Getting the message across
Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group was among those arrested for attempting a street theatre performance to coincide with the royal wedding. They were accused of 'conspiracy to cause a public nuisance' and detained for more than 24 hours. He spoke to Peter Manson
I’ve been saying all along that, despite what they claim about this being a private wedding, the fact is that it was taxpayers who paid for this party - the security costs were by far the highest component. So it was our party and we had every right to be part of the proceedings.
Not everyone in the country is a monarchist. Some of us are socialists, republicans, anarchists … but all of us should have been able to participate in this joyful occasion, in whatever ways made us feel comfortable. Personally, I only felt comfortable with a guillotine. To cut through all the royalist media propaganda we needed a striking image, something the cameras could pick up. I can’t think of anything more likely to do that than our very large guillotine, something that looks as though it might be quite efficient at doing the job.
We were going to go along as royals - to be honest, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. Why can’t we be princes and princesses and put various baubles and crowns on our heads? As an anthropologist, I admire hunter-gatherers. When some Kalahari bushmen were once asked, ‘Who is your king?’, the answer came back: ‘Well, actually, all of us.’ When everyone is king, no-one is king. I’ve always admired that logic of levelling up rather than levelling down. I’ve never felt particularly inspired by campaigns for a bourgeois republic: swapping royalist fancy dress for the fancy dress of a president’s suit and tie.
So let’s have really good fancy dress. We had the costumes and were going to be out in our finery. It was a wedding, so why not be sexy? And it was just before May Day - when in this country we used to have traditional erections, Maypoles and so on, with associated fertility rites. So some of us felt quite happy to be part of all that.
But probably the majority of us were going to be zombies. We had this idea - Dead for a Day. I had my megaphone and I was going to play around with the notion, who are the zombies? Is it all these people waving union jacks, being mesmerised by the state? Mesmerised so as not to notice the very real cruel and unusual punishment being meted out at that very moment? All the lollipop ladies and ambulance drivers among half a million public service workers being sacked? So we were going to have a zombie march, meeting in Soho Square. If we hadn’t all been arrested, with raids on squats all round London, I imagine we would have had a good showing of several hundred. It would have been a most uplifting spectacle.
We were going to guillotine one particular royal. I’m one of those people aiming to keep the whole country together. I don’t want to be divisive on such occasions, so we had a poll to find out which of the royals was the best candidate to unite the entire country in celebrating a beheading. It was obvious that the odious Andrew was the people’s choice. If you read the American tabloids, he’s apparently wanted by the FBI for his close association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. There’s a photograph of Andrew with his arm round one of the under-age prostitutes that Epstein introduced him to. Then there is his apparent advocacy of bribery on behalf of BAE Systems, as revealed by Wikileaks. We’re talking about BAE systems, weapons supplier of choice to the Saudi royals who’ve recently invaded Bahrain, whose crown prince (among those invited to the wedding) has started firing live rounds against pro-democracy demonstrators. And, of course, there is Andrew’s intimate friendship with president Aliyev of Azerbaijan and various other central Asian despots, dictators and torturers.
I happen to know that quite a number of her majesty’s prison officers, soldiers and security personnel are incandescent with rage at the queen for conferring on her favourite son the highest possible honour - the Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. She awarded this to Andrew on March 26, the very day a million of us were marching through central London. She had decided to do this back in February, one day after the tabloids splashed the latest Andrew scandal involving Jeffrey Epstein. Soldiers who had served in the Falklands or Afghanistan and who used to be monarchists felt insulted by what the Daily Mail referred to as the “tarnished medal”.
So guillotining an effigy of prince Andrew would have been a popular move. You have to start somewhere, after all. And not everyone in the land would have thought it appropriate to guillotine Wills and Kate on the very day of their wedding.
There were two things happening on that day. The first was a wedding. I’ve got no problem at all with a couple displaying their affection and commitment to each other in public. A wedding is a joyful event. But there was another thing happening. This was a regime baring its teeth, reminding us who’s in charge.
