All you need is love. The anti-Brexit crowd had stopped its march to parliament square outside Downing street, not too far away from Theresa May’s official residence. Ten thousands campaigners, activists, families and children had met on this Saturday morning to express their protest against the triggering of article 50. All you need is love la la la la la, an old Beatles song sounded out from one of the windows of an old town house located just on the other side of the street. All you need is love replied the crowd around us.
We had joined the march at Trafalgar square, where other families with their children had waited for the crowd. Only a few weeks after our arrival in this place, London, we had felt the need to fight for what we thought is our right to live in the UK; for a united Europe against exclusion and racism. The organising committee had asked for a sober march, no violence, as a form of respect for the victims of the Westminster attack. A day of celebration, should it be, the celebration of 60 years since the founding of the European Union.
All you need is love. Humming this song, I look around me. My ethnographic eye started to get interested in this crowd. Who are these people? What are they protesting for? Where are they from? Diverse faces, many languages, different life trajectories, multiple agendas: superdiversity some colleagues would say. And yet we all seemed to look alike: white, middle class, and in some ways happy and in love with life.
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE, this time louder, a young man with a big European flag standing at the window had turned up the volume and waved to the crowd. People around me seemed to appreciate this. All you need is love la la la la la, they responded. While looking at this singing crowd my eyes cross the look of a homeless man lying with his army sleeping bag on the pavement, just under the open window from which the song had been coming. Looking at him, a friend of mine from Norway came to my mind. When speaking about my gentrified neighbourhood he used to say that there is a natural, quasi symbiotic relation between cosmopolitan, bohemian youngsters and beggars who capitalise on these youngsters’ willingness to embody an alternative, more inclusive mode of living.
I have always thought that there is some truth in his crude diagnosis. But, here at a march in favour of a multicultural and inclusive British society nobody seemed to engage with this man. His cup was empty. No coins. It was as if people intentionally held a secure distance from his homeless body, as if the image of this man would distract from the real objectives of the march. As if his situation of marginality would not be part of the forms of change this march wanted to promote. At the same time, he did not really seem to take part in this event either. He had this apathetic look, looking nowhere, and at the same time looking at everything. What is he thinking? The ethnographer again. What is he thinking? Brexit is bad. Brexit is bad for all of us. Leavers, especially the working class are voting against themselves – at least this is what people had been saying around me for the last couple of weeks. But what about him? What does he think about all this? About Brexit, about this march, about me as one of the many Europeans claiming their right to live and work here. Is he angry? Does he care? I did not ask him.
While the crowd continued its march towards Westminster, and we slowly left the Beatles and their song behind, my thoughts drifted away to east London where I am doing research on unemployment programmes. The ethnographer got the upper hand over me. What would my informants think? About me, being here, with all these people, fighting for our right to stay in the UK and live in an anti-racist society? Would they be silent like the homeless man on the side of the road? Why aren’t they here? I had read in an academic text that many of the young men and women who live in the neighbourhoods where I do research had been actively involved in the 2011 London riots. Looking at all these smiling faces around me, I wonder where all this anger had gone. Why had these angry masses been replaced by a colourful march of obedient pro-Europeans? Why didn’t these individuals (including my research participants) feel committed to the sense of solidarity, justice and inclusion that a united Europe represents? And why did we not feel committed to include them (including the homeless man on the side of the road) in our fight for a diverse and just society? At this point, the Beatles had disappeared from my mind.
We had almost arrived at Westminster. I was still trying to work out why marginalised individuals (the people that critical researchers like me usually focus on in their research) don’t feel the need to protest against Brexit. It was then that I started to realise that rights, which are meant to be about inclusion, such as for example the right to live and work in the UK, are always in fact exclusive. This anti-Brexit march for example was about the Europeans’ rights to live and work freely in the UK. It did not affect in anyway the rights (or better the non-right) of other individuals from other countries, or job seekers or homeless individuals such as the one I had encountered next to Trafalgar square. To the contrary, many individuals that are positioned at the margins of British society, have expressed their fear that Europeans’ rights are claimed at the expenses of their own rights to live a decent life in the UK. So, though I came to this protest against Brexit meaning to act in favour of a more just society, I left having been reminded that claims for rights are attempts of a group of individuals (such as me!) to secure their very own position in a changing society where race, ethnicity and class are getting rearticulated in interesting ways. In that sense rights are part of a larger structure organising the distribution of resources – and indeed contribute to the fossilisation of inequality.
This of course does not mean that we should stop fighting for our rights. It rather implies that in order to prevent the risk of symbolically reproducing the social hierarchies and structures of inequality that marches such as the anti-Brexit march are contesting, we should rather try to resituate our claims in a larger demand for social change. This includes claims for cheap housing, public health care, employment, education and other issues that currently preoccupy the British public. This will ensure that our protests do not reproduce the demands of a class aiming to secure their own position of privilege, but would rather shape forms of solidarity and alliances across communities which promote the ability for all to live and work comfortably in the UK.