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  • Emma Palmer

Marching on

Updated: Mar 23

It’s been a while since I’ve marched, certainly since before the Covid-19 pandemic. Saturday’s march was less march, more ritual - a funeral procession. The dead slow drumbeat put me in touch with each footstep, giving space to remember and send love to the 32,000 folk – and rising - killed in Gaza since the autumn, walking alongside families fearing for their beloveds there.


We passed the Castle Park memorial for civilians killed in Bristol in World War Two, the memorial itself sited on one of the most bombed areas of Bristol. I stopped, as I always do when I’m passing by, touching the name of my great grandfather, William Henry Garbutt (the alphabetically ordered, printed names always strike me as so neat and un-war-like). ‘Dada’, as he was affectionately known by his children, was strolling with my great grandmother Lottie on 25 September 1940. Their stroll coincided with the first daytime air raid here in Bristol and Dada was killed by one of the Luftwaffe’s stray bullets. 84 years later and the world hasn’t ceased firing.


We continued on, approaching the bandstand and – hello - I felt a familiar fear, forgetting what an embodying thing protesting, commemorating, can be. The familiar fear with so many facets: the fear of being seen, the fear of standing with others, the fear of standing for #ceasefirenow. The fear of putting my body near other bodies. The familiar shyness which crops up. Shy, shy, shy away - I just about didn’t. All those fears better to feel than the fear of regret and not showing up.


Standing with others, that’s what Grampie Cyril was doing. A peaceful soul, by all accounts, as a 10 year old he had already lost his Uncle Alf, shot dead on the last day of World War 1. Further enraged by the death of his Dad-in-law - the afore-mentioned ‘Dada’ - Cyril left his ‘safe’ occupation to be hunched up in the tail end of a Lancaster Bomber, firing furiously. Months later he, too, was dead, crashing to the ground on the serenely moonlit banks of the Oslo Fjord. The futility of it all. And yet, easy to say, maybe, given I haven’t left my ‘safe job’ and have had the luxury of never having to know how or whether I would fight, a humbling thought, given that a peaceful funeral procession causes me to stir.


My stirred body shifted from fear to appreciation, arriving at the heart of the gathering and sensing the care and recognising the beating of other fallible human hearts. Some shy, too, some confidently defiant, most quite quiet and reflective - today at least. There’s a call out for a few folks to carry the ‘dead baby bundles’ and the baby coffins at the front of the march. There’s a striking momentary silence. It contrasts with a familiar, confused cacophony thumping through my head. ‘Why are we still killing babies?’ I’m 7 again and asking grown ups questions for which they have no good answers. “War is complex”, blah, “it’s not as simple as that”, blah. Wait, enough - why are we still killing babies?


It's not just the babies. 3,000 names have been written on long scrolls of paper which also head up today’s funeral procession – less than a tenth of the actual casualties.


We start to move, this mix of humans, serenaded by early spring birdsong, forming a temporary community of processing and occasionally pausing bodies. It feels like a small miracle today, the simple companionship of walking together with strangers. Just that, walking together. Being a body in solidarity in amongst other bodies in solidarity. Few words, some smiles, some tears, the wagging of dog’s tails and kids careering with flags.


Our bodies leave the green, stopping the traffic and hello fear again, as drivers rev their engines impatiently – some tooting their car horns in support, too. The solidarity swings back in, with the steady drum beat and the one foot in front of the other.


Then there’s the onlookers and the myriad of reactions.


The open hostility of the folk who call us names - not to be repeated here, cos they insult folk who have already been far too insulted for no good reason. And obviously, anyone marching anywhere about anything are sure to be extremists. Lock ‘em up, bang ‘em up, throw away the key #killthebill.


Then there are the looks of disgruntled disgust simply cos we’re in the way: the well-dressed lass with a very urgent appointment with a cappuccino in Harvey Nic’s. Or the couple on the way to Cabot’s Circus – tut tut tut. Our very existence ruins their day. This is, after all, a busy shopping centre. And it’s a Saturday, for God’s sake. Don’t we realise that money needs to be changing hands – or, swifter still, cards tapped on card readers. It’s the day when shops break even, chop chop, can’t slow down the capitalist project for a few dead people in a faraway land (“it’s all so complex”, “it’s been going on for years anyway”, “it’s none of our business”). Must keep consuming, no pausing for thought, no slow drumbeat, else folk might pause for thought and take to the streets….


There are the onlookers with looks of disbelief, transfixed, staring, glued to the spot. Perhaps these folks saw the tiny coffins and ‘dead baby bundles’. Perhaps the newspaper statistics suddenly turned into human casualties. Perhaps the human casualties in their mind’s eye turned into humans: arms, legs, beating hearts, just like us and all our loved ones.


Then a few more revving cars and suddenly not much between them and us. Seeing the anxious side glances of a teenage girl to my right, my body steels up. I come over all auntie and protective. I walk slower, stand taller and am not shy at all.


Other onlookers smile, wave - better still, step in and join the end of the procession, its tail growing.  


The march ends. The relief of warm tea – it’s begun to rain. The breathing out of the shy and the longing to be invisible parts. It’s over, ‘til next time. My heart is warmed by the connection. My mind is slightly blown by how a fair few hundred strangers come together, form a funeral procession, then disperse. Then the heavy, sombre poignancy and powerlessness in how little there is to do, with these 32,000 folk in mind. Keep on keeping on, anyway: writing to MPs, lobbying, donating, praying, healing.


Then I remember a lass with whom I’m studying at the moment. I remember her eruption of tears this week, as she shared how unsafe it is, where she lives, to even share her point of view. And here I am, free to march, free to process (for now), free to write this. Suddenly this tiny act of showing up is an act of freedom and is worth doing, regardless of the outcome.


Keep showing up, friends. Keep on keeping on in whatever way. May we cease firing and may there be peace on earth. May it start here and may it start now. May it start with each of us and a peacefulness in how we relate to one another and all the myriad of other than and more than human life in this stunningly precious blue-green planet.

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