And the problem I have is with the regime. I’m not bitter and twisted or a killjoy. I was asked a few times, do I wish the couple well? My answer was always yes, the same as for any other couple getting married. But this particular couple had quite enough well-wishers already, so I’m obviously not going to go out of my way to join in. Of course, the regime was having to go all out to justify the provocative extravaganza of a royal wedding at that time - a time when supposedly we can’t even afford lollipop ladies to make sure kids don’t get run over on their way to school.
Anyway, we were going to have our wedding breakfast in Soho Square and then we were going to have a zombie procession to Eros in Piccadilly Circus, where we would have continued the street theatre with a fertility rite. Zombies do find it a bit difficult to have sex, mind you - crucial bits of their anatomy keep falling off. But you can always put them back on. After that, the plan was to make our way towards Westminster Abbey, where heads would roll. But, of course, we recognised that the police might possibly have noticed a rather large guillotine making its way towards the Abbey, so we didn’t expect to get all that far.
So the plan was to do a U-turn whenever we got stopped and make our way to the ‘official republican’ bourgeois street party in Red Lion Square, where the execution of Andrew would have been carried out.
The guillotine is absolutely magnificent. Unfortunately the whole wooden contraption was arrested and is still in custody. It is 12 foot high, with a shimmering blade and pulleys and ropes that look as though they might work. There’s a big communist red flag on the top, alongside a black-and-red anarchist flag, and arching over all that a legend reading, “Some cuts are necessary” - a quote from Ed Miliband.
Well, it was a shame we couldn’t take it to Red Lion Square. It would have been a prominent component of the festivities, triggering hilarity and celebration. But the arrest of the guillotine, and of the street theatre group, and of all those very courageous zombies, including parents with their kids (some severely intimidated for engaging in a bit of face-painting), actually meant that the message of resistance got out. It got out at least as widely, if not more so, than could have happened through any actual performance. There’s been a widespread feeling of revulsion at what amounted to a display of absolute monarchy on the day.
I’ve been asked several times, “Chris, what have you got against the monarchy?” Or “Isn’t the monarchy irrelevant?” Well, the idea that the state is irrelevant is stupid. You can’t say, ‘I’m against capitalism, but the state’s OK.’ And the monarchy is the state in Britain. People kept saying, ‘Come on, just for one day, let the whole nation come together without protests.’ But there are two answers to that. First of all, I don’t even do protest: I do street theatre. I find protest very boring. What’s the point of going round saying, ‘I protest’? Where does that get you? But secondly I think it would be very dangerous to have absolute monarchy, even for one day.
But, in the event, the monarchy did assert that it was absolute. It completely zapped any hint of dissent through those mass arrests. On our part, the idea was to explore those boundaries, to see how far we could get. We wanted to make sure there was at least some signal of resistance. Everyone else seemed to have got cold feet. For example, Freedom Press, calling themselves the ‘legitimate anarchists’, announced that anarchists don’t care about such irrelevant things as monarchy. I’ve not tracked down the appropriate bureaucracy to get myself rubber-stamped as a legitimate anarchist, but, as you know, I’m not an anarchist in any case: I’m a Marxist. More precisely, I think every anarchist should be a communist and every communist an anarchist. Anyway, it was remarkable the way these folk were almost shouting to the police, ‘Not me, guv, we’re not doing anything. We don’t even care about the monarchy. We’re not having any protests or anything like that - we’re just gonna be in the pub all day.’ I’m not sure whether that’s politics or whether it’s just people bottling out.
Very understandable, if that’s the case, but it seems to me that if we’re revolutionaries of any stripe we have to do what our comrades have been doing across the Arab world. In Britain we’re not faced at the moment by the kind of terror and violence that our comrades in Syria, for example, are experiencing, but even here we do have to take courage and cross that barrier of fear. We can’t allow the regime to successfully intimidate us.
So it seemed important to do something - preferably something enjoyable, something comical, and in a way part of the celebrations. Celebrating a nice bank holiday in the run-up to May Day in a way that republicans could feel comfortable with.
