Trafalgar Square and Protest20 minute read

Located in the heart of London, Trafalgar Square is a location of imperial and social significance. Situated close to the Houses of Parliament, it is a location of imperial expression as well as dissent against authority and the dominant institution. However, its fountains, lions, and the National Gallery also make it the destination of art lovers and tourists from around the world. Over time, Trafalgar Square has evolved in its significance to the general public. While Trafalgar Square began as expression of national pride, it has since then evolved into an international forum of social expression and dissent.

Trafalgar Square originally stood as an expression of imperial power. With London’s drive to prove itself as an imperial capital, Trafalgar Square joined the Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament to form a triangular area of imperial celebration (Cornish 1921). However, it is more than the physical location and appearance of Trafalgar Square which lends itself to imperial definition. Trafalgar Square is also imperial in its events and “movements” (Driver and Gilbert 1998). For example, Trafalgar Square houses performances by the Royal Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera House, which displays British culture, which is sponsored under the Mayor of London (Mayor of London 2017). Additionally, the site itself has symbols of imperial significance. For instance, Landseer’s imperial lions decorate the square, displaying the majesty of the British Empire (Driver and Gilbert 1998). Another imperial expression is the Imperial Measures which were set into the north terrace wall in 1876; they have since then been relocated but expressed the archaic measures in comparison with feet and yards (Mayor of London 2017). Additionally, there are statues of several military leaders such as Major General Sir Henry Havelock, General Sir Charles Napier, and Admiral Horatio Nelson. The statues celebrate Britain’s military might and strength and act as a symbol of national pride (Cherry 2006). Considering Britain’s colonial history, its military capabilities are clearly a point of pride and national identity. However, there are some that believe the statues, and therefore Trafalgar Square, should lose the imperial connotations that it was originally built for due to its outdatedness (Cherry 2006). Instead, many believe that the new definition of Trafalgar Square has evolved past the original intent as an expression of imperial and colonial power.

Trafalgar Square has become a place for social expression. One aspect of this is the bookings page for Trafalgar Square. As long as the events hold to guidelines and sustainability, there is an application process to rent out the space (Mayor of London 2017). Such social expression is seen in large festivals such as Chinese New Year in January/February, St Patrick’s Day in March, Simcha in September, Eid in October, Diwali in October/November, and Christmas in December (WN Network 2017). These festivals express the varying identities of the British citizens in London. As the multifaceted identities of Brits change, the acceptance and availability of certain celebrations are larger. Additionally, there are other, hosted events such as the Passion of the Christ play which was re-enacted at Trafalgar Square during Easter Weekend. With religion being a shared community belief, the event brought together different people in a moment of community bonding. Furthermore, there are events which bring London together as a community such as the vigil held to remember victims of the Westminster Attack (Oppenheim and Goulding, 2017). The Square had a governmental representations such as the Met Police Acting Commissioner, the London Mayor, and Home Secretary; it also had street artists drawing all the flags of the world, the standard Londoner paying tribute, and educational groups showing the difference between terrorism and religious belief. People from different walks of life all came together to pay respects and express sentiments of unity, solidarity, and love in a time of fear. Much like the Westminster vigil, Trafalgar Square also had a vigil for the Paris attack. There was also the Million Masks March which was a largely peaceful protest on Bonfire Night. However, the protest fell to disorder when the agreed upon route and timetable was broken with pyrotechnic displays and thrown missiles (Merrill 2015). This event is interesting in that although it was a sanctioned event as a protest, it fell apart once violence became involved. Despite this, the main protest was intended to express whatever grievances the people had and most tried to avoid the violence (Merrill 2015).

One form of social expression that Trafalgar Square has shifted to is its popularity as a location to express discontent. Beyond being a very central location with lots of attention, Trafalgar Square and London in general, holds additional significance through its proximity to the seat of government (Haywood 2002). Due to the Square’s centrality, there was a rule passed in 1817 forbidding political demonstrations within one mile of parliament as they were “inherently seditious, inflammatory, and violent” (Haywood 2002). One such instance was a protest to repeal income tax on 6 March 1848 (Haywood 2002). However, since this protest occurred at Trafalgar Square, it was within the one mile rule from Parliament. Additionally, it was quite negatively portrayed by loyalist media. While there had been skirmishes, the media dubbed the people a “mob” and called the event a “riot” and a “disturbance” (Royal Cornwall Gazette 1848). This protest was targeted at the government and pushed for national reform. Reynolds, the new representative for these people, called for a new charter and the replacement of those currently in government; many of the ideas were modeled after the French Revolution (Haywood 2002). The aim of the “mob” was for national reform. Therefore, unlike the original expression of government, this occasion disagreed with the establishment. Taking the essential goals of the French Revolution, Reynolds and the Chartists adjusted the philosophies to work with their desires for the future of England. With the joining of French philosophy and English application, Reynolds pushed for a national change influenced by the changing nature of Britain’s surrounding international community.

However, recent protests show a growth in audience. For instance, there was a rally following the results of the Brexit vote. Crossing Trafalgar Square, people called out against initiating Article 50; there were also signs proclaiming the loss of a future, due to leaving the European Union, as well as the desire to remain (Forster and Stone 2016). While the event received positivity from some there were others who believed that since the vote was completed, democracy had prevailed and people should “move on” (Bullen 2016). The rally was calling upon Parliament to not allow the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. However, there was also a message intended towards people in the European Union as well as expats who were living in London to show solidarity against the sentiment to become isolated. Trafalgar Square acted as the forum for the discourse of those that believed the European Union to be a useless ideal and a necessary cultural identity. Yet another protest in Trafalgar Square was the recent Women’s March, an event which was coordinated around the world and occurred shortly after Trump’s election as the new President of the United States. The event itself started at the United States embassy and finished at Trafalgar Square where a series of speeches and performances occurred before people dispersed, leaving behind their signs and banners like an “anti-Trump shrine” (Fenton 2017). While the event was grassroots, some of the intent was to remind Theresa May of the United Kingdom’s commitment to equal rights, especially as she meets the new United States president (O’Carroll 2017). Others spoke of the necessity to contact or “bombard” regional representatives to ensure that they also would remember the necessity of equal rights as well as Trump’s distasteful behavior towards women and other minorities (O’Carroll 2017). This event had the intention of targeting an international audience. Similar rallies and protests occurred not only in Glasgow, Manchester, and Edinburgh but also in cities around the world such as Berlin, Geneva, Bangkok, Sydney, and Washington D.C. (BBC 2017). Trafalgar Square was an international forum for the discourse of gender equality as well as the effects of the United States Presidency and its policies in shaping its transatlantic neighbors. The protest at Trafalgar was one part in a larger international protest for what people saw to be an issue in global standards of justice.

While Trafalgar Square is the location of the protest, the growth in intended audience and participation would not be possible without the growth in forms of media. The initial spread of protest beyond the location and its neighbors was telecommunications. Through television and news, people’s awareness of issues spread beyond what they could see and hear for themselves. While the actual media could not prevent governments from acting or transition the dominant power to the common people, media created a node of communication and awareness which made government action, inaction, or support difficult to justify (Adams 1996). For instance, the passive audience of the United States made action against the People Power Movement to assist the Philippines’ President Marco difficult to justify considering his corruption and human rights violations (Adams 1996). Despite the fact that the United States media and audience only had a passing curiosity in the insurrection, the Reagan Administration had to be careful in case of further scrutiny. To put it plainly, the Reagan Administration supporting Marco by killing the nuns, women, and children of the People Power Movement would have been a much worse headline than the United States’ loss of control of the leader of the Philippines. While the increase in telecommunications does not prevent atrocities from occurring, it does allow for new opportunities and decentralized communication of issues and politics (Adams 1996). While there is obvious concerns for the political biases of the media outlet itself, the sharing of information still allows for a sense of involvement in the discourse despite the being an “outsider” (Adams 1996). Although there are still considerations of other places to be “exotic” and different, increased telecommunications created an awareness which makes atrocities and oppression more difficult to completely dismiss or ignore.

