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Protest is education not indoctrination

At the Women’s March in London it was a single child who stuck in my mind: a little boy who could have been hardly older than eight. He saw the group of women I was marching with and made a beeline towards us, joining in our chants and making up his own. He asked for our megaphone to lead our chant: “When they say no choice, we say pro choice!” and then, emboldened, started to speak in his high-pitched, breathless child voice that Trump was a bully and must be kicked off a cliff.

I felt a heady awareness that this was a formative experience for him. A memory of marching through central London with his mother and thousands of other women will be embedded in his childhood. A memory of the strength and power of the voices around him to speak up against political authority. A memory of the signs he saw and the slogans he joined in shouting, and with them a reminder of the importance of gender equality, sexual equality and racial equality.

I have similar deep-rooted memories. I was a child on the Million March Against War in Iraq. Although I was only six years old, the sense of power which I picked up from the crowds around me has stayed with me ever since. I clearly remember the throngs of people surging through central Glasgow, and around a stationary open top bus where a speaker waved a Palestinian flag and led a rendition of “Give peace a chance”. It is fragmented images and emotions like these which remain with children for years after the event.

Speaking to my childhood best friend, Elise, it was striking how the same things had stayed with us both. Over the shining screen of Facebook from distant ends of the country, she told me “I think I was about seven when we went so it’s more of an overall impression that I remember, it was pretty exciting”. She told me that “the chants and slogans really stayed with me and I still remember them thirteen years later: who let the bombs out? Bush, Bush and Blair and also one, two, three, four, we don’t want your bloody war”.

These same chants are central to my memories of the Glasgow march, and were powerful articulations of injustice expressed in language easy enough for a six-year-old to understand. I remember being excited after the march and spending the journey home chanting “we don’t want your bloody war”.

On that bus, I spoke to Iraqi women, Quakers and a South Korean friend who told us of her surprise that protests in this country didn’t carry with them the violent government backlash she had experienced in Korea. These early encounters with different types of people united by a common goal opened up my understanding of the world around me.

Much as the little boy on the London Women’s March talked of Trump as a bully, I saw Britain and America acting as bullies in the Middle East. I remember being given the choice to join in when my parents decided to go on the different demonstrations they attended against the war.

Speaking to my mother, she told me: “we took you along without speaking about issues more than in terms of bullying…. that there were countries with more power and they were bullying smaller ones”.  For me and other children this sense of injustice burgeoned into a broader understanding as I grew older, not just of the ongoing upheaval in Iraq and the wider Middle East but of fraught political tensions in general. My early feeling of empowerment shaped my political education: politics was never thought of as removed from my own life. Rather it was something I and others could influence through our own actions. I realised young that we all have the power to question and oppose governments when they do not go along with the people’s views. There is something about early idealism, and fostering it in children, which opens up the path for them to retain the belief that they matter as citizens, and are strong. 

We must not forget that the longest strike in UK  history was instigated by children: the Burston Strike School which ran after children walked out of their classroom in 1914, and lasted until 1939.

Children are the politicians of the future – but they are also its citizens. To narrow the gap between politics as the preserve of politicians, and the politics manifest in everyday lives it is vitally important to have a mass movement of citizens who are empowered to stand up and make their voices heard when they see politicians going astray. They must truly believe that they can change things. In the context of President Trump, there will be children reaching their teenage years soon who shall only vaguely remember a time before the climate of fear and isolation promoted by his rhetoric.

The xenophobia, the sexism, the transphobia, the homophobia, the ableism: the grinding disrespect for citizen’s rights. It is worryingly possible to foresee people maturing afraid to speak out, fearing hatred or apathy wherever they turn in mainstream politics. To combat apathy, the next generation needs to be involved in democracy and feel that they can hold a government accountable.

For the Women’s March, five million people worldwide marched and one million people descended on Washington DC: a surge condemning the government’s actions and attitudes. Those marches and the following cycle of marches against the “Muslim Ban” act as powerful reminders to those attacked by Trump’s administration that they are not alone, and that they can speak out. We have seen an intersectional mass movement form – and on every march I’ve seen babies, children and teenagers.

Talking about early political involvement, Annie – who was 7 at the time of the Iraq march – told me: “I made banners with friends and went to Fairford RAF airfield as part of an anti-Iraq war demo, I remember tying string to the airfield fences and some people next to us cutting the wire and entering the Base; that was exciting!” She feels it was her parents’ political involvement which led her to first care about politics.

Patronising children has been combined with political disagreements to levy criticism against parents who take their children on marches. In 2003 my photograph appeared in the local paper, a little child carrying a placard. Days later a librarian whose husband was in the Royal Air Force berated my mother for opposing Blair and “indoctrinating” me, while I looked on. She never spared a thought for my own reaction. Her attitude only galvanised my resolve that, when there are people defending an unjust status quo, it is more important than ever to join forces with others who also disagree.

This wasn’t the only time my parents and I met opposition: at a vigil held for the civilians dead in Iraq, Tory students came and told us all to stop. I remember a demonstration at the local RAF base, where we were met by a counter-demonstration of RAF families. Mothers were banging pots and yelling while their children joined in on the opposite side.

My mother remembers: “when we met dissension we told you that it was ok, people disagreed, but free speech was a right for everyone: we had the right to march and they had the right to oppose our point of view. But we weren’t to shout or fight, just like ordinary childhood life… We just talked about the general theme of freedom of speech (demos), and standing up for justice (no bullying) and being authentic with what you believed and respectful and brave… And showing solidarity for those around you.”

Childhood in our society is seen as vastly removed from adulthood. To allow children to develop into conscientious citizens, it is important that those of us who are older re-frame childhood in the popular psyche. We must start to see children as complex humans with sufficient intelligence and agency to make up their own minds. Then we will see adults who are more invested in politics and feel greater power as both citizens and politicians to bring about change.

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