Voices to lift our spirits

“In a protest, we’re all bystanders, we’re all there because of some attempt to marginalise us; the bystanders are the people making history.” Book review.

Richard Norton-Taylor
18 October 2017

Manchester, 2013. 50,000 people protest NHS cuts outside Conservative party conference.Tim Goode/EMPICS Entertainment. All rights reserved.In these days of Trump, Brexit, nuclear proliferation, and economic gloom, we need something to lift our spirits. It is rare for a book, and one containing fictionalised history, to help bring us down to earth, away from scary rhetoric.

Protest, subtitled Stories of Resistance, is a celebration of revolt, sometimes successful, more often not, over six centuries, from the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 to the anti-war march in London in February 2003, a month before the invasion of Iraq.

It includes the Diggers, the Aldermaston marches, the Brixton riots, Welsh language protests, the Suffragettes, Greenham Common, and the Battle of Orgreave, and other protests most of us have probably never heard of.

The idea, says Ra Page, editor of the wonderfully evocative and refreshing collection illustrating “people power” was triggered by the nationwide protests and riots in 2011 following the shooting in London by police of Mark Duggan. The real causes of the riots “disappeared in the chaos”, as he put it. Two years later, 50,000 people marched in Manchester demonstrating against proposed NHS cuts. It was one of the largest demonstrations in the city’s history. But because the march was peaceful it was ignored by the BBC news programmes.

Page has commissioned a series of short stories by writers, including the comedian, Alexei Sayle, the author and poet, David Constantine, and the novelist, Maggie Gee, accompanied by comments by an eye witness or “expert” – a historian or sociologist, for example. The idea is to give priority to the non-heroes. “When it comes to ‘world events’, none are more suited to the short story than the protest”, says Page in his introduction to the book. “In a protest, we’re all bystanders, we’re all there because of some attempt to marginalise us; the bystanders are the people making history.”

There are chapters on little-known protests. They include the 1661 Venner’s Rising, named after one of the Fifth Monarchists involved in a shambolic plot that ended in the hanging of the ringleaders; the Pentrich Rising of 1817 of knitters and other labourers. In the accompanying afterword, Katrina Navickas of Hertfordshire University notes that while “Luddite” is now a perjorative term referring to a mistrust of technology two hundred years ago it meant textile workers were “defiantly defending their customary rights”.

The Radical War of 1820 is described (by Gordon Pentland of Edinburgh University) as an abortive attempt to stage an insurrection in the Scottish lowlands after a long period of government repression and withering economic hardship following the Napoleonic War. Gee writes a story around May Hobbs, a leader of the Night Cleaners’ Strike of 1971/2. The anti-nuclear Aldermaston Marches are well-known but in his afterword to a short Stuart Evers story, Michael Randle, a veteran advocate of nonviolent direct action, describes the modest beginnings of what became a broad anti-nuclear movement that spread to other nuclear bases and included the clandestine “Spies for Peace”, the subject of Evers’ tale.

I found it somehow comforting to read about the protests across the centuries. Protests also feature in Voices for Peace, a collection of pieces on, as the subtitle puts it, “War, Resistance and America’s Quest for Full-Spectrum Dominance”. The American, Kathy Kelly, one of the founders of Voices in the Wilderness, describes how the coordinator of the little-known Afghan Peace Volunteers’ “Street Kids School”, recently stood “in front of the dried up, stench ridden, polluted Kabul River, filming a video encouraging Standing Rock indigenous activists (protesting against the Dakota Access pipeline) never to give up...never to let what happened to the Kabul River befall their beautiful Missouri”.

Coles refers to activists in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, No More Deaths, dedicated to protecting refugees and migrants attempting to enter the US border with Mexico and, in Europe, to Refugee Rescue, a team of volunteers, he says, who risk lives to save lives.

This, too, is a refreshing book by a small publisher, despite some rather tendentious passages suggesting we in the west are all bad and Russia all good. Moscow is far from innocent, though the rhetoric as well as the actions of western leaders and of Nato serves merely to bolster Putin’s authority.

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