This may be an odd sort of first post to my first real journal, so I’ll back fill later, but for now I’m going to stick to the cause of me getting round to trying to write something a bit more useful than I normally do.
The other day I came home early from a holiday where I get to spend several days with some excellent people that I don’t see often enough ( Time, money, circumstances all the usual excuses). I did this to join Old Holborn for his little walk. I had two hopes for the walk, that nothing would happen and that loads of people would be there. Both hopes turned out to be rather futile and I’m still trying to work out which is most depressing, currently the latter is in the lead.
I personally knew four other people who said they’d be there, and there were 91 on Facebook, that hot bed of political activism (as signing on line petitions and joining on line groups seems to count for activism these days, a rant for another day). Of the people I knew, one was ill, 2 I suspect couldn’t get away from work for a suitable lunch hour or some such and the last felt that could do more good trying to get people to hear about it from their normal place of work (I’ve no idea how well they did, I’ve not seen anything about the walk outside of the blogs that were aware of it before hand). I suppose all the others who said they’d make it had equally good reasons. I though find myself wondering, for an event where there was no pressure or compulsion to say you’d attend, what happened to all of those 90 people. Assuming the best case, that everyone who did turn up was one of them, and not someone who had heard about it elsewhere, then only 1 in 4 made it. I don’t know if that counts as a good turn out these days – for an event where all you had to do was go for a light lunchtime walk I really hope not.
Enough of that though, it’s hard to tell just how many people were there un-costumed, there may have been many more there than I thought and those that weren’t may have had excellent reasons (points failure outside Clapham common – perhaps). So instead here’s the walk from my point of view – other peoples reasons for it and views of what happened have been written about by far more erudite writers than I (here and here for instance).
I went along because I wanted to see what would happen, because I hoped that even just a few people making an effort might cause more people to stop and think. Whether they agree with my concerns or not isn’t so important as long as they stop and have a think. Plus I admit I’d had similar ideas the year before and done nothing about it, and I think the symbolism of Guy Fawkes/V is perhaps the best tool we currently have to explain what can be subtle issues (unless you risk seeming a paranoid loon), and of course it stood to be somewhat amusing. So I met my fellow perambulators in a most charming pub, knew none of them and still don’t know most and the 10 or so of us be-costumed headed off towards parliament. I fought a brief losing battle with my wig, and struggled with my hat much of the walk- next time I’ll be better prepared. I may have missed them but most of the way down Whitehall there were very few police about – certainly no more than I’ve seen before. At least that is until we passed Downing street, when the better dressed of our number presented the police with a rather elegant red rose, which they took with no obvious alarm.
It should be noted that there were no slogans, no chanting, no banners and we weren’t even walking that much in a group. If we’d been in tour group outfits we’d have been one of the worst organized groups ever. So when at the corner of Parliament Square a PCSO called out to stop, it really wasn’t clear who they were talking to. They seemed to finally decide on the previously mentioned sartorially superior Fawkes. So after a little bit we all sauntered to a halt, the be-costumed and the not so be-costumed alike. In retrospect I’m not sure just what power that gentlemen was requesting we stop under, but being law abiding sorts we all co-operated. A short while later some real members of the constabulary joined the several PCSO’s it turned out had been on hand to encourage our pause.
Now as we were all sort of strung out, didn’t know each other, weren’t on a demo (that would have been illegal), it wasn’t terribly clear just who was actually required to stop as they had only shouted in our various general directions to stop. I for one don’t normally assume that when I’m going about my legal business that a uniformed person shouting stop is referring to me. When I started wandering off though it was made clearer that it was in fact anyone in a mask they wanted to stop. At this point a few things were quite clear: the PCSO’s aren’t very good at either communicating as to why you’re being stopped nor under what authority and also if you do stop they’re not terribly good at keeping groups stopped or even in a useful sort of bunch.
