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Why rebellion chooses to act out its protest on the streets

Will Wiles

As our world grows increasingly unpredictable, movements both to adapt and resist are commandeering the highways as their agents

Sites of protest. Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery in London.
Sites of protest. Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery in London. Credit: Sunpix Travel/ Alamy Stock Photo

One of my schoolteachers once told me that the reason the UK did not have a revolution in the 19th or 20th centuries was its lack of grand public squares. This prevented large enough crowds from congregating, a revolutionary prerequisite. I repeated this factoid to others as it sounded plausible. Such spaces are associated with free speech and protest; the UK was not ‘good’ at squares in the way those riotous Europeans were.

It invited the thought that the British might be bad at squares on purpose, as if that was the only thing standing between this island and the sans-culottes. Perhaps the fountains in Trafalgar Square are deliberately over-sized in order to limit its capacity, and the possibility of violent revolt explains why Parliament Square must remain a dispiriting traffic roundabout? In this view, the perpetual gyre of white vans serves the purpose of the mounted yeomanry, keeping the plebs kettled away from Parliament. Traffic used to be regarded as the enemy of protest, but in recent years roads have become a target for political expression, in various interesting ways.

I’m not talking here about the fraught national debate over ‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’ and similar initiatives. I mean, first of all, the disruption of traffic as an activist tactic. There’s nothing new about that: as a teenager I took part in Critical Mass mobile blockades in the 1990s. But it has become the signature tactic of civil disobedience in recent years, starting with the freeway protests against police violence in the US a decade ago, and recently here with Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain’s campaigns.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these tactics have been met with furious official reaction. Some US states have tried to make murder legal, as long as the victim is a protester and the killer is driving. UK Conservatives are trying to make any protest that causes noise or annoyance illegal, an odious strike against freedom of expression. In both cases the sanctity of the roadway must be preserved.

The grassroots freeway protests and Insulate Britain blockades are purposefully disruptive and disturbing, irruptions on foot into the world of the car

But it’s not just blockades. In France, the Gilets Jaunes were at the start a roadside phenomenon, taking up positions beside junctions and on roundabouts, and identifying with motorists, rather than trying to hold them up (the movement began as a protest against fuel duty, although it subsequently became more broad and nebulous). Earlier this year the US and Canada experienced the ‘freedom convoys’, outwardly against pandemic health measures, but motivated by a murky stew of right-wing conspiracies.

These disparate movements are expressions of intense political feeling by groups that feel failed by traditional political outlets – as direct action generally is. But the different ways they relate to the road, and to the flow of traffic, are quite striking. The grassroots freeway protests and Insulate Britain blockades are purposefully disruptive and disturbing, irruptions on foot into the world of the car, designed to interrupt the flow of the everyday and drag their message into the depoliticised frame of the windscreen. The roadside Gilets Jaunes’ presences were more an expression of solidarity with motorists, almost a warning to them – ‘we were once like you’. Meanwhile the convoys are solidly behind the wheel, the larger and more imposing the vehicle the better – amusingly many ‘truckers’ turned out to have hired their trucks for the occasion.

I suspect these different stances with respect to traffic represent different attitudes to a 20th century idea of normality, one undisturbed by the climate crisis and the pandemic, a normality we are now obliged to reassess. Some burst into the flow, and say we must change, things cannot go on as they have. Others reassert the flow with increasing aggression, bigger vehicles, more flags, as the road ahead looks less and less certain.•

Will Wiles is a writer

Fervour goes further

Recently I’ve been looking into the history of Trafalgar Square for a possible book, and I’ve found little to support the architectural conspiracy theory about the fountains. Moreover, it doesn’t withstand much critical thought. Revolutionary mobs don’t issue RSVPs or depend on a quorum. Even with the fountains, Trafalgar Square has hosted many large and consequential demonstrations, from the Chartists to the Poll Tax riots. The Royal Parks are capacious, and close at hand. And so on.