A Monument of protest

Why we're lucky to have Grey's Monument in a time of threatened democracy

Jon Deery
8th March 2022
Kill the Bill demonstrators at Grey's Monument. Image: Harry Falshaw
Protest is at risk. Though the House of Lords may have rejected the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, this government (particularly the Home Secretary) is still determined to criminalise peaceful demonstration. Without the active ‘Kill the Bill’ campaigning of hundreds of thousands across the UK, the Bill would have been passed and peaceful protests would be illegal right now. In this precarious time, I have developed a deep gratitude for Grey’s Monument.

It’s appropriate that the majority of recent pro-democracy protests in Newcastle have taken place at a statue of Charles Grey. A prime minister who oversaw the abolition of slavery in the UK and passed the Great Reform Act of 1832, which pushed the country further towards its modern system of Parliamentary democracy, Grey’s effigy elevates any demonstration’s demands for further democracy by situating them in the context of his history.

Myself (left) and others at the recent Kill the Bill and cost of living crisis demonstration, in front of Grey's Monument. Image: Harry Falshaw

We are rightfully reckoning with the legacies of those whose statues stand in our public spaces. We should take pride that, in a country whose monuments usually celebrate the owners of slaves, above our city stands an abolitionist.

Grey’s Monument has hosted so many demonstrations because Monument itself is a prime platform for protest. Centrally placed to reach a large audience of passers-by from all parts of the city, if a demonstration gathers momentum, there is open space and wide streets around the Monument expansive enough to support hundreds - and hundreds do indeed sometimes show. It is a platform, raised just enough to lift speakers above the crowd so that oratory can have its rightful place in a demonstration, but it’s only a platform two steps high - speakers are still very much immersed in the mass.

An activist from North East Against Racism on the steps of Monument. Image: Harry Falshaw

And that is what it is to protest: to stand at Monument shouting slogans and shaking signs is to be part of something. Not simply ‘something greater than yourself’, as is often said, but something that makes you greater by your choosing to join it. There is an individuality even in slogan-chanting. Some are louder than others, some prefer to start the slogans (“whose streets?!”), and others to finish them (“our streets!”); some emphasise “OUR streets” and others “our STREETS” - but all agree that these streets are most certainly ours. Walk through the city centre and, on the right day, you’ll pass a collective of distinct individuals, assembled in defiance of those who would make assembly illegal, loudly and proudly proclaiming these streets our streets, and this Monument our Monument.

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