Brighton & Hove, UK: Anti-Trump Protest [30/01/17]
When I arrive near the Brighton town hall at 6:20pm the crowd is already stagnant, thick with stationary bodies. I am late and my friend is already here, apparently some twenty metres ahead of me. Those who have brought signs seem to be magnetically attracted to one another and so the signs are visible in small evenly spaced groups. I read a few of the mixed (literally) messages and am immediately confused about the specific purpose of the demonstration: are we here to protest the newly and executively imposed ban on citizens from seven predominately Muslim countries [Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syra, Yemen]; or to bring about the cancelation of the upcoming Trump state visit; or have it reduced to a less grandiose governmental visit; or to protest the American electoral process and ‘Dump Trump’? It has a familiar feel after the UK’s EU referendum result, with the victorious holding the democratic nature of the exercise proudly aloft, while the defeated try to disregard its results; the alleged infallibility of democracy now questioned by those unexpectedly on the wrong side of it.
I am able to push through toward my friend with a couple of others who are looking for accomplices of their own, the crowd parts fairly liberally. Chants are beginning, but they do so from only small sects of the crowd and ring hollow between the tall buildings either side of the street.
When I reach my friend she takes a couple of reluctant steps out from the centre of the crowd and meets me, turning back to face toward the town hall when she reaches. Apparently there are some speeches being delivered from the steps of the hall. From where I stand (approx. 30m away) it is impossible to see or hear anything from the building, though we all stand with our toes pointed dutifully toward it.
The photos are endless; at any one moment there are at least three arms vertically extended, a phone at each of their tips; most of the flashes are off. There are a couple of proper professional lens style cameras visible. I would guess the large majority of the crowd in their twenties – lots of rucksacks. The demographic is overwhelmingly and noticeably white. Some parents have brought young children with them, who mostly sit on their shoulders and point to the different signs and the occasional lurid image – they seem content enough but a couple of the kids are starting to slouch drowsily on their parent’s shoulders. Two female students beside me take their lead from these children and one crouches to allow the other to mount their shoulders. They are too similar in size for any sort of stable foundation and they teeter beside me, held partly by the wedging of the crowd. Soon after the top woman has had her introductory shout to the world, the bottom woman backs out of her (poor end of the) deal.
I hear a snippet of the conversation behind me and it registers out of familiarity: “How many people do you think are here then?” I have heard this sentence a number of times tonight already, including from my companion, standing on her toes to try and track the length of the crowd in the its three-and-a-half possible directions. The number of people is fairly significant, spanning further than I can make out [The attendance is reported as approximately two thousand by juicebrighon.co.uk]. A man in his forties checks Twitter beside me for updates on the event that he is already attending; I realise a moment later that people think I am doing the same thing because I am taking notes on my phone, my fallible memory means it cannot be helped.
The crowd is wedged in and the physical stasis is making it restless, but I feel certain that the response to this restlessness would be to simply go home rather than any significant rancour or action. There is a noticeable police presence but they speak easily enough and seem generally fine with the whole demonstration. I can’t quite read their badges but lots of them have extra words stitched beneath POLICE, indicating some voluntary or ad hoc capacity. A guy looking like one of The Strokes in ripped jeans and a plain rockstar tee climbs up a lamp/sign post and poses for his future profile picture, standing with his feet balanced on the top of the sign, some ten feet high. The crowd turns and obliges en masse, various syncopated flashes. Two policeman make their way over to the bottom of the sign but make no urgent appeal for the guy to get down. The chants are gaining volume but still lacking unity; there is one for each of the junction’s possible directions. The nearest chant to me runs: “Hey. Ho. Donald Trump has got to go.” I try to join in the chant but there is more than one to choose from and none ever surrounds me enough to compel me. Down the road to my right the two words “Dump Trump” are repeated to crescendo. A woman behind me is telling everybody how incensed they are – “Everyone is SO incensed!” A sign ahead calls for an outright ban of Trump from the UK, something which has not been mentioned since early in his presidential campaign, when it was discarded because of the increasingly apparent possibility that he might win; I guess that is no longer a concern. The guy standing on the sign looks unsure of what to do now – how to hold himself, whether he should be gesturing up there – but he remains determined to claim his full fifteen.
