It’s an overcast day in central London and I’m wading through a sea of gyrating limbs that used to be the street. Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” belts out of a sound system, operating from a truck parked down side street. DJ, Block9 co-founder and activist Gideon Berger’s voice booms down a microphone, telling us: “All you need is love,” to raucous cheers. “Fuck hate… and fuck Brexit.” Well, fair enough. After all, we’re all here for the DJs for a People’s Vote party and protest, where a mobile soundsystem helmed by everyone from Fatboy Slim to Norman Jay MBE wound its way through Mayfair as part of the reportedly million-strong People’s Vote March on Saturday 23 March. Their goal aligns with that of the bigger protest: put another vote to the British people before the country potentially crashes out of the EU, at some undefined point this year.
To my left, a man in a Hawaiian shirt clutches a placard reading “Gingers Against Brexit,” which he bounces in time to the pulsating bassline. To my right, a woman in an orange knitted hat holds up a “Music Feels Better With EU” sign. London-based DJ Artwork is behind the decks, arms aloft, flanked by dance legends Lucy Fizz and Chester Hayes, as they jump around. This larger sound system was preceded by the smaller Stop Brexit System (SBS), a precariously balanced platform with decks powered by a generator on wheels and propelled by a nervous man on a pedal bike. But, even while soaking up these positive vibes, I couldn’t help but consider, given the chaotic nature of the current political climate, if this could make any tangible long-term difference. To an outsider who doesn’t understand the nature of clubbing culture, it could just look like an excuse to get on it.
Predictably, everyone I meet (with the notable exception of this priest, stood on the periphery of the march, holding a sign saying “Nigel Farage Was Sent By Christ to Get Britain Out of Europe”) is of the same opinion: the Leave campaign made fraudulent claims, people voted based on an idealised, false version of what Brexit could be. To them, only another referendum would be true democracy.
From chats with protesters as the system moves towards Trafalgar Square, I get a sense that some people are revelling in the fact that they can make a political point without resorting to social media slanging matches or street protests with aggressive undertones. Paul, a 23-year-old working in the film industry, tells me that he’s here for two reasons. “One: we are against Brexit, and two: We always go to Artwork’s street parties. They usually get shut down, but they are always good vibes.”
For Artwork himself, events like this raise awareness of what he believes is a widespread change of heart in Britain. “It’s two years later,” he tells me. “Now everyone knows what it’s about, let’s just check everyone fully understands before we go and do something mental. If they do, and vote for it again then cool, go for it. But it’s worth checking.” Given how quickly the news is moving, it’s hard to say whether Artwork’s view would be reflected by the wider population. A mid-March snap YouGov poll found that 43 percent of Brits wanted MPs to vote against a delay to Brexit overall. A week earlier, only about 34 percent of people surveyed in a YouGov snap poll had felt the same way.
I speak to Gideon ahead of the march, who informed me that since the Brexit vote he’s been alarmed by the arrival of Trump, Bolsonaro and the rise of populism across Europe. He thinks events like this can motivate people to engage with those heavier issues. “Partnering music with politics and struggle and protest is a really important thing to do, because it puts the right issues centre stage,” he says. “House music – by its very nature, its make-up and its DNA – has always been political. It’s grown out of the fringes of society; black, gay, underground culture.”
When Fatboy Slim mixes his hit “Praise You Like I Should” with The Source’s 1991 re-work of Candi Staton’s classic “You’ve Got the Love” the street settles into a deadlock. I hear an instruction for people to “dance and walk”. The euphoric release after a day when an estimated million people took part in the wider People’s Vote march isn’t something I’ll forget. But how impactful can these events be? Can they really enact social change or is it just a way to blow off steam? HAAi, who won the last BBC’s ‘Essential Mix of the Year’, believes the protest “sends a clear message to the government. It’s obvious that the current situation is definitely not the will of the people,” she says. “Millions were tricked into voting for a deal that wasn’t achievable.”
I hear a similarly optimistic view from Lucy, a 28-year-old healthcare worker whose dancing I briefly interrupt for a quick chat. “The Brexit referendum was undemocratic because it was based on lies,” she tells me. “Coming together like this can put pressure on governments; it says, ‘look, there’s a whole bunch of us who feel this way’. The MPs have to recognise that.” Realistically, as Theresa May ploughs on with her unpopular deal, MPs may just vote in alternatives to her deal which have nothing to do with another public vote. Sparky, a 49-year-old with the Dig It Sound System, believes that while actions like today’s protest can’t guarantee political outcomes, they can still rattle the cage. “If people are willing to be mobilised and get out then they are more of a threat than if they are just sitting at home. It could make politicians consider their actions.”
The undulating swarm, clasping a fountain of EU flags, placards and the odd hand flare, continues the party until around 6PM – that’s when the police simultaneously shut down all the systems operating in and around Trafalgar Square. “This is a peaceful protest and we’re cleaning up after ourselves,” Gideon announces as the protest reaches a crescendo. “Let us play for a bit longer Metropolitan Police? The Tory government is about to fall anyway,” he adds as the final tune, Tears for Fears's “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” draws to a conclusion. The crowd roars.
Some are, I’m sure, disappointed with the abrupt shutdown. But they don’t kick off with resistance, aggression or hostility. Despite the political turmoil and the uncertain future we find ourselves in, you can practically feel the hope hover in the air. Having said that, it’s not easy to measure the wider implications of this beyond the day itself. The lack of opposing opinions at the protest is slightly dispiriting; it serves to add credence to the notion that we all exist in a political echo chamber where we have no idea how other societal subsets perceive us. And that is how we arrived in this situation in the first place.
It is, though, very difficult to argue that these events, which straddle the world of clubbing and street protest, don’t serve to engage young people in politics, which is very important. As the sun comes down and an army of street cleaners descend on the scene, the throngs of protesters disperse, determined that they’ve made an imposing cultural statement. “It would be a disaster if Brexit went ahead in any form,” Gideon says. “But one minuscule silver lining would be how many people came together in resistance to it. Repositioning protest as something that can form part of mainstream youth culture would certainly be an achievement. Most people understand the gravity of this moment in time, this needs to be a turning point and it could be a turning point. It really could.”
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