I recall being sixteen and going to a “protest march”, for no other real reason than because I was trying to get off with a girl who really wanted me to attend it with her. As we travelled to the site of the protest, I have to confess I didn’t even know what we were about to protest against. So I asked my companion.
“We’re protesting for peace,” she said. This stunned me, as I suddenly thought I must have missed something big.
“Who are we at war with?” I asked.
“No one,” she replied. “We just want to take to the streets to show people that peace is an important concept.”
As we arrived at the “protest” I recall feeling terribly guilty all of a sudden, as if I was doing something morally wrong just by being there. I tried to figure out why I felt this way, but couldn’t work it out.
Last night’s protests in London became unfortunately ugly. Some West End shops were vandalised; three policemen were hospitalised. I suppose all you can say in the positive is that it could have been a lot worse. Some of my readers foreign to Great Britain will be asking what the protests were all about. I wish I could give you a more elucidating answer than something vaguely along the lines of “yaboo sucks to capitalism”, but that’s all I picked up on.
But the really sad thing about last night’s protests was the fact that literally right down the road from where the people in Guy Fawkes masks protested about nothing, a Tory prime minister was hosting a horrible despot in the form of al-Sisi, a man the West now feels like it must embrace because Egypt’s brush with democracy was such a disaster, a man ironically much worse than Mubarak. A despot with whom Cameron shared a platform this afternoon in the course of a sham “press conference” almost no one in the British press was actually allowed to attend. In other words, something genuinely worth protesting about. Censorship of the free press in the name of coddling someone who shouldn’t even be allowed into the country, never mind be getting a state visit. If the youth of Britain decided to take to the street in the name of that, all power to them.
But all that Middle Eastern stuff is too complicated, isn’t it? Better to “rage against the machine”, whatever that means in 2015, and shout slogans about how capitalism is the root of all evil. The irony of the protestors position being that if we were all living in a proper socialist country, last night’s protests would never have happened and if they somehow had would have come to a quick and violent conclusion; and two, those who planned the whole thing would now be languishing in some dungeon, awaiting a trial that would never to come.
Coming full circle, as an adult I was able to figure out why I had felt so guilty when at sixteen I attended a peace “protest” simply to try and get laid: the right to assemble, to gather and demonstrate the fact that a large group of people feel something the government of the day is doing is deeply incorrect, is a hard fought right that should not be trivialised. So when you take to the streets to “protest” about something vague, mostly because you’d quite like a confrontation with the police, it makes genuine protest seem silly by association. And however attractive the person you’re trying to impress is, you must know deep in your heart that what you’re doing by supporting such silliness is immoral for that very reason.