Claude Lynch examines the benefits of a more spontaneous strike where banter is in abundance.
Last year, our tireless columnist Benjy visited the People’s Vote March and wrote it up for Pi. That protest was set up by a gamut of organisations: most prominent were People’s Vote UK and Our Future Our Choice, as well as other groups loosely connected to the original Remain campaign. It was an administratively complex effort, with a selection of well-known speakers and a meticulously planned route. Nothing could go wrong. This sort of organisational clarity and top-down management is helpful to keep protesters in line, but it also belies a certain spontaneity and expressionism that can make a protest more interesting, and indeed more representative, of the discontented. For a great example of exactly that spontaneity, look no further than the Youth Strike 4 Climate: an exercise in accessible protests filled to the brim with memes.
I’d never seen someone hijack a London Sightseeing bus before, but if you’d asked me to guess what sort of person would mount such a hijack, I’d say a rag-tag bunch of extremely imaginative robbers, or a stag gone wrong. I would not expect disgruntled schoolchildren. I also wouldn’t expect schoolchildren to be the ones mounting a Whitehall bus stop, or literally throwing themselves onto the Parliament Square roundabout to stop traffic. The running theme here might appear to be a novel kind of bus hatred, but it runs much deeper: there was a certified commitment to making a scene. The fact that there was only one relatively laissez-faire organisation calling the shots at the protest meant students were more or less free to cause a bit of bother at their discretion, and they absolutely did. Organisations like Extinction Rebellion and Youth Strike don’t seem to throw their weight around beyond basic gilet jaune-d up security. With no stewards and no speeches, things got rather spontaneous, and it turns out that spontaneity breeds banter. If you’re a bus driver, this banter is highly inconvenient, but it is still absolutely top banter.
This banter is, of course, climate oriented. While the placards invite a level of uncertainty on what exactly students want the government to do, they all carry a powerful message: “I pity the fuel” with a picture of Mr. T, “the dinos didn’t see it coming either”, and the all-time classic, “I’ve seen better cabinets in IKEA”. If you can trust Generation Z with anything, it’s being able to meme-ify the problem. But what is the problem, exactly? Is the protest pressuring the government to take decisive action on climate policy, or demanding to overthrow the government completely? “Tell the government you’re prepared to break the rules to make change happen”, goes the Facebook event. It’s not ultimately clear.
Speaking to some students at the protest did raise questions over how many of them were politically active per se and how many of them just felt like we should do “something”, in the most ambiguous sense. Moreover, the risk remains that students could simply ask their teachers for the morning off to attend the protest and then perform the time-honoured skive. In any case, attendance at the protest went far beyond the thousand-odd suggested by the Facebook event. A touch of optimism in the age when we’re hyper-connected but devoid of connection, and another example of the event’s spontaneity.
Does it matter so much that the objective isn’t clear, if the attitude is so unifying? The fact that the Youth Strike was defined not by its creators but by its participants is further credit to a light touch at protests like this. The risk of a public demonstration being co-opted by the organisations that set it up are increasingly high: while the Socialist Worker’s Party did set up outside Westminster tube, the sheer meme innovation of the participants swamped any SWP placards. The absence of a bureaucratic aim or intention enabled protesters to make their own way to power, both metaphorically and literally, mobbing the entrance to Downing Street and blocking Whitehall to northbound traffic along the way.
Friends of mine commented on the refreshing youthfulness of this protest; beforehand, the fear was that the immense political apathy of 16-25s – cemented in low turnout at election – would imply an even lower turnout at this event. But young people held the mantle at Youth Strike, cutting out the stereotypical 60-something old-fashioned blokey socialist you tend to see at more typical protests. This shift also raised the mood, with the youth generating an almost festival-like atmosphere (and smell) in the grounds of Parliament Square and beyond. They were hi-fiving the taxi drivers they’d ground to a halt. They were shouting “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” outside the House. While their sloganeering left a bit to be desired (“fossil fuels have got to stop, climate change can suck my cock” being a particular highlight here), they inspired the public, instead of stirring their ire with a sense of stick-in-the-mud socialism. That might be why the protest was so popular, involving 10,000 students across the country in a movement now present in over 130 cities worldwide. The bottom-up organisation of the Youth Strike meant that young people felt welcome, happy to do what their heart desired to get noticed, with myriad memes in tow. This is a trend that should continue; protests should be as accessible as possible, instead of lessons in activist bureaucracy.
In any case, the success and accessibility of the Youth Strike should give anyone who cares about climate change the confidence to attend next time. Speeches and stewards are so passé; now it’s all about banter and breaching buses. Start thinking up some hot climate memes, and see you at the next one.
Incidentally, “the next one” will be the 15th of March. Pencil it in your diaries, and check out the event here.