We had just completed the magnificent guillotine. We’d varnished it and attached the flags and we’d also made the comical effigy of prince Andrew, complete with long neck (easier to chop through). We had pinned onto him the Knight Grand Cross bauble his mum had given him and we had a ‘Government of the Dead’ banner and a lot of cardboard cut-out silhouettes of the various dictators the royals invited to the wedding.
All this had been packed away in our van, but we were so ahead of time that all 10 or 12 of us decided to go for a drink, including the two members of the Channel 4 camera crew who had been filming us for several days. After half an hour or so we were coming back to the van and we noticed this guy, who turned out to be a plain-clothes cop. I was just getting my keys out ready to drive off, when we were suddenly swooped on by around 25 uniformed officers in five vehicles.
A woman police officer immediately approached me and said: “You are under arrest, accused of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.” They accused Charlie Veitch in Cambridge of the same thing - he just goes round with a megaphone trying to hug coppers. And the people arrested in Soho Square - there were two or three dozen detained or generally intimidated - were taken to Belgravia police station for the same reason. It was difficult to believe that they would be willing to be made fools of in that way - it was so obviously street theatre. But Camilla Power, Patrick Macroidan, the ‘executioner’ in fancy dress, and myself were all arrested and hauled off to the royal dungeons in Lewisham. For some reason they thought Camilla needed to be handcuffed, whereas Patrick and I didn’t.
They couldn’t charge us with anything, because there was no evidence. They searched my home three times during the night and the subsequent day looking for something incriminating. They also rummaged through my car and couldn’t find anything there either.
Many of your readers probably don’t need to be told what it’s like to be in a police cell - a lot of people are quite familiar with the experience. I’ve been in one a few times, although never for quite so long. Twenty-five hours is a lot longer than it sounds to be in a white, tiled cell, with nothing in it except a ledge to sleep on and a latrine without any lid. No windows, no daylight. You have no idea what time it is - they take away your watch, your phone and so on, so it could be four in the morning or it could be midday.
Every half-hour they noisily flip open the little aperture and stare at you to make sure you haven’t hanged yourself. There’s a CCTV watching you all the time, including when you’re having a crap. You have to ask for everything, including toilet paper - you have to beg to be allowed to have a crap. If you ask for water they give you a tiny little bit. As for the food, it’s inedible.
I don’t want to make too much of an issue out of it. But it does remind you of the fact that so many people - in the Arab world in particular, but everywhere, I suppose - are kept in worse conditions: for months, years, decades … It’s enough to drive you round the bend. But we were in good spirits. I was thinking all the time that it’s almost a gift that they’ve chosen to do this. It’s such a sign of weakness that the regime can’t even allow the threat posed by a bit of street theatre. It doesn’t make them look good.
They interviewed me once for about an hour during the time I was held. But my solicitor stomped on my temptation to give as good as I got. He instructed me absolutely categorically just to say, ‘No comment’. As soon as you say anything at all, you inevitably admit to elements of the police story. He said, “Why not make them work?” I did say one thing at the beginning: “I am a member of a street theatre group, the Government of the Dead. As with Punch and Judy, you can argue against it on health and safety grounds, since it’s a bit violent. But that’s the point: you need a sense of humour.”
From then on, every time they asked questions like, “How can you say it’s non-violent to execute prince Andrew with a guillotine?” I would just say, “I refer you to my initial statement about street theatre. Otherwise no comment.” They asked, “How could you have possibly called upon students to hang Nick Clegg?” So once again I replied, “It’s street theatre and you do need to have a sense of humour. Otherwise no comment.”
But it’s so interesting that no regime, no state, no functionary, no police officer can possibly have a sense of humour. It’s the one thing they can’t allow. As an anthropologist I’m very interested in the whole issue of laughter - one of the most important things that distinguishes Homo sapiens from all other animals. Laughter is a potent weapon, in the face of which no regime can survive. Every single word for the regime has to be taken solemnly and literally. Nothing can be playful, nothing humorous.
