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What I Learned About Optimism from the Massive Post-Brexit March for Europe

Tens of thousands of Remain voters filled London's streets, not to stubbornly call for a second EU referendum but to galvanise around some sort of hope for what's next.

by Amelia Abraham
03 July 2016, 10:12am

All photos by Chris Bethell

It's been ten days, now, since Britain decided to leave the EU. In that time, the Prime Minister has resigned, the pound has tumbled in value against the euro, reported hate crimes have risen 500 percent and Michael Gove – a man who looks like a ventriloquist's doll – has decided to run for leadership. Add to that mix a shaky statistic, which projected that only 36 percent of 18-24 year olds voted, and resulting accusations that young people deserve whatever doomed future they get, and you might just have the most depressing British summer on record.

It's hardly surprising that, in the wake of all this, a bunch of us idle youngsters thought it worth our while to get out of bed on Saturday morning and join the tens of thousands who walked to the Houses of Parliament for the "March for Europe". Organised mostly via Facebook, the event wasn't a bad loser's parade, but a bid to remind the government, the Leave voters and rest of the world, that we need a clear plan for how our post-Brexit country is to be run.

As I joined the crowds on Park Lane, it became quickly obvious that people had come equipped with a sense of humour. They carried effigies of Boris Johnson and David Cameron (with a few pig-fucking references thrown in for good measure). Posters were dashed with the words "Eton Mess". Groups of people sang the immortal words of Bieber: "Is it too late now to say sorry?" and the atmosphere was one of positivity, albeit borne out of a sense of total fucking despair.

There's Jess on the right

The crowd skewed towards an older demographic, but there were younger faces, too. Jess, 14, was there parentless and with a mate, because she recognised that Britain's future in or out of the EU was also her future. "I'm worried we were better off before this happened," she said, "everything in the news now is bad." Jess's poster suggested the government came up with a plan. "I think people my age are the ones that are the angriest about this, especially because we couldn't vote," she said.

Mariella, on the right, with a friend

Like Jess, Mariella, 21, said this was also her first protest. Half-Irish, half-Peruvian, her parents came to the UK during the 1980s, and she wanted to march, she said, to send out the message that immigrants and British workers from overseas are valued here. "It's up to us to not give in to anger or despair," she added, in what seemed to be the overall spirit of the event, "but to work together now, and listen to the people who have been ignored by austerity governments for generations, and think about how it might affect them."

Why didn't more young people vote? Mariella said she thought it was "the usual": a mixture of apathy, feeling neutral, or not really knowing what was at stake, but also that "a lot of people like me wrongly just assumed Remain would win, and got complacent."

"People say our generation are only interested in playing games on our iPhones," said Lucy, 20, a student in Liverpool and holding the "Heart EU" poster. "That's what they think the millennial generation is." She came out to march in order to correct them; "There is no "millennial generation" it's just an age, a generation, but we care about the same things as people of any age. I'm here to show that we do care."

There are some obvious reasons that yesterday's march felt like the right moment for young people who didn't vote, or who haven't been to a protest before, to show their faces. Maybe because it was set up on Facebook, so news of it actually reached them. Maybe because it was held on Saturday, in central London, so it felt relatively accessible. Or maybe because its focus wasn't on a second referendum, or the implausible idea of "London stay", but on looking for a silver lining.

A short manifesto calling for "an end to political indecision about Britain's future" thus formed the basis of an afternoon of talks from about 1PM in Parliament Square, with speakers ranging from Sir Bob Geldof, Lib Dem MP Tim Farron and Guardian columnist Owen Jones to Tottenham MP David Lammy, Kieran McDermot – the bloke who organised the march – and Charlotte Church. We also heard from a Cypriot poet, people from the crowd, "Fuck Brexit" rally organiser and TV presenter Billie JD Porter and Secret Cinema founder Fabien Riggall, who MCed the whole thing.

MP David Lammy

The talks, like the sentiment of the march, focused on positivity, and the big question of "what next for Britain". Of those that addressed the crowd, a few made sure to address the projected low turnout of youth voters on Referendum day, and tackle how the Brexit will affect this demographic more than most. Geldof, in classic pirate garb, urged "young people to engage with the world" in the coming months. "We want you to have the world and you deserve the world," he said, fist clenched.

Bob Geldof, talking to the crowd

While his words were well meaning, they seemed to contain a lot of the same empty rhetoric that so estranged young people from voting in the first place, and they didn't seem to resonate so much with the young people around me in the crowd either. "Older generations really need to stop being so stop trying to speak cool," commented Lucy, who I'd talked to earlier. "They need to make it about us."

Billie JD Porter, who'd used Facebook to organise a post-Brexit rally last week

By way of a solution to this Porter's speech seemed most promising, maybe cause she is actually 24 herself: "Millions of people across this country felt it wasn't worth their time to vote," she said to a packed Square. "Young people in this country are an invisible demographic so misrepresented they feel they're not entitled to an opinion altogether." She suggested we need to figure out what we're doing wrong when it comes to the youth vote by actually listening to young people, as opposed to speaking for them all the time, and then address the problem.

As protesters began to disperse around 4PM, the resounding message from March for Europe was that people – especially young people – have not given up on demonstrating the values that made them vote remain in the first place, despite the sickening gloom of the last ten days. Even if the protest makes no difference to legislation, to the consequences of last Friday morning's decision, to who wins the PM leadership campaign, it has at least – for the time being – been a much-needed boost to morale in the Remain camp.

@CBethell_Photo

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