It was music to my ears. Standing in the Trafalgar Square throng at the Anti-Trump Protest in July, a fellow protester, enthralled by the arriving hoards and their banners, opined, “This is social media”. What she meant was that the term, commonly understood in our digital lives, was turned on its head for this day. The diverse crowd, expressing their contempt and disdain on behalf of those who could not, were the media, making their own news.

Earlier this year, Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum ran a fabulous exhibition about the history of protest. How and why we mass on the public highways – and the fact that we can – is up for social and cultural examination once again. In too many parts of the world, this kind of assembly would lead to imprisonment or far worse. Our freedom to do so in the UK is humbling.

Media coverage of protests is worth mentioning, and important credit goes here to Marcus Brigstock’s radio show, The Brig Society. In a recent episode, one of his wonderful rants was targeted at the lack of media coverage of certain news topics. Why, he asked, did the Panama Papers receive few column inches and screen time, compared with the MP expenses scandal, one running for a few days and the other for months? In his recently published book on the shady world of auditing and accountancy, The Beancounters, Richard Brooks gives a similar run-down. Why was Lewis Hamilton pilloried for alleged non-payment of VAT, when his accountancy firm ultimately created the financial device in question? Returning to protesting, the annual Miners’ Gala, one of the biggest gatherings of trade unionists, hardly raises a mention. I could find none in the national press for this year. The link between press ownership and editorial influence is of course a well-trodden path, exposed in large part by the phone hacking scandal.

John Stevenson’s book, Popular Disturbances in England, 1700-1832, is a product of the academic-historian perspective typical of the 1970s, preoccupied as it is with the mass unrest of the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular the Sacheverell riots and the Peterloo Massacre. Sandwiched in between the US Colonial War and the French Revolution, any UK-based skirmish created a very real threat of the same on these shores, unsettling the then-establishment. But in 2018, is there a ‘bread and blood’ underbelly to mass protest? If we are not hungry, nor immediately under threat, why do we take to the streets?

The biggest protest to date in the UK (against the Iraq war in 2003, with around a million attendees), anti-Trump rallies and those which epitomised political change in South Africa, India or Tiananmen Square are immense examples of mass action. But – and the clue is in the word ‘protest’ – whereas the former two were only ‘anti’, the latter three were simultaneously ‘for’ independence  and ‘against’ tyranny and colonialism. This is significant, and such complexities are evident in the current Brexit confusion. If you took to the streets now on this issue – in, out, second referendum, annulment of Article 50 – what would you put on the banner?

So, are we ‘bothersome bandits’, to quote John Stevenson, when we take to the streets? Undoubtedly, in the case of nation-defining events such as Indian independence and South African apartheid. Those involved in these protests had more at stake than venting their spleens, but the contemporary role of street action may be to trust in our own eyes. The era of fake news has provided a good turn. Whilst not exactly a return to soap box oratory, maybe the need to experience, rather than read and re-tweet, such events is vital, to prove to ourselves that the issues are real and shared.

Take note of the title of Stevenson’s book. Do we ‘disturb’ the status quo when we march – and if not, what do we do?

Photo By Alisdare Hickson (Wikimedia Commons)

Julia Moore