My friend, Hannah Eisman-Renyard, was arrested on Friday. Exactly what she was arrested for is an important question. Her account of the arrest, includes interviews, footage and photos from the scene. You’ll notice a few things. She was dressed as a zombie. She arrived at the flashmob site, but there were only a few other zombies and dozens of press. Nothing much happened, Hannah left to have coffee nearby with new zombie friends. Later, plain-clothes police offices hauled off a protester without warning, things in the park got heated. The police found Hannah and friends drinking coffee in a nearby starbucks, they were stop & searched, detained against their will, then arrested.
What seems to be true, and is deeply scary, is that they were arrested for behaving in a way that was not officially sanctioned. That’s very different from breaking the law. I believe (please correct me if I’m wrong) that in British law everything is assumed to be permitted unless it breaks the law, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. So you can go outside wearing anything, so long as you’re not breaking nudity laws. In the past here, and some other countries right now (Bhutan!), the law demands you wear a certain type of clothes depending on your age/status/gender/etc.
But the zombies weren’t dangerous, offensive, obstructive, rude, messy, cruel, or even particularly political. They did something that wasn’t in the book of allowed things. They expressed their identity and ideas differently. They laughed at the establishment. They did so in public.
I volunteered in Uganda for a month once, (yeah, yeah, couldn’t afford a whole gap year) and will never forget seeing the charity’s staff -cultured, fun, city-born people, who we got to know well look out of the window before making political jokes.There was (and still is) a horrific civil war going on in northern Uganda. Museveni has been president for 25 years, and is generally perceived as a benevolent but absolute dictator. Satirical jokes can get you sent to jail.
If you can’t laugh at the authorities, or play around with ideas, it is harder to imagine other ways of being. Playing is a way of trying things out, exploring how the world works. Laughing can be a reaction to shared subconscious knowledge brought to light by a well structured sentence. By pointing out flaws, discrepancies and problems, satirical jokes ask why things have to be the way they are. The wedding could have been a great opportunity for the country to think about what living in Britain means to them. We could have celebrated our variety- sure some aristocrats are getting married, but that’s not really the point: over here some people are celebrating their neighbours and community, some are celebrating in geeky costumes, some are celebrating picnics with friends, some have causes they believe in and want to draw attention to them.
But they didn’t want that multitudinous picture. Everything had to be red, white, and blue. We’re all in it together, synchronised flag-waving on the officially sanctioned beat. There’s no place for difference or disagreement – even friendly, cooperative, disagreement.
Which is why jokes are dangerous. Which I think is why my friend got held in a cell for being silly. This isn’t ok.