March Dynamics: Why place matters

This will be the first of two posts today about protest. They are both related to yesterday’s NUS march in London, ‘Demo 2012’. Below is a map of the march route and associated tweets, pictures and other media put together by East London Lines. Both the Guardian and ELL live blogged during the event too.

Take a look at the map. What do you see? What do you recognise? If you don’t know London at all this might prove difficult. The march started on Victoria Embankment (the map is orientated north, so head to the blue pin just above the River Thames). This is a common start point for London protests, no doubt partly because it can accommodate such large amounts of people. Although this isn’t the whole story as I’ll mention later. The Stop the War march in 2003, the TUC ‘anti-cuts’ march in 2011, and the TUC anti-austerity march in 2012 all started on the Embankment. It then snaked its way round to Westminster Bridge, where a flurry of tweets were sent by the ELL’s reporter Thomas Jivanda, and as the Guardian reported, a small sit-in took place.

So first up, why here? Why Westminster Bridge? Well, again, for those who don’t know London, its close to one thing: the Houses of Parliament. Now, each and every major protest in the city has gone past the House of Parliament. Why? Because it is the centre of political decision-making in the UK. Although politicians may not be in session, or even be able to hear the protesters from the chambers inside, it nonetheless forms a symbolic oppositional place. But not every city has an amenable space to protest in front of such a building. John Parkinson’s book ‘Democracy and Public Space’ is an interesting look on this subject, and he has a downloadable paper on representation and public space, here (direct download). In fact, London doesn’t really have a space for such protest either, that’s why protesters are forced to sit-down and slow-up on the road junction nearby and not in Parliament Square itself. The 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act restricted the right to demonstrate in an area up to 1km away from any point in Parliament Square (directly outside Parliament), and was in place for nearly 6 1/2 years (relevant sections of the act, section 132-138 here). The 2011 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act repealed SOCPA and, in short, replaced ‘demonstration’ with ‘prohibitive activity’ (see relevant sections, 141-159 here). So now you can’t use amplified noise equipment, tenting or sleeping equipment in Parliament Square, whereas SOCPA outlawed demonstration wholesale. So the law has been relaxed slightly, in part due to Brian Haw’s legal battles. But nevertheless, forms of demonstration are severely restricted in this area. This is why every major protest has continued it’s route north of Westminster Bridge, not over it to the south, because every protest has wanted to face the House of Parliament for the longest period possible, before heading along Whitehall to Downing Street. Every march I’ve been on slows down on this bend as people take a good old look at it, shout a lot and generally increase their rowdiness! Protesters took to occupying Westminster Bridge for a short while for this reason. The route, as you can see on the map, turned over the river and headed towards Waterloo Station away from Parliament. Even the NUS’s rallying cry for the demo seemed to re-iterate this implicitly:

Thousands of students will march through the streets of London to stand up for their future. With a government that is consistently taking students’ futures from them, it is more important than ever that your voice is heard.

It’s pretty difficult to ‘march’ on ‘the streets of London’ making sure your ‘voice is heard’ to those in ‘government’ when the march route is directed to a park bordering South London. That’s why you had people tweeting these sorts of things, and also why the rally ended, farcically, with NUS president Liam Burns being heckled by protesters and a small number of them actually storming the stage (pictures here, and video here). What this serves to illustrate, even in a growing world of ostensibly ‘online’ protest, place matters. Yes, people tweet and take photos, but they also reinforce symbolic spaces during  protest events, and this  is just as important as ever, as the NUS have just found out.

Below is a map of the area I’ve talked about, with descriptions of the importance of this particular point for protesters. Above it is a Google Streetview image of the same location. Note the junction at the end where the cars are turning towards the camera is Westminster Bridge. Note also the black road blocks separating the road and the pavement. My next post will be on the ‘gamification’ of protest.


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