A girl beside me – the girl who had been on another’s shoulders – is holding a sign that is held up by a corrugated cardboard handle. This sags and slowly creases before folding flaccidly in half upon itself; The corner of the sign flicks me tamely in the temple. The holder is very apologetic and assures me that this doesn’t usually happen to her. There is an alliance to the atmosphere, but my instinct is that it is founded upon our similar backgrounds and the desire to be politically active – taken as writ by one’s presence here this evening.
My companion wants to start a chant that her brother has sent her [Trump and Theresa sitting in a tree, F-A-S-C-I-S-T] but she lacks the requisite volume of voice. She holds her phone up high to take a picture for a friend, one apparently experiencing guilt at not being able to attend. The picture she takes suggests more energy in the crowd than I myself feel – I think there might an assumed vigour attached to any picture of many people at an identifiable protest gathering.
We remain faithfully aimed toward the town hall, but there is growing interest as to what it is we are waiting for – Is this it?
I feel that the guy may be stuck up the sign now; he looks a bit sheepish and keeps talking hurriedly to people immediately below him. Is he waiting for everyone to leave so that they can find a bed sheet?
No, he’s down. As soon as his feet touch the ground another guy is climbing up to replace him on the only visible stage. The first turns back jealously after the second gets the loudest cheer of the night on reaching the top of the sign. A woman sipping a glass of port points interestedly from a third floor flat. There is a sign taped to her window that reads: ‘Fascism is not Freedom’.
Another chant has started: “Heyyyyyy, Heyy Donald. Ooh. Ah. I wanna knoooowwww, why you’re such a cunt.” The final syllable is limp and under the breath of most, or else it is screeched defiantly by an identifiable few. The chants are starting to be seized upon more generally though, as the static crowd searches for activity.
The road sign has broken! The policemen hadn’t been insistent on the guy getting down so are passive in their reaction now. The man shimmies down the post and goes to brandish the sign from the floor but is stopped by a single authoritatively extended police hand. The noise of sheared metal has invigorated the crowd, a woman to my left is relishing the protest, which she seems to have been waiting for since the Iraq war. Are we marching?
Yes, something of a march has begun. It will look good on the video cameras, but its energy is limited – it is difficult to march without target and yet with force. We head away from the contextually almost irrelevant town hall and toward North Street, then onto Queens Road, taking us up toward the station. Most of the chants are based around an expletive, which, now that the crowd has taken on some of the energy inherent in a march, is given the stress of the line. The buses on North Street are halted by the march, the drivers lean back wearily, one takes out a novel and scans the page hurriedly. Most of the passengers look stressed at the elongation of their Monday but there is a nice moment when a man of Muslim descent tells his young sons to look out from the window of the bus at the march, smiling with an open mouth – his son raises a fist with glorious childish vigour.
We turn off Queens Road and end up in a parallel residential street. The only shop here is The Private Shop, selling sexual accoutrements. There is also a pub with an awned smoking area out front on the opposite side of the road to the adult store. A man brandishing a lager shouts repeatedly: “We are not in America.” Nobody replies.
We come to the end of the residential street and reach the train station and its bus stops. Whenever we have moved into a more overtly public area, where there is clear audience of those that are not participating, the “I wanna know why you’re such a cunt” chant comes out. The ‘cunt’ is now defiantly loud, volume being used to cover the unfamiliarity of many. The next step is surely the two word, off-beat chant of ‘Trump. Cunt’ to crescendo, maximising the defiant and titillating profanity.
The march halts outside the station and people mill around in the freedom of the larger area. There is a couple more run-throughs of the chant oeuvre but without even the irrelevant town hall to aim its toes at, the demonstration seems to have lost some of its purpose. With the crowd visibly dissembling, my companion and I slip away to a nearby pub to discuss. She has been invigorated by the event and believes it a worthwhile endeavour; she wants to be able to think of herself as having been on the right side of history. I fear that this conscience cleansing is the only real result of this action; but when she asks what alternative to non-violent protest I would propose I flounder. I suppose action always trumps in-, even when the protest feels too distant to have any tangible impact: at least we sleep easy, perhaps exhausted.