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There’s been a lot of talk about what happened on Saturday. Somehow, I haven’t seen my experience reflected anywhere. Despite the outpouring of support for a police force that arrested members of the hard right in droves, they weren’t there when I needed them.
In the aftermath, neither was my government, nor the military, an institution I’ve been told is there to keep me and my country safe. Yet I’m more disgusted than surprised.
Being assaulted by the far-right – ‘Tommy’s Army’ – was a terrifying experience. But what scares me even more is that Monday’s reshuffle will make people forget that the state enabled it.
Braverman’s defenestration can’t heal the trauma undergone by those of us who were attacked. Nor should it distract from the noxious political culture on the right that enabled it.
I felt ambivalent about joining the Palestine march, mostly because I didn’t want to lend support by association to anything pro-Hamas or anti-Jewish, no matter how fringe. I reasoned it was enough to be outraged by the slaughter of innocents on both sides.
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But Suella Braverman’s attempts to make people think that all left-leaning demonstrators are criminals-in-waiting encouraged me there. This is my country too and the right to peaceful protest isn’t a crime – yet.
Little happened on the walk between Hyde Park and Vauxhall. The crowd were spirited but restrained and the police presence was light. I never felt unsafe. The fuss seemed to have all been for nothing.
It all changed when we crossed the bridge. I peeled off to the left, ‘Freedom for Palestine’ sign in hand, dodging a very heavy line of police vans. I’d played my part, and my normal Saturday routine beckoned at home.
After a few minutes, a woman stopped me, warning me that the far right were making trouble up ahead. Thanking her, I crossed over towards the wall of Lambeth Palace. A roundabout forced me back to the river, but I saw no police or England flags. I thought maybe I had missed them.
Yet when I reached the edge of St Thomas’ Hospital, I saw a group of about 20 men blocking the path. Poppies and the cross of St George were everywhere (I guess none of them knew that he’s also the patron saint of Palestine).
I paused, debating another route. Two kind women offered to escort me through the crowd. Reasoning that I had a right not to feel intimidated, I walked on.
Within seconds, I was surrounded by burly middle-aged men screaming in my face. ‘You fucking whore. Show some fucking respect!’ shouted one.
I showed him my middle finger. Another responded by grabbing my sign, tearing it from my hand and throwing it into the Thames. My hand started bleeding. Terrified and trembling, the three of us got away, a flurry of misogynistic abuse following us. The police were nowhere to be seen.
When we found some officers near Parliament, they simply told me there was nothing they could do. They were over-stretched and couldn’t leave their car unattended.
In tears, I headed towards the police station in Charing Cross. Another woman stopped me. By coincidence, she was an off-duty volunteer police sergeant. She offered to walk me to the station after I recounted what happened. She told me that her colleagues had been warned the far right might try and storm Scotland Yard during the minute’s silence. My own city had never felt so alien.
While at Charing Cross, I met a group of teenage girls who had seen their Palestine flags confiscated by the police, apparently to protect them from lurking members of Tommy’s Army. They were there to lodge a complaint.
‘Why didn’t they arrest the men or take their flags?’ I asked. No one had an answer.
Later on, the two women I met near the river texted me footage of the men filmed from Westminster Bridge, urging me to submit it to the police. They have since asked repeatedly if I’m OK.
The kindness of all these women has stopped me from losing faith in our crumbling national life, especially when the news prompts painful flashbacks just as much as the scar on my right hand.
The left has, rightly, done some soul-searching about the company it keeps. The right has not. If members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign had violently harassed those at the Cenotaph, a statement of condemnation would have been expected. Far-right thugs are claiming some of the more moderate right’s cherished institutions as their allies. I’m starting to think those institutions approve.
I’m a hardline poppy sceptic, who feels uncomfortable about the nationalism surrounding Armistice Day. It’s an attitude also fed by the military’s cynical tactic of recruiting young men in deprived areas for their lowest ranks. Perhaps that includes some of those who attacked a defenceless young woman in broad daylight.
After Saturday’s protests, the Government narrative tried to link the violent far-right scenes with the pro-Palestine march. “It all seems rather zero-sum, like one side is right and one side is wrong”: Armed Forces Minister James Heappey told BBC Radio 4 when asked about it. Ministers appear to treat pseudo-fascists as useful idiots, rather than people who should have no place in our politics.
David Cameron’s resurrection seems to suggest that no matter how much division you stir, you can still expect a home in government.
I have no doubt Braverman will be back – and when she is, I’ll have to re-live 11th November all over again.
Journeys on the Tube since have been difficult. Whenever I see a poppy I’m filled with rage. The difference is that I don’t lash out. I know not everyone who acknowledges Remembrance is the same. I just wish that from the outset, that courtesy had been shown to me.
The Tories want us to move on, to be distracted, to allow this to be swept under the rug. I won’t. I can’t. I urge you not to either.
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