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'Occupy Parliament!' – Protests Last Night Showed Democracy in Action

Among the demonstrators invited to speak to the crowd of thousands, one – a man who gave his name as "citizen" – said, "This is about so much more than Brexit. If it comes to it, we will occupy Parliament."

by Ben Charlie Smoke; photos by Luis Kramer
29 August 2019, 9:19am

Protesters in Westminster last night. Photos: Luis Kramer

There was palpable anger in central London last night as thousands descended upon Westminster – with just four hours notice – to demonstrate against the controversial proroguing of Parliament by the Queen, on the request of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The move means Parliament will be suspended from no later than the 12th of September to the 14th of October, during which time there can be no legislation passed, debates heard or votes taken. This of course leaves much less time for the many MPs who oppose a no-deal Brexit to block the government from crashing us out of the EU on the scheduled leave date of the 31st of October.

Understandably, then, the move has been widely criticised as a way for arch-Brexiteer Johnson to circumvent Parliamentary oversight and leave the EU without a deal. Speaker of the House, John Bercow, labelled the move a "constitutional outrage", while many have called it a "coup", arguing that the very foundations of our democracy are under threat.

little girl protest

Outside Parliament last night, journalist and Author Paul Mason referred to the prorogation as the "theft of a parliamentary institution going back hundreds of years". National co-ordinator of Momentum, Laura Parker – who compered the protest – said, "There are people here from the Green Party, Lib Dems, Labour, Tories and no parties, and you are all welcome because we all deserve a parliamentary sovereignty."

man speaking protest

Parker later told me the demonstration was an "extraordinary evening, with people of all political parties and none coming out to demonstrate on short notice because they are angry at what is being done to their democracy. This was – and is – bigger than Brexit. However people voted in 2016, it was not for this."

westminster protest

Between each speaker, chants of, "Stop the coup!" rippled through the crowd, growing in volume each time as more and more people joined the demonstration. After further planned speakers, including Green Party Deputy Leader Amelia Womack, the stage was opened to any who wanted to speak. "This is what democracy looks like," Parker remarked.

"I'm sick and tired of watching this crisis unfold," said a man who gave his name as "citizen". "I'm shaking with anger and had to come out tonight. This is about so much more than Brexit. We have come out, and we will keep coming out, and if it comes to it we will occupy Parliament."

owen jones speaking at protest

This was a message repeated throughout the evening, with journalist Owen Jones – who organised the demonstration alongside Momentum and Another Europe Is Possible – calling for the occupation of Parliament. A number of politicians – including shadow treasury minister Clive Lewis – have already stated that they will occupy the chamber of the House of Commons until removed by police.

More speakers emerged from the crowd, including a woman from Chechnya who said, "I came here ten years ago when everything got taken away from me. Two wars with Russia, and now my country is ruled by a dictatorship. We need you to be angry."

westminster protest

From the crowd of thousands now swelling in Westminster Green, someone shouted, "We are angry!" It wasn't long before that anger spilled off of the grass and onto the roads. At a crossing a few hundred metres from the main body of the demonstration, the first of what would be many road blocks and sit-ins began. Police attempted to clear those holding the space, but eventually gave up as more and more joined the blockade.

westminster protest

One of those people was Alex, who manoeuvred her wheelchair in front of a tour bus to stop it passing. "People need to sit up and notice what is going on," she said. "If Boris Johnson will do this for Brexit, he'll do it for any issue he doesn't want us to have a say on. Our MPs are elected by us, so we have a say through Parliament. Johnson wasn't elected by us – he was elected by his party and now he's shutting down the one place where we can influence things. We have to stop it."

When asked how long she was planning to stay in the road, she replied, "As long as it takes."

man blocking coach lying in road

Several roadblocks later, the demonstration reached Downing Street, with the crowd peaking at around 5,000. As police numbers around the gates grew, protesters banged metal grating and chanted. In a testament to the fractious nature of the alliance brought together to resist Johnson, groups of protesters tried to out-sing each other with variations of the "Oh Jeremy Corbyn" chant – those supportive of the Labour Party leader facing up against those using the same tune to ask "Where's Jeremy Corbyn?"

Though the Leader of the Opposition was not at the demonstration, senior Labour figures – including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott and Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer – were all present.

westminster protest

As the night wore on, the demonstration wound down, with two groups of protesters conducting sit-ins in Parliament Square and Downing Street until late into the evening.

Demonstrators Hillary and Luna were two of those blocking the road in Downing Street.

"I'm here because, first thing this morning, I was scared," said Hillary. "I woke up, realised an unelected Prime Minister was usurping the sovereignty and power of Parliament for his own means, and that the bedrock of our democracy was at risk. I was terrified that people weren't going to recognise the moment for what it is, and that we as a society wouldn't be able to recover from it."

"My hope is that this will galvanise the opposition parties to get together and do everything possible to stop the prorogation and to stop a no deal Brexit," Luna added. "I'll be out on the streets, tonight and the coming days, for however long it takes. I strongly believe at this point it should not just be marches and writing letters your MPs, but we need to engage in direct action and acts of civil disobedience."

Shouts of, "You shut down our Parliament, we shut down the streets!" rang late into the night as demonstrators did just that. With more protests and actions planned across the country this weekend, and promises of fights inside and outside Parliament when it returns after summer recess next week, it looks like the fight for democracy is only just beginning.

@bencsmoke / @kramerdoingbits