Last Night, London Stood Up to Trump

We don't know how to stop all this viciousness from happening, but that doesn't stop us from trying.

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Jan 31 2017, 3:16pm

All photos by Oscar Webb. Click here for more photos from last night.

There's always something faintly weird about the cops guarding Downing Street. These are, presumably, the best of the best, but (maybe as a result) they always look faintly inhuman—not even in the usual way cops might look inhuman (body armor and visors and the cold menace of implacable authority), but more like pug dogs or garden gnomes, clutching their guns and staring with sad, uncomprehending eyes at traffic and tourists through the slits on the gate that separates them from the world. They have their job, and everything else is either baffling or irrelevant. I saw that look on quite a few of the cops standing around yesterday's vast and sudden protest against Trump's travel ban and our own government's complicity in it: the look of someone not sure if they're meant to join in with the demonstration or wade into the mass of people, clubs swinging. The look of a creature that doesn't know what it's supposed to do.

They're not alone; so few of the old rules make sense anymore. In America, the cops are staging a slow and piecemeal riot. Executive orders are telling them to refuse entry to anyone from a list of seven Muslim-majority nations; rulings by federal judges are telling them to let the people they're holding free immediately. The state is no longer speaking with one voice, and in the gaps, surplus sadism trickles through. Are dual nationals exempt? Our government says yes; the US embassy says no. In some airports, Yemenis and Iranians are being sent back on the next available flight; in others, they're being detained for long hours, aggressively questioned, and then released.

But everywhere strange stories are emerging: travelers turned away simply for getting a connecting flight through a Muslim country, one that isn't even on the list; legal US residents being forced to sign away their green cards; lawyers being denied access to those detained, even with a court order. It's not a matter of these people simply following unethical orders. The orders don't make sense, and in this sudden legal void people find themselves with something terrifying—a choice. Like so many, the border cops are using this freedom to project a grim facsimile of order, to inflict needless harm on other people. But there are others.

That's why the protests at Downing Street were so heartening. Of course, all the usual caveats about street protest apply. There were some embarrassing people with terrible signs and the strange idea that since we're on the brink of full-scale civilizational collapse, this would be a good time to make a Harry Potter reference. The whole great mass of people mostly went back home, politely, around half past eight. And there wasn't any real sense of what this protest would achieve, beyond registering the displeasure of a population unlikely to actually burst through the gates of Downing Street, topple the government, and start the work of dismantling Trump's imperial power worldwide.

Theresa May, our screeching tight-faced banshee-ruler, one claw wedged tight in Trump's clammy pig's-knuckle fist, is not going to cancel the state visit. Not for 1.5 million petitioners, not for tens of thousands of protesters in just about every British city, not for her own MPs, not for anyone. We're foreign citizens, trying to stop the excesses of a country that has decided to no longer care what foreigners think about it. We don't know how to stop all this viciousness from happening; we don't, in the end, know exactly what to do.

But even so, people were determined to do something. The protest in London was called less than two days before it actually began, and it was vast. In the gloomy Bond villain lair or Westminster tube station, every escalator was broken down, and all of them were packed with protesters (some of them standing patiently on the right-hand side, waiting for a broken machine to carry them upward—complete the political metaphor yourself). In the ticket hall, a protest march in miniature shuffled toward the gates, already lifting placards and chanting slogans. Outside, the crowd stretched from the station steps all along Whitehall. The great palaces looked strangely spooky, as all buildings haunted by the state do, dark against the unhealthy gleam of London's night sky. And in the huddled closeness of the evening, despite the sheer number of people and the constant noise of their chants, the protest felt a little furtive, conspiratorial; it was frantic, desperate, and alive. The hoary Trotskyites that usually dominate these things were all present, as were the career activists trudging through the latest in an endless series of fruitless marches, but far more were on the first or second protest of their lives: people who saw a world going badly wrong, and were determined to do something to fix it.

We're living in a strange moment, and it demands first of all the abandonment of a certain cynicism. There's the temptation to ask where these people have been all this time, when the British government was sending LGBTQ refugees to their deaths, when people were dying on deportation flights, or being raped by contractors at Yarl's Wood. Why have they only come out now, in response to the edicts of a foreign autocrat, when everything here has been so deeply fucked for so long? None of this is wrong, exactly. But any serious movement needs first to constitute a social base and a collective subject—and with the old division of labor crumbling into millions of particles, unwilling entrepreneurs drawing precarious boundaries around themselves, this is how you do it. You bring people into the streets, together, to make a demand. Once the angry and disconsolate are no longer atomized, once it's been decided that something must be done, once they've made themselves into a weapon, that weapon might find out how it works.

Follow Sam Kriss on Twitter.

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