experience of a truly open and democratic decision process I have ever had in my life. It is exciting, though sometimes meetings can drag on. There is never a shortage of volunteers.

We set up our tents and got to work, tying down marquees and chopping food. Before long we were fed and well satisfied, whiling the remaining hours of the day listening to live music and the chatter of a multitude of European languages. We feel sated, satisfied and happy, Democracy is looking up.

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