The ‘Left’ in Britain has been shifting in shape. The old guard remain—the unions, the various Trotskyist factions, the Labour party—but are being shaken up and sometimes displaced by a new generation with a new set of tactics. The move towards direct democracy, consensus, and intersectionality is buoyed by a militancy and an energy that crystallises in direct action. Climate Camp, UK Uncut and Occupy pushed for protests that went beyond marches and rallies, showing how a few people putting their bodies on the line could disrupt the flow of capital and disturb the peace in the name of justice. Groups like Sisters Uncut, Black Lives Matter UK, and End Deportations are borrowing tactics from white anarchist movements, but are led by young people of colour, impatient with the state, the media, and the established ways of ‘doing’ dissent.
From the outside—the interviews, the headlines, the breathless snowballing energy of social media—these actions look bold and powerful, the work of militants, uncompromising, even dogmatic, in their commitment. But behind the scenes, direct action is as fraught with fear and uncertainty as any other act. In this essay, Sita Balani explores what it might feel like to stop the traffic.
1. Be careful but go hard.
“Be careful,” D said, walking me to the door, her eyes fixed and serious. Then a smile, a flash of mischief, a kiss. She rephrased: “Be careful but go hard.”
By the next day, on the interminable tube journey, I had lost the thread of her advice, and felt my stomach lurch at the slow descent into the tunnels, the tangle of bus stops at the unfamiliar station, the nervy walk to the meeting point, eyes scanning for fellow travellers. This was a bad idea, a bad idea, a bad idea, a bad idea, a bad idea…
2. Who the fuck would have a dog that big in a flat this small?
The conversation stilted and all eyes following this animal, a sleek wolfish beast, with a puppy’s temperament, a testament to the weird whims of human dominance. Who the fuck would have a dog that big in a flat this small? Waiting for the unknown others to arrive but my mind on only my phone, screen as blank as a closed eye, stashed in the other room, off for the foreseeable. Unless I do the unthinkable and leave.
3. This is where we make the plan
Sitting in a circle in the park, I can feel one tension replace another, pure dread ebbs and into the gap flows a silty stream of anticipation. Strangers become less strange as they confess their nerves, their fears. The anxiety loosens into nervous laughter and from the laughter we re-settle into ourselves, get down to business.
A softly spoken woman with sinewy arms takes us through how the lock ons work. We test out the metal tubes, practice clicking our wrists into them so we can stay chained to each other, pinned to the tarmac. We talk about the layout of the road, the timings and routes. She reminds us that this is where we make the plan. Everything up till now is speculation, potential, a scaffold but not a building. We can change the game still. But the scaffold is built and looks sturdy to me, and to the group that is becoming a group. We tinker and twist till the pieces fit, till we can picture the building. We work together tentatively but it works.
It’s getting cold, it’s time to go. Everyone glows with power and determination in the late August sunset: the oldest of us tinged with teenage defiance, the youngest with an untapped wisdom.
We hit our stride and talk politics on the walk back, the common thread thickening through shared intent. But I’m still wary. These new bonds are fragile, they are all context, and my suspicion stays intact. Not just the obvious concern—that there’s a cop, that there’s a snitch—but that we are wrong, they are wrong, I am wrong. That I am one of them, that I am not one of them. That the world is the world is the world. That we are children being naughty. That our conviction is a tissue of lies that will be blown away by the wind. That we are fantasists and fear mongers and fanatics seeing doom and plot when there is only inevitable suffering.
But I’m in now. My phone feels further away, my hands loosening their grip, my eyes settling on the middle distance.
The latecomers trickle in and my heart lifts through my throat into a squeal—you! It’s G, a friend whose voice I hear on the daily, who sends photos of shoes she’s thinking of buying, who knows my fam, who is my fam. We marvel at the surprise—not of each other’s presence but of our silence. Everyone applauds our adherence to the security protocol and I feel newly certain, newly secure.
5. The mothers walk into the room.
The hours pass as the final stragglers come through, and the plan is restated, refined, reimagined with new clarity, those of us who saw that bare scaffold feeling more confident as we retread the bars a second, third, fourth time.
It’s getting late and it’s an early start. The mood oscillates from sleepover to new territory, depths unexplored but deliciously familiar, like a swimming pool in a dream.
A final go around, the circle re-forms and into it we pool our stories, our strengths, our gratitude. We say who brought us here, whose lives inspired us and I feel (no, I see) the mothers walk into the room, one by one, invoked by those who say their names and those who don’t. In the exhaustion and expectation, a new intimacy is born. I think: my mother would place her head in her tired hands and sigh like she was a thousand years old if she knew I was here. But still—cruel irony! sorry ma! —she walks in with the rest.
I don’t sleep and then we are on the bus, barely breathing, all together as the white-blue sky fights its way to brightness.
6. ‘We got this / we’ve got you / lie down
The cars don’t stop, won’t stop, just tires and metal and the horns are going and the banner is unfurling and the cars keep moving and we are all shouting, helpless, lost. My hands are on the bonnet and in his eyes just white fury and I can’t stop it and I lift my hands and he’s gone. And there’s more. Cars and cars and cars. I never thought they would try to drive into us. G sees it and calls it.
“We got this”
“We’ve got you!”
And I do. I lie down, lock on, and wait. A screaming wildness in my ears, then a glorious calm. We have torn a hole in the world and in the break is not the abyss. Only the quiet and the chanting, the blue skies and my aching neck, the call, the response, the response and the call. The sirens. Here we go!
7. Is there anyone in charge I can speak to?
Is there anyone in charge I can speak to? Do you have a spokesperson? Is ANYONE in charge here?
