On Saturday I went on a protest march at Yarl’s Wood detention centre near Bedford. Yarl’s Wood is one of around thirteen detention centres in the country that ‘houses’ mainly women and children. The reports of the treatment towards people staying there has long since raised concerns and controversy. In 2006 an investigation found that 70% of women had reported being raped by staff and that is shocking by anyone’s standards. People are held there for an indefinite length of time awaiting deportation with often little recourse to legal advice. It is certainly no place for a child to be whatever your opinion is on anything. People are often held on the basis of who they are rather than what they have done, imprisoned due to a lottery at birth. It is impossible for a person to be illegal but we seem to be managing it.
People arrived from up and down the country and the rain arrived in stair rods. There were people from every walk of life all standing together and the sight of the human spirit stomping through the rain, in the name of a cause in which they truly believe, is thoroughly soul restoring. What does a demonstration achieve? We don’t really know, maybe nothing at all. I am always a bit conflicted about protests, are they just symbolic? Maybe, but symbolism has a value and a place in being able to shout about, talk about and express any idea and ideals. Whether a protest achieves something or not, the right to protest is one of intrinsic human need and nature. Many countries, Syria being the latest example, are not able to protest without risking their lives, quite literally, and I have spoken with many people who have paid the consequences of standing up and speaking out against a regime that quashes and kills their people.
Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights outlines the right to protest and freedom of association. That is freedom of speech, a right to say what we believe, what we think and what we do not agree with. The very Human Rights Act that is currently under threat and, in recent years, a whole heap of measures have been introduced that undermine the right to protest and freedom of speech. Drip, drip, drip and before we know it we are not allowed to stomp through the rain with placards and drums and chanting about what we believe is wrong. We are inches away from that.
There were a few police there but they were pleasant enough and kept to themselves. They probably pulled the short straw having to stand out in the rain and stand by when they would quite likely have wanted everyone to just go away and shut up. Long may it continue. A sad day for everyone it will be if people are not allowed to jump up and down angrily at the blatant mistreatment of fellow humans. Protests are a brilliant way of being angry, a bit like a football match I guess, and I am a big fan of people being allowed to let the world know that they are angry as long as they don’t hurt anyone else in the process. There is huge value, and even healing, in letting the world and yourself know that you are indeed very very angry. Shouting, especially in unison, can be fun. Unity is fun and people get unity from protesting. Unity is exactly what powers that be fear and despise and that is why protests must be so carefully guarded and kept safe from the clutches of those that wish to do away with the Human Rights Act. Protests show strength in numbers and love and respect for fellow men and women is a huge part of this. Scary stuff if you are trying to divide the nation.
The actual stomping through the rain is the tip of the iceberg. The demonstrations, the protests, the video clips of people shouting, this is just what is visible to outsiders just like the tip of the iceberg. Underneath, what the protests are built upon is a foundation of reaching out to others, phone calls, messages, organising, meetings, fundraising for the coaches to get people there, planning and more planning, communicating, education, research, conversations between zillions of like minded and not like minded. All hard work and not particularly glamorous but necessary to create a day when people can pitch up with placards and become a group that comes together in the name of a cause that lies close to people’s hearts. Authorities hate that. They hate that the tip of the iceberg is built upon a solid network of people who give a shit and will not be swayed in face of being told otherwise. Everything that is being fed to us by the media is trying to create a narrative that makes people doubt the validity of protests, the humanity of certain people and the power of the everyday person to be able to make a difference.
Media reaches us in so many forms now and the reliance upon newspapers to provide ‘news’ is no longer what it was. As media bombards us from every angle and tries desperately, and at times it feels as though it is succeeding, to decide the narrative of the nation maybe the power of protest will become even more important. Or maybe people feel that the physical protest is outdated and they feel that they are doing their bit of protesting online. Maybe the Iraq protest in 2003, meant to be the biggest demonstration worldwide in recent history, was the last gasp of the previous generation. I have heard many people say that it made no difference, nobody was listening so what is the point? I don’t have an answer to that apart from that we must not give up. We have a voice. We still have a voice. We have a duty to use that voice on behalf of those who currently do not have a voice. Whether that is for the people in Yarl’s Wood, people with disabilities, the homeless, women, victims of abuse and violence, children. There are many people who do not have a voice for so many different reasons and at the flip of a coin that could be each and every one of us.
In the words of the pastor, Martin Neimoller: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.
Photos courtesy of Penny Barritt