Anyway, we were stopped, and the real constabulary turned up. They being slightly more on the ball realised we were stopped on a narrow bit of pavement between a wall and some road work barriers and were thus causing a tiny bit of an obstruction so asked us all to toddle back round the corner. Once more as nice law abiding co-operative types we obliged. At this point it became apparent that there were about two or so uniformed sorts to each masked sort, which is either rather overkill or not nearly enough depending on your point of view. From overheard conversations some of the uniformed sorts weren’t actually on duty but had just stopped to lend a hand, which was terribly public spirited of them really. Some of the police having started talking to us managed to establish: that we were going for a walk (it was a nice day and the 5th so really it was terribly reasonable) , that we didn’t know each other, weren’t a demo and I suspect shortly after concluded we were a bunch of harmless loons. We were however a bunch of harmless loons that were starting to attract a crowd, so the PCSO’s started shouting at the random tourists and photographers to move on and then requesting ID if they didn’t. The police meanwhile started divvying up the work of searching us all under section 44 of the anti terrorism act 2000, to aid is this endeavour some PCSO’s were tasked with collecting our details to fill in the stop and search form. This task was made much faster when they realised they weren’t going to get any and stopped trying so hard to acquire them, or to ask us if we’d remove our masks. By the end of the process the police were being quite relaxed and most of the PCSO’s had gone on their merry way.
This had of course proved the point of the walk in that a few people can’t take a pleasant stroll in fancy dress down past parliament in broad daylight un-accosted, I shall return to this. However some things to note of this, actually fairly civil (PCSO’s somewhat excluded) encounter: the reasons for us being stopped were never made clear (they don’t need a reason to search you under section 44), they weren’t terribly good at explaining the authority they were using (though for my part I must admit I did make it plain I understood about section 44) and whilst searching us they made it clear they were looking for anything we “shouldn’t have”. This is rather naughty as the acts states “may be exercised only for the purpose of searching for articles of a kind which could be used in connection with terrorism”, which is less broad than anything we “shouldn’t have” (which from a “jocular” reference made included fireworks). Fireworks, as far as I’m aware aren’t illegal in the UK to posses, especially on the 5th of November, and given the lack of bags or anything much we really couldn’t have had any quantity of them, certainly not enough to cause terror. I may be being unreasonable but this bothers me, we’re expected to not make jokes about bombs and such around our security forces (which I consider reasonable) so surely we have to take their words seriously when they are dealing with us on nominally terrorist related grounds, and if we do then the feeling I’m left with is that the search was quite happy to overstep the grounds on which it was being made. That said I am still trying to make up my mind about that, but it is sticking in my mind as a “hmm, that wasn’t quite right” sort of event.
Anyway we were all allowed to go on our way with no further adventure, we stopped outside the very gates of Parliament, to which we’d so recently been considered a threat, and had our photo’s taken with some other policemen (at least until they moved away), and then wandered back up Whitehall and to the pub, passing far more uniformed sorts (some armed) than had been present on the way down, at least so it seemed to my observation. Of course if that were true I’m sure it was entirely co-incidental.
The pub was excellent as was the company most of whom I’d not recognise again, though we did discover the police had dropped in for a word just a half hour after we’d left for our walk. A special mention must be made of Charlie, a 72 year old ex-Para who was drinking there and with whom I at least had a wonderful conversation. He was surprisingly internet aware, supportive of what we’d being doing, humble and excellent company.
Now I’m left wondering a few things about the day, how few Fawkes’s would garner such a reaction, and what about other costumes (Female Islamic wear being the most obvious), what would have happened if all 90 people had turned up in costume? And to return to the matter of costume (as I said I would) what costume would cause a problem? I routinely wear a long coat, hat and shades, in the past when I lived in Victoria I sometimes wore a cloak. In fact being a bit of a goth I have at time walked through that square in an outfit differing from the one I was just stopped in only by the mask being replaced by shades and make-up. So I wonder could I do that today? Could any group of people going to a party in fancy dress pass through that area un-accosted?
Update: estimates from people with peripheral vision suggest there were 30 odd people walking in total ( including 10 in masks ). So from facebook that still leaves over 60% as no shows.
Update the second
A handy list of all the write ups/debriefs, in no particular order. If you have the time I’d recommend reading them all for the different perspectives and to see the diverse group of people that took part. Let me know if I’ve missed any: