As an archivist for Reuters Television News for ten years, I am no stranger to footage of protests. It’s what paid my bills for many years, bought my house, kept me privileged. An odd situation, but one that news professionals live with. World tragedy creates news and creates an interest in news.
Since my redundancy, voluntary but still life-changing, I occasionally travel backwards and forwards to Paris for spoken word events and to exhibit in group shows. I perform as a poet and create art for Parisian audiences. Meeting other artists and poets, from Paris, from France and members of the ex-pat community has given me an insight into the city in 2019, flawed though the glass is through which I see life in Paris.
When my friend Alan Doyle returned from a French trip with these powerful pictures of protests he had witnessed in Rennes I saw them on Facebook, and immediately thought of the protests the generation of my youth took part in, the poll-tax riots. The confrontations with riot police. The threat of tear gas. The colour of resistance. The pirate flags and the shouts of defiance.
Why does a particular time throw up a mass protest? I do not feel qualified to comment although, with the help of my friends, I am a witness. An outsider, unlike with the poll tax riots where I and close friends were insiders, demonstrating opposition to a hostile tax that seemed to take not only financial ownership but also wrote down our souls on the government ledger. People are walking the streets in a contemporary drama, lit by red flares, assaulting the legislature’s ideology. The yellow-green of the hi-vis waistcoats march down the wide boulevards. I do not understand all the symbolism but I recognise the attention-grabbing fervour, the desire to feel in control, the adrenaline of group ownership of public spaces. The thrill of defying the police.
I am lost, like most of us seem to be, in this time when lines are being redrawn across our lives. I’m confused by the emotions running through the population. I’m disconcerted by the lack of agreement on what is an ethical decision over fundamental issues. At such a time, perhaps the only thing that can make us feel whole again is to march. Then again, I don’t like crowds. Such events frighten me.
I once got caught up in a confrontation at the Notting Hill carnival. Public versus police. The uniformed officers were hitting people on the head with their batons. I remember a young Italian man holding my hand to give me comfort. So many young men from France and Italy were on the run from national service, squatting in flats in the East End. We lived as neighbours. We supported each other. It wasn’t Utopia, but we had an alliance that warmed my heart. I remember it now, thirty years later. Those days, when despite the street conflict, it felt a good time to be young. We felt that we were powerful together.