The sky was overcast and the air felt dank when we emerged from the gloom of the underground at Regents Park station. My friends and I turned down a nearby street in the hope we were going in the right direction. There is a unique grandness to London’s maze-like streets that kind of makes you walk a little more upright. This one was no exception, with its large square paving stones and lofty, greyish white Regency-fronted buildings.
We were heading towards the meet-up point of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) ‘We demand better’ march on June 18 2022, and it wasn’t long before we had our first glimpse of a trade union banner belonging to a small group from the Fire Brigades Union. As we approached Portland Place, a tall man from a nearby leaflet-laden Socialist Worker stall greeted us and told us to help ourselves to a placard from the enormous quantity stacked against a wall. Multiple lines of Union flags were still strung across the street, a reminder of the recent Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations – a time when we all tried to forget our struggles and put aside our political differences in a show of national unity. Today would be a very different show of solidarity.
And Johnson lied, and he lied and he lied…
You can always rely on the Socialist Worker to have a strong presence at national marches of all types and their free, ready-made placards are a godsend. I had trouble choosing from the array of punchy anti-government messages. In the end I plumped for two, which summed up perfectly the message I wanted to convey: ‘Migrants make our NHS – Stop the scapegoating’ and ‘No to Rwanda deportations – Stop the flights’. As we made our selections, the tall guy let out a tirade of almost poetic rhetoric: ‘While we suffered the pain of not seeing our families, the government partied, and Johnson lied, and he lied, and he lied…’.
One of the most wonderful things about going to demos and marches is the opportunity to meet up with like-minded people and, for a few precious hours, to form a bond with strangers who feel as strongly as you do about the state of our country. Seeing our pro-migration placards, a couple of girls in their thirties, called Ellie and Kate, approached us and asked if we were with Care4Calais; they were joined by an older couple carrying a huge hand-made banner saying, ‘Refugees welcome’ and representing the Roman Catholic church. We explained that we weren’t, but that we, too, had travelled up to march with them.
Who are Care4Calais?
Established in November 2015 at the height of the migrant crisis in Europe, Care4Calais is a volunteer-run refugee charity that works with refugees in France, Belgium and the UK. Through the hard work of volunteers, they provide vital aid, including food, clothing, toiletries and medical assistance directly to refugees on the ground, and also help to run social welfare and teaching workshops.
Alongside other organisations, including Detention Action and the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union, Care4Calais is taking the government to court over the possible unlawfulness of the Rwanda deportation policy. The first scheduled flight of refugees to Rwanda was grounded with just hours to go on the evening of Tuesday June 14, when the European Court of Human Rights made an interim ruling that flights must not go ahead until the final judgment on the lawfulness of the policy has been issued by the UK High Court, expected in July.
After meeting our new friends, there followed about half an hour of confusion as to where exactly the Care4Calais representatives might be amongst all the groups assembling round about, with some of us checking social media accounts for updates and asking passers-by. We felt a bit deflated that we couldn’t find a big crowd of Care4Calais supporters and started to wonder if we might have to march on our own, all eight of us! By this time, it had started to rain, so we decided to walk further down Portland Place to see if we would run into them.
As we walked, I took the opportunity to ask Kate, who was from London, why she had come along, and why she felt strongly about the issue of refugees and the Rwanda deportations. As a secondary school English teacher, she spoke very eloquently about the different perspectives through which one could analyse the deportation policy:
‘This government has done a lot of low things, but this really is the lowest,’ she said. ‘It’s cruel and inhumane. From an environmental perspective, long plane journeys to the other side of the world are not clean, and even if you approach it from a practical perspective, at a cost of £500,000 per flight, this policy is not a sensible use of taxpayers’ money’.
A young guy called Sam had also joined us. He’d come even further than we had (from Bournemouth) having travelled down from Bristol by coach. I put the same question to him – what had motivated him to travel all that way on his own to protest against the deportation flights to Rwanda? He told me that he had missed the Care4Calais protest gathering in Bristol the day before and wanted to do something. Sam was quiet and pensive, but when I pushed him as to why, he said simply, ‘Humanity’.
The further down Portland Place we walked, the greater the mass of protestors grew. The different cohorts of union groups stood assembled in a stream of single-coloured blocks, with their beautifully designed fabric workers’ guild banners, some of them likely quite old, poised and ready to be held aloft with pride once the march began. At last, on our left-hand side, a banner with the words ‘Stand Up To Racism’ (a close partner of Care4Calais) loomed large in the distance and suddenly one of our party shouted out: ‘I can see Care4Calais next to them!’
Four or five volunteers wearing white tabards with Care4Calais in red letters were bustling around a t-shirt stall. They had been doing so well all morning that they had decided to keep going till the last minute. Their different coloured t-shirts were cleverly subtle in design, emblazoned with the slogan, ‘Migration is not a crime’ centred on a sketch of Paddington Bear carrying his suitcase, and their sale was helping to raise vital funds.
The sky had now cleared and the sun was burning down, hot on our heads. We introduced ourselves and chatted with the volunteers, thanking them for the tireless work they do bringing supplies and medicine to desperate refugees in makeshift camps in northern France. One girl in her twenties I spoke to had spent several months at the notorious Jungle camp back in the mid-2010s volunteering alongside other French organisations to bring aid and advice to migrants. That was when Brits could still spend time in the EU as volunteers or workers without the need for a visa. In our post-Brexit world, it is not so easy.
