Listening to archaic hymns sung from the tower of one of Oxford’s most conservative colleges didn’t quite feel like the proper way to celebrate May Day. So, to reclaim some activist cred (and, in my own small way, to try to do right by the world), I spent my afternoon in Aylesbury – a town near Oxford – with United Against Fascism, counter-demonstrating against the English Defense League (a “counter-jihadist” group dedicated to driving Muslims out of England).
It feels completely demented to be writing this, but I think there is something appealing about mobilizing against fascism. Unlike nearly every other issue serious I care about, this is one where most of society seems to be on my side. In my extremely limited experience (and reading of history), counter-demonstrators tend to outnumber neo-Nazis and their ilk by usually about ten-to-one, and as a result these events are – in a weird way – fabulous moments of unity and people-power. After a week in which I was asked about fifty times, “You’re from Arizona, right? Why do you hate immigrants?” it felt good to be challenging xenophobia and racism (albeit of the English Defense League’s uniquely disgusting brand).
The protest, though, was a disaster. The city council decided to grant the EDL a permit to march but put UAF in an isolated city park, surrounded on all sides by police officers. While I’d like to tell some noble or romantic story about a group of outnumbered activists being swamped by vile skin-heads – or, perhaps, blame our failure on the absurd restrictions placed by right-wing local politicians– the reality was there were so few of us that the EDL could just march by. We listened to a few speeches that talked – dishonestly, I’m afraid to say – about how our little demonstration would be heard around the country and how this was a turning point in the fight against fascism, got back on our coach, and left. Everyone knew that, any way you might measure it, we lost – even newspaper coverage of the event relegated us to a footnote.
I’ve now been to a good number of demonstrations during my time in England: against the War in Afghanistan, pro-apartheid Israeli politicians, and animal testing, and in favor of university divestment from arms companies and action on climate change. At least compared to Americans, the British do seem to like protesting. But what has consistently struck me, though, is how old the attendees usually are. Today, our small group was composed mostly of a hodge-podge of socialists who talked about Trotsky like they knew him and aging trade unionists who seemed trapped in the era before globalization when unions actually mattered. Within Oxford, it’s largely the same group of pensioners that can be counted on to show up to wave placards. 18,000 students, and no more than a half-dozen can ever be bothered.
The running line in the U.S. is that if you’re not liberal and under thirty-five, you lack a heart, and if you’re over thirty-five and not conservative, you lack a brain. Increasingly, though, it seems to me like at least among the left, the reality is the exact opposite. The idealists are from an older cohort, while the twenty-somethings are more hard-hearted, committed to gradual change and political reform. My generation is extremely cynical about the efficacy of things like mass protest. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told by fellow Princetonians that they support a cause, but they won’t show up to a rally, because “that never changes anything.”
They are, of course, half-right. The 1960s brought us more riots, demonstrations, and marches than any decade before—but they didn’t bring us utopia. Waving placards and clogging streets probably isn’t the way to bring about a social revolution. I wonder, though, if while protesting hasn’t changed anything, maybe it prevents things from being much worse. Perhaps those scraps of citizenship and fragments of entitlements we enjoy exist only because there is a cadre of people who yell and kick and scream whenever the people in power try to take them away? Would Aylesbury be a worse place now were it not for a handful of people registering their dissent? And maybe, just maybe, it mattered that there were 75 demonstrators, not 74, and that extra sign-waver was an young American from Arizona.
Who knows if I’m right? Maybe protesting really is a waste of time. I suppose, at the rate the activists around me seem to be aging, we’ll find out in a few decades.
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Jukebox: Rise Against – Halfway There