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PN 75: On That Day: Chris Knight

PN invited activists from around the movement to record what they were doing when Peace News turned 75.  Our birthday was on 6 June.

Arrested for Attempted Street Theatre

It was 5.30 pm on the eve of the royal wedding. “The Government of the Dead” street theatre troupe had just built a 12-foot high guillotine, topped with the banner headline “Some Cuts Are Necessary”.

We’d added an effigy of Prince Andrew with a rather long neck – easier to chop through. We’d pinned on him the knight grand cross of the royal victorian order, the bauble his mum had given him four weeks earlier. And then there were Andrew’s friends – cardboard cut-outs of a whole bunch of arms dealers, dictators and torturers on the guest list for the joyful occasion. Our banner read: “‘BAE Systems: Exporters of blood across the globe, by Royal Appointment”.

These theatrical props had been packed away in our van, but we were so ahead of time we decided to celebrate with a drink at our local pub. On returning a little later, we noticed someone loitering around: evidently a plain-clothes cop.

I was just getting my keys out ready to drive off, when 25 uniformed officers swooped on us from five vehicles. A woman police officer announced: “You are under arrest!” “Why?”, I asked. “For conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.”

Three of us – one in 18th century “executioner’s” fancy dress – were then hauled off to Lewisham police station. The whole scene was caught on film, causing hilarity when a YouTube version went viral under headlines such as “Arrested for Attempted Street Theatre” and “Defend the Guillotine Three”.

Many readers of Peace News won’t need reminding of the inside of a police cell – you’ll be familiar with the experience. My last such spell was for shouting “Scab!” on a Sky Chefs (Heathrow Airport) picket line. Twenty-five hours pass very slowly when you’re in a white tiled cell, with nothing but a ledge to sleep on and a latrine without any lid. No windows, no daylight. You’ve no idea what time it is – they take away your watch. Every half-hour they noisily flip open the little aperture and stare at you to check you haven’t hanged yourself. You’re under constant CCTV observation, including when you’re having a crap. You have to ask for everything, including toilet paper – you have to beg for that.

They interviewed me once for an hour. My solicitor instructed me to keep repeating: “No comment”. But I did make an initial statement, something like this: I’m a member of a street theatre troupe. You can argue against Punch and Judy on health and safety grounds. The characters do knock each other about a bit. But unlike you lot, we don’t actually kill people. Effigies don’t feel pain. Once everyone’s laughing, no one is likely to get hurt.

In my professional work as an anthropologist, I’m exploring the whole issue of laughter – that capacity that marks off Homo sapiens from other animals. Mass carnival laughter is a potent weapon, in the face of which no regime can survive. Here’s my scientific finding: No regime, no state, no functionary, no police force can allow itself so much as a glimmering of a sense of humour. Every single word must be taken solemnly and literally. Nothing can be playful, nothing humorous – or the entire edifice may collapse.

We all eventually emerged onto Lewisham High Street in good spirits – still trying hard not to laugh. The state’s behaviour is not comical by any means, so retaining a sense of humour isn’t easy.

On the morning of the wedding itself, the police invaded Soho Square, helped by dozens of plain-clothes thugs. They began arresting teenagers for putting on “zombie” face-paint, clearing the square of “terrorists” – in some cases girls aged six or nine.

Somehow, though, even through tears of rage, I do think it’s important to see the funny side of things wherever possible. In the case of the royal wedding, surely, the lasting memory has to be the absurdity of it all.