Thousands of protesters descended on Whitehall on Saturday, in response to news that Boris Johnson had asked the Queen to prorogue parliament for five weeks.
Demonstrators gathered at the central London protest, organised by Another Europe is Possible, to express their rage and confusion, but also to see who else joined them in opposition.
The diverse crowd presented a range of demands and anxieties, from Johnson’s bending of democracy and the increasingly unwelcome rump of a Conservative government to anxiety about a looming Brexit, no deal or otherwise. Protesters also represented a patchwork of many political factions: Black-bloc antifacists next to placard-waving Lib Dems, banner-carrying Momentum groups next to flag-draped “Bollocks-to-Brexit” types.
A variety of speakers took to the stage, not only those on the Labour left – such as Diane Abbott and Owen Jones – but also GLA assembly member Sian Berry, the Green Party co-leader, and a range of activists.
As the afternoon went on, the crowds were anxious to march, to shout, to work out what they should do, as we look at a long stretch towards Brexit without representation from parliament.
Protesters moved to Trafalgar Square, at first, and then later on to Waterloo Bridge, blocking the roads at each and eventually getting moved on by police cordons, who seemed to have a feel for the level temper of the assorted crowd, and so idly shuffled them into submission.
We asked protesters what they thought was going on, exactly. Is this a coup and what should we do now?
Novara Media: What was your initial reaction to the news of Boris proroguing parliament?
Irwin: Dictatorship! I think it’s a big con, and I think he’s doing it just to manipulate [the country into] what he wants to do.
People here are calling this a coup. Do you think that’s right?
It’s not a new thing. Tories have been doing this for years. It’s just [Boris’s] bullish way of doing what he wants, and he doesn’t want to listen to anyone else. And he’s just going to bully his way through.
Do you think the majority of people in this country support Boris?
No. Not at all. Being a black man, it scared me, the [EU referendum] was all about immigration. Which is scary for me. I was born here, Windrush generation. It scares me.
What’s the best possible outcome of all this?
A good outcome would be for us to vote again, and people to vote again and not be scared – a general election, and for the Tories to lose.
Novara Media: What has brought you here?
Christina: It was absolutely the prorogation of parliament and just trying to show that as a group of people we won’t allow that if we can at all prevent it.
What do you view as the problem with the proroguing of parliament?
Because it’s allowing one person – Boris Johnson, a prime minister with no political mandate – to completely control the issue that is defining our country right now, and that is Brexit. I don’t feel like that’s democratic, I don’t feel like he’s the person to do that. If anyone’s going to do that, it needs to be a government that’s elected by the people, and this isn’t the case.
When people call this a coup, what does that mean to you?
To me, it’s about Boris, it’s not necessarily about Brexit. Brexit is the fundamental issue, but one person shouldn’t be controlling that. It’s not that I think that Brexit should be stopped in its tracks; I don’t agree with Brexit, I’m definitely a remainer, but it’s more about the process… the idea of a coup is it’s about just this one person and in that way it’s not democratic.
Novara Media: On Wednesday, when you heard the news of the prorogation, what was your initial response?
Laura: This is a very cynical ploy by a prime minister who’s essentially continuing the strategy of May. He’s trying to pretend it’s something different, but she wanted to push it to the very end, until parliament had no choice but to accept her bad deal. [Whether you want the UK to be] in or out of the EU, in the Labour party most of us think that it was a bad deal, there was no protection of workers’ rights.
Do you think that this is a coup?
[What] Boris Johnson has done shows that everything we have said about this rotten Tory government is right. It is ruling in the interests of a small minority. It is more interested in keeping the Tory party together, and delivering some sort of victory for Boris Johnson, than it is [interested in] the many millions of the rest of us whose lives and livelihoods depend on the decisions that are going to be made. My very first reaction was that it was a democratic outrage. I would call it a coup… how else do we describe it when the prime minister shuts parliament?
ROWAN & RAE
Novara Media: What was your initial reaction to the news of the prorogation of parliament? Do you think that this is a coup?
Rowan: I could have seen this coming. As soon as Johnson got in I knew we were headed this way.
Rae: I came to this country [from the US] to avoid a government that was turning fascist, and here we are, watching this government do the exact same thing, with the exact same kind of leader… We’re watching democracy being shut down around us. These emergency protests are important because we need to keep the dialogue going. There’s no way to keep dialogue going if there’s no parliament.
Rowan: [Boris has] always wanted to crash us out with no deal, that’s been [his aim] from day one… It’s no longer about what there’s a mandate for in parliament. It’s no longer about what the people want. It’s about what he and his cabinet want to happen. It’s about who can profit from the situation.
We need to shape the country we want. It’s not just about whether we leave the EU or whether we stay in the EU, it’s about who’s going to be affected – the most vulnerable in our communities. It’s not just what trade deals we can get. It’s about protecting freedom of movement, it’s about protecting those here on visas, it’s about protecting asylum seekers. Those are the first people they’ll come for. So we need to show up now before that happens.
Novara Media: Is this a coup?
There’s no tanks on the streets, [but] it doesn’t always look like that. Parliament hasn’t actually been shut down but, you know, coups don’t always take the form of internet shutdowns and tanks on the streets. It’s a soft coup… it’s a huge breach of our democratic system.
This is the logical conclusion to Boris Johnson’s Brexit agenda. There has never been a mandate for any form of Brexit. And so to the extent that any form of Brexit was going to happen, it was always going to happen in a way that somehow disarticulated the democratic system.
I do think there’s a conversation to be had there with a large section of the left, which I think has for too long basically just been too cool for Brexit, and decided that it’s a big thorny political issue that divides the left and therefore we can’t make an intervention on it. And actually this moment doesn’t make sense unless you have a collective politics around Brexit, a critique of what the Brexit project is.
This can’t just be a defensive thing about defending parliamentary democracy because “Defend democracy” is the wrong slogan… We need to be demanding democracy. We need to be talking about democracy in the economy. We need to be talking about the fact that the democracy we have is shit. And I’m hopeful that we can move beyond the “Defend Democracy” moment. Because we’ve got out there, and we’ve led ahead with this stuff, we’ve managed to make this a left-led movement. And actually it could have been very easily taken over by somebody else.
Ed Ive is a writer and Labour party member based in London.
Patrycja Borecka is a freelance photojournalist.