Westminster was very busy on Saturday (the 7th of March), with both the Time to Act and Million Women Rise marches taking place. No sooner did the end of the Climate Change march pass Trafalgar Square towards Parliament Square, than Million Women Rise entered the square for a rally, demonstrating just how important this small area of London is to British politics. The marches represented very different issues, with Time to Act calling for urgent changes to the way we deal with climate change, and Million Women Rise demanding an end to male violence against women, tying in with International Women’s Day on the 8th of March. The beautiful weather combined with the bright placards creative chants and upbeat atmosphere to create a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. Here are some of my photos from the day.
On Sunday afternoon, I was in Trafalgar Square during the vigil expressing sympathy and solidarity for Paris in the wake of the shocking events of the past week. The global condemnation of the shootings in Paris were instantaneous, and deafening. Gatherings took place around the world on Sunday to commemorate those who died and celebrate free speech. In London, several landmarks were lit up in the colours of the French flag including Tower Bridge and the National Gallery. People also gathered in several places including the French Embassy and Trafalgar Square. I don’t really know what to call what took place in Trafalgar Square, it seemed simultaneously to be protest, memorial and vigil. The BBC describe it as a ‘unity rally,’ but that doesn’t feel quite right to me either. It was obviously officially sanctioned and organised; Nelson’s column had been fenced off so that the French flag could be projected onto the National Gallery. To me, it felt like an expression of solidarity, sympathy and defiance. There were clearly lots of French people there, so it had a more personal feeling of grief too.
The location of such gatherings are not insignificant, so it is important to consider why such events occur in the places that they do. Boyle makes a valid point, and it is true that Parliament Square is regulated by specific laws that do not apply anywhere else in the country. I do think that there has been an attempt to depoliticise events in Paris, or at least situate them outside of the normal party politics. Commentators across the political spectrum have been quick to rush to the defence of free speech, although of course free speech is mediated and limited by laws and the government, so it is a political issue. Therefore there may have been a conscious effort not to involve Parliament Square in Sunday’s events, to try and maintain their apolitical status.
As ever however, I think it is more complicated than that. Trafalgar Square has been a focus for large gatherings of people since it’s completion in the mid nineteenth century. Public events range from Bloody Sunday in 1887 t0 the celebration of London being chosen for the 2012 Olympics in 2005. The square has been a focus of public life in London for the last two centuries, so a less cynical interpretation of events is that it just didn’t occur to people to gather anywhere else. On balance, I think it is probably a combination of these reasons.
The gathering in Trafalgar Square on Sunday was not a typical protest. There were no demands, no chants, no placards. It was less subdued that a vigil, too quiet to be a rally, and less ceremonial than a memorial. Whatever it was, it was a powerful expression of unity and solidarity, and I’m glad I was there.
There are several events which are remembered with the name ‘Bloody Sunday,’ perhaps most famously Sunday the 30th of January 1972 when members of the British Army opened fire on protesters in Derry, Ireland, killing 13. London has its own Bloody Sunday however, which took place on Sunday the 13th of November 1887, in Trafalgar Square. It was the culmination of months of increasing tension between police and Londoners over the right to demonstrate in Trafalgar Square.
Demonstrations by the unemployed had been taking place in the square daily since the summer. Many unemployed men and women also slept in the square, washing in the fountains. Under pressure from the press to deal with a situation seen as embarrassing to the great metropolis, the police started to disperse meetings in the square from the 17th of October, often resorting to violence. The tension continued, now with frequent clashes between police and protesters, and Irish Home Rulers also began to use the square to protest.
Sir Charles Warren, Commissioner of Police, banned all meetings in Trafalgar Square on the 8th of November. This challenge to the freedom of speech and the right to protest ouraged radicals across London, and a meeting scheduled for the following Sunday suddenly became much more significant. Called initially to demand the release of the Irish MP William O’Brien from prison, the demonstration was a clear and deliberate defiance of the ban, and the police could not allow it to go ahead without suffering severe humiliation.
On the day of the demonstration, London was turned into “an armed camp” (Bloom, 2010; 223). 1,500 police lined the square up to 4 deep, and there were also mounted police, Life Guards and Grenadier Guards. Hundreds of Special Constables, volunteers who wanted peace maintained in their city, were also present. Marchers approached Trafalgar Square from all directions, but were ambushed by police baton charges about half a mile before they reached their destination.
Some protesters did manage to reach the square, where vicious street fighting continued all day. The day was a resounding victory for the police. Using no weapons but their truncheons, they injured at least 200 demonstrators, and killed 2 or 3. The organisers of the march had called for the demonstrators not to use violence, and injuries on the police side were therefore minimal, although 2 police officers were reportedly stabbed.
The official inquest into the day suggested that the police should order stronger truncheons, because so many had broken; clearly the authorities felt no qualms about the level of force used. For activists, Bloody Sunday would be remembered as one of heavy-handed, violent repression, and those protesters who died became martyrs for the labour movement.
Sources and further reading
Bloom, Clive. Violent London: 2000 Years of Riots, Rebels and Revolts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
German, Lindsey and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.
Stedman Jones, Gareth. Outcast London: A Study in the Relationship between Classes in Victorian Society. London: Penguin, 1984.
White, Jerry. London in the 19th Century. London: Vintage, 2008.