Their familiar questions, our familiar lack of leadership. Within minutes, an arrest. The banner gone, our friends threatened, the press moved out of the way. Soon screens are erected around us, to shield the drivers in their cars from our prone bodies. We are alone now and outnumbered, our voices hoarse from shouting, the adrenaline comes and goes, sloshes through me. I’m thirsty.
I feel smaller behind the screens, no longer able to see G’s boots on the traffic island, or to catch a glimpse of a familiar journalist. The officer keeps speaking to me, trying to catch a rapport. He’s calm, controlled, polite. He offers me water and I drink less than I want, for fear of filling my bladder. He thinks I am mad. The sparks fly past my nose as they cut a metal-concrete-wire tube from my arm, a device I could release myself from in seconds. I understand why the officers roll their eyes.
But there’s a guy in a Kangol hat looking down from the grass verge over the bridge, and just cracking jokes, loving it, gassed up on the spectacle, the simplicity, the barefaced cheek of hitting pause on the world. No one is in charge here. And even the most senior officer at the scene knows it.
8. no comment
The cell is as bare and institutional as you might expect, but I feel a rush of warm gratitude at the squeaky blue mattress, and fall asleep within minutes. I wake up, my head pulsing, ask for tea and ready meals, my solicitor, painkillers. Between naps, I wonder what’s happened outside. Did it make the news? I keep falling asleep, thinking ‘I never sleep in the day.’ Maybe it’s not the day anymore. I’ve always hated not knowing the time. Finally, my solicitor arrives and a square-jawed, blue-eyed cop rattles through his questions. No comment no comment no comment no comment. I’m taken back to my cell and sit with my feet on the floor, expecting to be out in minutes. An hour or more passes before they open the door. The worst hour.
9. through the door
Walking down the corridor, I wonder how I’ll find my friends without my phone. My solicitor said they were in a hotel bar? There can’t be that many hotels nearby. I’ll find them. And then I’m through the door and there’s applause! And my friends are here (my friends are here!) and D is here (D is here!) and everyone’s like, oh my fucking days, the coverage! The press, the telly, channel 4, the BBC, sky news, CNN. You lot broke the internet. And I hear it but I don’t hear it, because my heart is full of the people that came to pick us up and we all trip out into hugs, stories, laughter, cigarettes, the warm night. And then I get my phone back and see the messages and my full heart spills over.
10. If you’re on every channel, they can’t pretend you don’t exist.
The next day I catch up on the coverage. I dive deep into the other world, our collective distortion mirror. I keep spotting my mum’s jacket (I guess now she knows I borrowed it), a flash of red in every photo. When I get past the banal heart-leap of recognition, I start to understand. I can feel the contours of an argument I’ve seen in only two dimensions. The cars must stop, the horns must blare, the officer must roll his eyes. If you’re on every channel, they can’t pretend you don’t exist. Reason torn asunder, so that someone else can speak for once.
11. A game of poker with the CPS
Months have past since that August day. This time the creaking tube journey is at rush hour. I realise I only take the tube at rush hour when there’s a situation, when the world is too much, when I’m summoned by bureaucracy or navigating a crisis.
Eleven is an unruly number, someone is always running late, and decisions are hard to make. Outside the courtroom, we sit on the floor nursing coffees. The Crown Prosecution Service send down a list of charges; we confer and send back a plea: not guilty. We do this twice. Each time, we call their bluff. A game of poker with the CPS. Finally, we settle. The game is tied, a date is set for the next round. We leave fractured. I don’t stay for a drink.
On the tube with A, we eat pineapple and post-mortem the day. We barely know each other but have quickly learnt how to read each other’s faces, how to care for each other. Even if it’s not enough, I’m grateful. We hug, part ways.
Someone said this was the action continuing. I feel the weary return of my cynicism, my sense that we are bound together by an illusion, fascinated by an image that melts at the edges.
12. And our defence is?
You can have your phone on you in the dock. So we sit there, listening intently, then listlessly texting, leaning forward to hear, then sprawling back like teenagers. There’s something innately funny about authority, it is easy to mock, even from behind the glass. But it gets boring fast, and it’s the boredom that gets you. It’s a war of attrition, a slow and churning mastication. Simple ideas chewed into a pulp. I picture paper left in the rain, turning to mulch and drying in clumps like a papier-mâché octopus. If there’s beauty in a legal argument, it’s easily lost in the low din of the courtroom. It’s not like the movies. It’s a bit like watching The Bill with the sound off.
And our defence is? Well. The answer is both simple and complex. We’re right.
I know that we are—the facts are right, the argument is right, our analysis is right—right? The prosecutor plays the footage reel over and over again, a crude montage. It’s not a lie, but it’s a paltry truth. I think about the mothers, sisters, brothers on television telling the other truth, the bigger truth. A in the witness box, speaking in a way I thought you couldn’t speak in court. She lays it down like poetry. It’s as wild as lying down in traffic. We fight madness with sanity, sanity with madness. I know we aren’t wrong. That much I know.
13. Does conviction include doubt?
I push back against the boredom and try to tune in. I think about the double meaning of conviction in this courtroom. Sincere belief. Condemnation. Does conviction include doubt?
Every day we have been here has been crisp and gorgeous, all misty sunrises and days dying in pink-streaked glory. It makes doubt feel okay.
14. The fields are a frosty English watercolour
I get on the wrong train, and end up in the countryside forty minutes before the judge is giving the verdict. The fields are a frosty English watercolour, but in a watercolour I wouldn’t care, and I wish I could just look at them. I run across the platform to catch the train back to London and get to court sheepish and exhilarated.
The judge (who has a cold) splutters his way through an elaboration of his job, a recap of the evidence and—the important part—our guilt. No one is surprised or especially disappointed. We rattle through the formalities and make our way to the pub. A pint before midday. It feels like the wake of someone I always liked but didn’t know well. We unwind and then unravel from each other, make our own ways home.