One application of the spread of telecommunications and protests is the Trafalgar Square Revolution. On the day of the Trafalgar Square Revolution, the original speaker/representative, Cochrane, did not appear after realizing that the protest would occur within a mile of Parliament. At this opportunity, Reynolds, a writer, jumped in on this opportunity to become the new leader through speeches praising the French Revolution and disparaging the English aristocratic system. The gathering grew to such spirits that there were skirmishes and window-breaking, providing the opportunity for loyalist newspapers to denounce the gathering as a crowd of “disorderly persons” who were “inciting police brutality” (Adams 1996). The actual meeting had “carnivalesque” connotations which were seized upon by hostile sources to create a satire where “boys [replaced] men” and “high jinks [replaced] heroic fortitude” (Adams 1996). Through this satire, the contested ground of Trafalgar Square with its political and symbolic power was reduced with childish insignificance in order to disarm the magnitude of the event. In addition, established media representation spoke of mobs, riots, and disturbances. While they were not quite so obvious in their undermining of the political gathering, the projection to the public of the event was nonetheless negative (Royal Cornwall Gazette 1848). In fact, the Morning Post stated that the event could only be described as a mob upon the “peaceable inhabitants of the neigh-bourhood” (Morning Post 1848). On the other hand, Reynolds, the author, used magazines or “cheap literature” to spread his radicalism (Adams 1996). Reynold’s Miscellany was a mix of entertainment, instruction, and general knowledge; it acted to spread Reynold’s fusion of social, sexual, and political revolution through its circulation (Adams 1996). The media representations of the event is clearly split between the political agenda of the Chartists, Reynolds, and the loyalists. While the political agenda of the establishment is fulfilled through the loyalist media, Reynolds does still manage to spread his ideas through his own magazine. Considering the Reynold’s Miscellany reached a circulation of around 50,000 by 1850, he was clearly heard by some part of Victorian England (Adams 1996). However, even the satire against him allowed his face and exaggerated ideals to spread and reach other people.

Another form of media which has joined broadcasting is social media. Whether through blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or other forms of social media, the online community is able to spread information past territorial boundaries and is quite capable of spreading this information extremely quickly. Social media has allowed for transnational movements which frame global issues at the standards of global justice (Carty and Onyett 2006). In this scenario, mass media and broadcasting media is both the target of and the means of protest; through them global sympathy and the creation of broad coalitions is possible (Carty and Onyett 2006). Additionally, when street protests occur, they create an “us versus them” mentality which both dramatizes and legitimizes the participant’s commitment to the issue (Carty and Onyett 2006). While simple signal boosting of issues online might be considered “slacktivism,” the actual physical protest showcases a larger commitment (Armstrong and LeFebvre 2016). Social media then connects with mainstream media for greater spread of the message as well as legitimization of the message. However, mainstream media is often hesitant to utilize social media content due to issues of normative standards such as epistemic values and news values (Ahy 2014). Since social media content creators often have their own agenda or story to spread while journalists only want the information, there is a slight power imbalance in normative assimilation. Another factor is that big stories often leads to a flood of content online, allowing for people to verify the story themselves as well as news representation (Ahy 2014). While people may self-verify, the interconnectivity of the Internet also means that major events are bombarded at the user even without their own attempts. As the user becomes more aware of an issue, the sense of community with others makes it difficult to completely ignore an issue. Furthermore, as people shift justice standards to fit a global standards, more people are aware of infringements on rights that occur even across the globe.

In an increasingly international social justice community, Trafalgar Square was the site of a protest for the rights of the half of the international community. The day after Trump’s inauguration, cities around the world held the Women’s March, a rally for women’s rights and against the Donald Trump. Due to Donald Trump’s rather inciting speeches and actions, many people around the world were concerned at the power that had just been handed over to him as the President of the United States. Some of the representation and reporting for the Women’s March was relatively positive. For instance, the Independent highlighted the anti-Trump sentiments of the rally while the Guardian focused on “equal rights” and political action to representatives in government (Fenton 2017, O’Carroll 2017). On the other hand BBC focused on how international the Women’s March was, mentioning various other cities in Oceania, Europe, and North America which were having the same rally while the Evening Standard specifically mentioned and showed tweets of signs and the slogans being chanted at the rally (Wilson 2017, Chaplain 2017). On the other hand, social media journalism, Buzzfeed, mainly had articles concerning the signs and their “cool” or memorable factor (Reinstein 2017). Each representation is interesting for various reasons. BBC’s motivation is clear considering its rather international audience. On the other hand, the Independent and Guardian were the most politically focused; interestingly the Guardian continuous said “equal rights” rather than “women’s rights” or any of the other specific issues that other articles mentioned. The Evening Standard and Buzzfeed had the most similarity to social media’s representation of the event. Bearing hashtags such as “WomensMarch,” “NastyWomen” as well as the city of the marcher, tweets of the march and its signs flooded the Internet. These media outlets showed positivity in addressing an issue which, while a global issue, was often held to separate standards in each country. Fortunately, as communication grows, each can see “how the other lives” leading to a global standard expectation as women and as human beings.

