100 years ago today was Peace Day, a national holiday called to mark the end of the First World War. It didn’t end peacefully here in Luton. The town had been simmering with resentment over food prices and shortages, and the lack of care for returning soldiers. Things came to a head when the mayor announced a lavish banquet at the town hall. It was free to the town councillors, but servicemen had to pay and women weren’t allowed at all.
There was a peace parade, followed by a speech from the mayor on the steps of the town hall. There was booing and interruptions. Then the crowd rushed at the mayor, he hid inside the building, and a riot broke out. By the end of the evening, shops had been looted, dozens of people had been injured and the town hall was burned to the ground.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Peace Day riot, and it is being celebrated by a whole programme of arts events called People Power Passion. ‘Celebrate‘ is the word being used, not ‘mark’, ‘remember’ or ‘commemorate’. The council, who were the villains of the story in 1919, are leading the event, and “the themes of protest, people power and Luton’s strong history of standing up for their beliefs will be explored through music, dance and projections in a spectacular show.”
This is a case study in how civil disobedience is perceived over time. Today we can celebrate the riot as a just act, as people power standing up to self-serving elites. But at the time it was thuggery.
Isn’t it always like this? We venerate Martin Luther King now, but some of his most famous words were written from jail. There’s a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst outside Parliament today, but in her own time she was a pariah.
Civil disobedience is proved right with hindsight. As the beneficiaries of the change those activists fought for, we see the truth of their cause and therefore the legitimacy of their methods. But it was not black and white at the time. They were opposed, and plenty of people sympathised but equivocated.
That’s exactly where we are with climate change today. I believe it’s the defining justice issue of our day, and that Extinction Rebellion are responding appropriately to an urgent moment in time. As the headlines this week have shown, there is a strong push-back from the powers that me. There are attempts to discredit. People lose faith in it. Even those who support the movement begin to wonder if it would be better not to cause controversy, and try to change things in more conventional ways.
History will be the judge of that. As for me, I’m joining a small group of local Extinction Rebellion folks this afternoon and we’re heading down to the town hall. We promise not to burn anything.
UPDATE: XR Luton turned out to march down the high street, asking the council for a declaration of climate emergency. Also a detour into Barclays to tell them to stop funding fossil fuels.