Now and again during the interview they would say, “Come on, Chris, we know your solicitor’s advised you to say ‘No comment’, but this is your opportunity to tell the world. It’s all being recorded! Who are you? What’s the Government of the Dead about? What’s your message?” I just said, “Sorry, but I’ve every confidence in the professional competence of my solicitor and the answer is … ‘No comment’.” They said, “It’s not going to look good to a jury. It looks like you’ve got something to hide.” It was difficult not to rise to the bait - I felt they were making complete fools of themselves - and they were doing their utmost to get a bit more out of me. But every time I hinted that I might say something, my solicitor quickly made his views clear.
At one point they said, “What have you got against authority?” I found it very difficult not to say, ‘Well, I do have some problems with what you call “the authorities”, but as for the authority of a proletarian revolution across planet Earth, I’d have absolutely no problem with that putting you lot in your place!’
Camilla and Patrick got the same sort of treatment, and they gave as good as they got, of course. But we had all agreed to abide by the solicitor’s advice and say, ‘No comment’. Camilla was interviewed by Channel 4 as she came out and was absolutely brilliant. Her description of being thrown into a right royal dungeon provided a mirror image of the glorious nuptials of the lovely pair. Like all of us she came out in very good spirits - and trying hard not to laugh.
At the same time I feel humbled by the courage of the teenagers and in some cases even children, who came to Soho Square with their face paint and found themselves threatened or arrested. Very unpleasant. So, while there is an element of laughter, there is also an element of deep outrage.
In the end, they couldn’t lay charges. I’ve got to return to Lewisham police station, as have the other two, on June 10. In the meantime, absolutely savage bail conditions have been imposed. I’m not allowed to attend any march, demonstration or rally for that six-week period. The bail notification I was given was signed by a counter-terrorism officer - in their book, I’m a terrorist apparently. I’m told by my solicitor that the bail conditions can’t possibly hold - there’s no way that’s compatible with European human rights legislation. The police asked me, have I understood this? I said, “Well, I do hear what you’re saying, but it’s totally unacceptable. You can’t possibly stop me attending rallies and demonstrations.” But that’s what they’re saying.
After six weeks we will then see if they’re going to press charges. If there’s a trial, it will probably be later in the year. If they managed to find a jury that would convict, it would involve a severe sentence. You can get a lengthy prison term for conspiracy. I don’t especially want that, obviously, but I would have thought we could win any court case. The temptation would be to do a Leon Trotsky - “I stand here not as the accused, but as the accuser”. But I don’t think they would be so stupid.
Ritual and dissent
One important point. All this demonstrates the centrality of ritual. We have a state and, as Engels points out, the state consists of armed bodies of men. But, if they were just armed bodies of men, they would have to do what Assad is doing in Syria: use live rounds and fire shells into people’s houses. It does help the state if it can use ‘magic’ - if it can mesmerise people with pageantry.
But, when there is pageantry, like a royal wedding, there’s no way the state can tolerate so much as a hint of dissent or pluralism. The smallest element of choice as to which ritual performance the populace might follow would mean the whole thing might unravel. So I can see why absolute monarchy appeared necessary on the day. They couldn’t allow a republican, humorous, engaging, infectious parade counterposed to the fancy dress of the royals in case anyone thought our ceremony was a lot more sexy and enjoyable than theirs. Ritual pageantry - state ritual - is by nature utterly intolerant of opposition. I understand that a regimental black horse acted like an anarchist on April 29 - it reared up and cantered off along Whitehall. It’s always embarrassing to a regime when something thing like that happens. And that was just an animal! So what if humans had successfully staged an alternative to the pageantry and ritual?
I think they are much more frightened of street theatre than they are of the odd window being smashed. Obviously if as part of a revolution you smashed doors or windows to get into an important building in large numbers, that would be very significant. But, in terms of symbolic acts, I always think the state and the media love anything that will enable them to depict republicans, socialists, communists or anarchists as violent thugs. But humour and music and fancy dress is something else. If they’re scared of those kind of things, there must be a reason and it seems to me we should do more of it.