However, there was also negative representation of the march. Various right wing media outlets, such as Tomi Lahren, and social media users thought the Women’s March to be unnecessary and childish. Daily Mail started its headline with the familiar “hell hath no fury” dismissal before listing various famous people the noting the “p***yhats” that were in attendance at the march (Dean 2017). The article continued much on the same vein with an overall description of the event, more celebrities, and elaboration on the anti-Trump sentiment (Dean 2017). Many called it a tantrum by those that were upset that Trump got elected and “un-American” or “unpatriotic” to not support the President after his inauguration (Goldberg 2017). On Facebook dashes, the report of the event included derogatory comments and threats to women as well as polite dismissal of the event with claims of preferring to “not discuss politics” or finding the various representations of vaginas and uteri to be “crude.” The backlash to the event is interesting for several reasons. One of the interesting arguments against Women’s March was that it hid other “more important” issues. However, when the signs at the march are read, they clearly contain more than just feminist sentiments; there were also people marching for people of color, the LGBTQ community, and the Muslim community. Another was that men and women were already possessed equal rights and to march otherwise was looking for extra privileges. These negative perceptions and arguments also show the effect of a globalized society. As different standards are placed over what has once been, those that had lived in comfort or content no longer have the same sense of obliviousness that they once did. Additionally, as circumstances change, people often become resentful of those they feel have taken away from them, which, in current issues, would be the immigrant or refugee caricature.

Trafalgar Square was and is a node of international communication. When it was an iconic location in an imperial capital, it symbolized Great Britain’s victories and might. Through the planning of the location, Trafalgar Square, and therefore London, was set apart from other, non-imperial cities (Cornish 1921). As the public began to subvert it in protest against the government, the Square acted as a form of communication between the government and the people. As Trafalgar Square came to be redefined as a location of protest, it became a node of communication to the international community and its governments along with its own national government; it is an “interstitial location” which allows subversive connections in or around dominant institutions (Carty and Onyett 2006). As society in London and the greater United Kingdom becomes more international and national identity becomes more multifaceted, there is a rising of both negative and positive sentiments. While globalization has made the creation and acceptance of a national identity more difficult, issues of global justice when framed properly, bridge the differences between individuals, communities, and countries. This sort of involvement also lends a collective identity which is based on an overall perception of justice (Carty and Onyett 2006). Trafalgar Square is a palimpsest reflecting the changes in the world; it shows the shift from a national identity to one that is more interconnected and murky. Of course, even if there is a more multifaceted identity, each one does not necessarily detract from another identification; this is something that the newly globalized community is struggling to accept.

In certain interpretations, Trafalgar Square is evolving with the understanding of “global” that is present in society. While the global community was once understood in forms of bondage such as colonization and imperialism, globalization has created the idea of an international community. More importantly, globalization has created a sense of global justice and standards that people must live by and governments must enforce. While Trafalgar Square is an immovable physical location set in the United Kingdom, it has come to become the battlegrounds for larger ideals and goals for an international community.

Unfortunately, the idea of Trafalgar Square adopting a globalized definition as the next layer of its palimpsest does not truly take into account the backlash against globalization that has occurred. Considering the election of Trump and the Leave vote, there are clearly sentiments that do not view globalization and multifaceted national identity as a positive. However, seeing considering the movement of people and the distinctions of self-identification, I believe that Trump and the Leave vote does not completely dismiss the idea that Trafalgar Square is now an international recognized spot of protest. Additionally, although I spoke of new social movements and social media activism, most of the materials used were focused on social justice that occurred outside the United Kingdom such as racism in the United States and state censorship and oppression in Asia. Furthermore, there is biases in interpretation due to my identity as an immigrant and therefore willingness to accept an “international” identity. Also, due to my daily use of social media for both networking and signal boosting social justice issues, I have a bias to believe in the capability of the Internet to change and shape the world. These additional issues could not be discussed in this paper due to space and time constraints.


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