Chants, marchers and solidarity
Just then, a cry went out: the protesters gathered in front of us were on the move – the march had begun! I think we had all been taken unawares by the time. And it was now clear that none of us were going to be able to join the community bloc at the back of the march as had been our plan. At once, we all gathered up our belongings and moved up to the edge of the pavement. Some of us helped the Care4Calais team hold their large banners and we lifted our placards up in direct view of the passing marchers. A few Care4Calais and Stand Up To Racism volunteers picked up megaphones and soon a chorus of chants started up:
‘Say it loud, say it clear! Refugees are welcome here!’
‘Say “Hey!” Say “Ho!” Rwanda plan has got to go!’
As time went on, several members of the public around us had a go at bellowing out their own chants, which were not strictly endorsed (but fully supported!) by the official Care4Calais team. One guy next to me did a fabulous one-man-show with his less politically correct chants:
‘Let in every refugee, throw the Tories in the sea!’
‘Priti Patel, shame on you! You’d deport your family too!’
And my personal favourite, as it was adaptable and really got the crowd involved:
‘I say “Boris”, you say “Racist”! “Boris!” – “Racist!” “Boris!” – “Racist!” “Boris, Boris, Boris!” – “Racist, racist, racist!”’
‘I say “Priti”, you say “Racist”! “Priti!” – “Racist!” “Priti!” – “Racist!” “Priti, Priti Priti!”– “Racist, racist, racist!”’
The refrain also included the prompt word ‘Tories’, with drew various crowd responses, ‘scum’, ‘snob’ or ‘out’, all of which went down well with the passers-by.
The hordes of protesters filed on by, some dancing, some looking serious: cohort after cohort of workers from all sectors, from large general unions, like the GMB and Unison, to sector-specific unions, such as the National Education Union to small regional affiliates from every corner of the country. Despite not being able to join the march as we’d first planned, we found that our position at the roadside allowed us to fully engage with the trades unionists in a way that could never have happened had we been marching ourselves. So many of them saw the Care4Calais banners and raised their arms in solidarity and gave a cheer. It was heartening and moving.
A definite highlight was when a man with a microphone at the head of the huge education bloc of trades unions stopped right by us and mentioned Care4Calais by name: ‘Over here, we’ve got our brothers and sisters from Care4Calais. We want them to take a message back to all the people they’re working with in Calais, all the refugees that are trying to come here to make a better life for themselves, all those refugees who are being treated with contempt by this government.’ He began a chant of ‘Say it loud, say it clear!’, and for a magical 30 seconds the whole crowd of education staff chanted in unison with us: ‘Refugees are welcome here!’
Care4Calais decided they were going to march alongside the PCS Union, whose members include civil service staff from the Border Force and the Home Office. I was reliably informed by a Care4Calais team member that PCS has been instrumental in helping to fund the judicial review into the legality of the government’s Rwanda deportation programme, for which Care4Calais and the other NGOs involved are incredibly grateful. It is truly remarkable that we are living in a time when Home Office civil servants, who are required to be politically neutral and to implement government policy, need to turn to their union to help fight the draconian, heartless and possibly illegal immigration policy put forward by their boss, Priti Patel. But this is where we are now.
This brings me back to the central themes of the day as I viewed them: people have had enough. Enough of lies. Enough of corruption. Enough of low pay and high prices, while big business profits from our misery. The working people’s message was vociferous and urgent: they want to be heard, and they want the Tories out. The march was well organised and peaceful, and there was a spirit of fun, as is the norm at such events. But, in addition, the atmosphere felt charged with anger and frustration. There was a palpable edginess at times, even a smell of revolution in the air. How much more will people take before this indignation boils over?
My friends and I didn’t make it to Parliament Square. We had nipped away for a much-needed sit down and a coffee only to come out and find that our colleagues at Care4Calais had moved off. But we had enjoyed a couple of hours of tremendous camaraderie with kindred spirits, which had truly warmed our souls.
I think the main thing I took away from the day was the sense that I am not alone. When you watch or read the news, it is easy to feel that you are on your own in feeling disillusion and despair as this far-right government in the making seeks to limit our right to protest, change voting rules or deport vulnerable asylum seekers. I will never forget sobbing at the TV news when I saw the Rwanda scheme announced, thinking, surely, I cannot be the only one who thinks this is just wrong? And I am not. There are hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of people across the country who feel that this government is out of control and that this policy is nothing short of inhumane.
Not in my name
No matter how many times Johnson’s ministers tell us that this is what the British people want, I do not believe this appalling treatment of vulnerable migrants reflects the wishes of the majority of people of this country. This government does not speak for me or people I know. But for too long we have been shouted down, labelled ‘lefty do gooders’ or ‘snowflakes’, as if wanting to represent compassion and humanity are unworthy qualities. How warped has our society become if charity workers and people who speak up for the most vulnerable in our society are ridiculed and demonised?
As I think of the people I met – young Sam from Bristol, Ellie and Kate from London, the Roman Catholic couple, a woman who had brought her huge banner from Wales on which she had hand painted Martin Niemöller’s poem, ‘First they came for the Socialists…’, it is clear to me that so long as we believe in ourselves and hold true to our values, this government will never win. They may achieve victories along the way, but the next day we’ll fight them again. In truth, for the sake of morality, we don’t have a choice.