Me in my last post: “I’m deliberately not talking about politics.” Me now: talks about politics Sorry, guys.
I’ve never been to a protest before. I’ve wanted to, but life has always got in the way: first I was too young for my parents to feel able to let me go, and then I developed chronic pain and fatigue and haven’t felt able to because of that. Not to mention the anxiety — since the nearest protests to me are usually in Central London, that means they’re huge and loud and crowded and you can’t easily get out of them if you need to.
I always wanted to get more involved in student activism, too, but my health has been a problem. However, I’ve been feeling helpless and overwhelmed lately because of everything that’s going on in the world, so when I heard there was going to be a protest in Cambridge against Trump’s Muslim Ban and Theresa May’s spineless complicity and refusal to condemn it, I didn’t feel I could sit at home, even with two deadlines bearing down on me over the last couple of days. It was less than fifteen minutes’ walk from where I live: I figured if I got too exhausted or the pain got too bad, I could always leave and go home.
Hastily, about ten minutes before I left, I hacked apart an Amazon box, found a sharpie, and made myself a sign. I wasn’t sure whether it was really a sign-based event, but figured I could always shove it in my bag if nobody else had a sign. But there was something poetic about turning capitalist packaging into a protest sign, right?
The protest was big, although given that I’m used to London-sized crowds, it seemed comparatively small. For a city like Cambridge, though, and for a fairly last-minute protest, it was a good turnout. I couldn’t see a thing, because I am five foot three and most of the people in the crowd weren’t, even before you took their signs into account. (Most of the signs were better than mine, but some looked quite rushed, so I wasn’t alone in that.)
I eventually managed to squeeze my way through the wall around Senate House, where there’s a railing that you can hang onto if you’ve got the shoulder strength for that. I do not, but I decided to give it a go anyway, and despite the pain, that gave me a decent vantage point for taking pictures and hearing what was going on. I was surrounded by some quite enthusiastic people, too, which was good. All in all, at this point, the atmosphere was pretty good, the pain levels were relatively low, and I felt quite safe.
On the whole, this mood lasted throughout the protest (I ended up staying until they had to pack up the speakers and lights, at which point I went to Sainsbury’s, because if I’m in town anyway then I’m going to get some errands done). However, there was one less good part.
The thing about being semi-attached to the railings was that I wasn’t really free to move around — I would’ve had to get down off the wall, which I later ended up doing, but for a long time I was quite firmly wedged in and the crowd was big enough that I wouldn’t have got anywhere even if I’d come down from there. When the protesters near me moved away to meet up with friends or to leave, I ended up being cornered by a rather drunk man who had, I think, ended up at the protest by accident rather than come there on purpose, because he didn’t seem to understand the point of it.
Also, he was either very drunk or just a bit dim, because he made me explain the “Love Trumps Hate” pun to him about five times before he got it, and then he noticed the #RefugeesWelcome part of my sign.
“I’m not sure about that,” he said.
“Well, if England hadn’t let my great-great-grandparents in, I literally wouldn’t be here,” I said, which seemed to put him off. “Because, you know, Russia… not a fun place to be Jewish in the 1890s.”
The ‘conversation’, awkward as it was, moved on for a while and I did my best to ignore him, although he was making me feel somewhat uncomfortable. He was swinging around on the railings and kept making inane comments, making it hard for me to hear the speakers and everything else that was going on. Eventually he said, “So where are you from, then?”
“South-East London,” I said, “but I’m studying here in Cambridge.”
“No, but like… before that. You said Russia a few minutes ago, right?”
I can’t believe this is happening, I thought. He’s doing the whole, “So where are you really from?” thing at a protest in support of refugees, and he doesn’t even seem to realise the irony. “Yeah,” I said casually, although actually I think that part of Russia is now Belarus and Ukraine, because borders have shifted over the last 120 years. “And Wales, and Ireland, and a few other places. Not recently, though.”
He considered this. “I like Wales,” he said. “I like the mountains. That’s all right, then.”
Oh, it’s all right? You like Wales, but you’re looking damn uncomfortable about the idea that my family might have been Jewish? Seriously, dude? You’re doing this now?
Like I said, this guy was drunk. He clearly didn’t want to be at this protest: he was just there because it meant he could get away with swinging on the railings and making a lot of noise. But it felt ridiculous that in a place where people were holding up signs saying NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL and REFUGEES WELCOME HERE, I was being asked where my family came from by a guy who wasn’t “sure” about refugees.
I’m white and my family’s been here long enough that this isn’t the kind of crap I come up against very often — by the standards of most bigots, my queerness is way more of a problem than my ancestry. So I’m aware that most people have to deal with this all the time, and under worse circumstances than just when they’re cornered by an annoying drunk guy. It was my first experience of it, though, and while a few people near me grimaced sympathetically, none of them stepped in to ask this guy to back off. Plus, he was all up in my personal space. Eventually I pleaded my shoulder as an excuse to get down from the wall, and found somewhere else to stand, though with less of a good vantage point, just so that I could get away from him.
Other than that, the atmosphere was friendly, even though I was alone. I ran into a couple of friends later on (including my flatmate and also a friend from back home who I’ve now seen a grand total of three times in Cambridge despite the fact we started at the same time), and I had some nice chats, and although I was cold, I was glad to be there. But that drunk guy did sour the mood somewhat. I couldn’t believe he had the audacity to stand in the middle of a protest like that and start talking about how he wasn’t sure if we should let refugees in.
Still. The fact that he was very much the exception to the rule gives me some hope.
I still haven’t fully warmed up from being totally chilled to the bone standing out in the January air for two hours, despite having come home and eaten microwave mac & cheese in the most studenty manner possible. My shoulder aches, badly, from hanging onto the railing for an hour, and my knees are tired from standing. And my essay is lingering ominously, reminding me that I need to do some work. But I don’t regret taking the time to go to that protest, even though it hurts, because it made me feel just a little bit more hopeful and less useless.
Knowing that a thousand people will turn up at short notice in a city like Cambridge, that a dozen political societies and organisations will gather money and muster speakers and so on, makes a difference. We’re an ocean away from Trump and an hour’s train journey away from Theresa May (which can be the same thing when you’re a student): maybe the difference we can make is limited. But it’s not nothing.