Though I wasn’t banking on it, I did think there was a chance the regime might be a bit more intelligent. While clamping down on, say, anarchists attacking a bank, why not allow professor Knight and his street theatre troupe to stage their clowning performance, just to make it look like the authorities are really quite tolerant? Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt too comfortable with that! In the event, in every interview I expressed solidarity with whatever anarchists wanted to do and it’s quite clear we chose the right motifs, symbols and effigies. There was no way they could afford to let our message come across on that day.
Especially the “Some cuts are necessary” message. Every time when I was interviewed and asked, “What’s your message?” I would say, “Well, we need a crackdown on crime in high places - financial crime, war crime, eco-crime. Some of the royals are involved in it and, if you want to crack down on crime, start at the top. And, if you want cuts, you can start there as well.” That’s a subversive, powerful message - and it’s got out. As far as the results of this clampdown are concerned, there has been a fantastic sense of everyone coming together.
On the left there are so many faction fights and mutual suspicion, but this really has unified us massively. Those who had been complaining so loudly about the street theatre side of things have certainly gone very quiet. If you ask the most prominent ‘legitimate’, so-called ‘authorised’ anarchists about some of the ‘official statements’ they were publishing in denunciation of us not so long ago - well, each and every one now denies any knowledge or responsibility. So who really did write those statements remains something of a mystery. Does anyone want to own up?
Exploit the media
A major debate within anarchist/direct action circles is ‘Do you talk to the media?’ One line is you never do. You mask up and when you’re asked a question you don’t say anything.
I’ve been on the television quite a lot since March 26, when we had our big Trojan horse, and local people in the pub have said to me, “Chris, nobody else explained like you did why you lot were attacking those banks.” I had said on television that the banks are criminal outfits. We bail them out, they belong to us and yet the bankers are still occupying the buildings that don’t belong to them and they’re stuffing their pockets with bonuses. People appreciated my explanation of the logic behind cosmetically redecorating some of those banks on March 26.
To me it’s a no-brainer. Imagine the revolutionaries in Cairo saying, ‘We’re not going to talk to Al Jazeera.’ Of course you have to engage with the media. Of course you have to take advantage of the fact that many journalists belong to trade unions, are on our side and in many cases are revolutionaries. Obviously you have to be aware of the dangers. I take for granted that the tabloids can’t publish anything we say without reminding their readers that we’re ‘evil, anarchist thugs’. But the idea that you therefore retreat into your bunker and go speechless - I just don’t understand it.
What I’m saying is, as a result of March 26 and the magnificent Trojan Horse, combined, of course, with the UK Uncut stuff and Black Bloc stuff (and I’ve got no problem with people smashing a window if it makes the point) and the street theatre, I think we’re winning the argument. We do speak in a language that the media can relate to. We try to exploit contradictions in the bourgeois media in order to get our message out to the masses. If you don’t do that, you’re just talking to your own little ghetto bubble or Facebook group. Too many anarchists, socialists and communists these days just spend the whole time looking at a computer screen, living in virtual reality. It’s so important to get your message out to the wider working class. I think we’ve been increasingly successful in that, and this is just the start. An example is the links and contacts we’ve very recently made with comrades in the media that I’d describe as revolutionaries.
And the timing has been important. This wedding could be the last moment when the regime will have anything to celebrate. With the reality of the cuts, the coalition divisions, the euro-zone crisis, the faltering economy, the whole population is going to come down with a cruel bump - if they haven’t done so already.
There are going to be huge demonstrations in a few months time, as far as I can work out. There will be big strikes in the late summer and autumn, possibly approaching a general strike - massive industrial, social and political unrest.
I think these relatively minor performances by the Government of the Dead have helped set the stage for those events. They have helped equip us in getting our message across in a sexy, powerful, attractive, simple way - as opposed to long, boring, theoretical tracts. Long columns of text are all right if you happen to be in one Marxist faction or another, but the working class aren’t too bothered with all that stuff. They want a voice they can hear and recognise as their own - one that’s saying things loud, clear and simple about how to fight the regime, how to fight the system and how to win.