New Internationalist

Cop this barrel of laughs

March 2013

Modern surreal police tactics make writing comedy about protests an easy job for Chris Coltrane.

I am an activist and a stand-up comedian. This is an incredibly easy job, for which I deserve no respect or admiration. What could be easier than explaining the sheer absurdity of protests, especially with modern-day police tactics.

One of my most surreal moments involved standing outside clothes retailer Top Shop on Oxford Street in London, giving out leaflets at a UK Uncut protest. I love leafleting, engaging passers-by and explaining why we’re there. Most activists prefer to get stuck in and occupy the shop, because that’s where the excitement is. But, to be honest, I find that, as I get older, I’m less and less inclined to be arrested. Direct action is a young person’s game.

On this occasion, a police officer stopped me from flyering, advised me that I was ‘obstructing the highway’, and insisted that I had to ‘keep moving’. Isn’t it interesting how you’re an obstruction if you’re giving out leaflets explaining how tax dodgers are the reason we can’t afford schools and hospitals, but if you’re giving out leaflets advertising a two-for-one deal on pizzas then you’re just part of the scenery? It’s almost as if the police are making the rules up as they go along. Almost.

The police officer didn’t say I had to stop flyering. He just wanted me to keep moving. So, to push my luck, I started walking briskly around in a one-metre-diameter circle. I was clearly now more of an obstruction, since I was actively bumping into people. ‘This’ll annoy him,’ I thought to myself, secretly proud of the nuisance I was causing. ‘I'll probably get arrested, or thrown onto the floor. Imagine the press photos! I’ll be a hero for a day! He’s sure to do something.’

The police officer saw me moving, nodded, thanked me – and walked away.

And so it was that, at 2pm on a drizzly Saturday, a police officer called my bluff, and I found myself walking in circles on the spot for an hour, as people took my leaflets and thought I was an absolute moron. They were right, though for all the wrong reasons.

I do sometimes wonder whether London’s Metropolitan Police have a new surrealist division, charged with defusing and resolving protest by trying to out-weird the protesters. I fully imagine that one day we will try to chain ourselves to a door, only for the police to turn up dressed as pirates, telling us that we can stay chained up, but only if we can turn the protest into an amateur production of Les Misérables so that tourists can enjoy it, too.

Every protest has some streak of absurdity. I could tell you about the time when, in the subtlest display of intelligence gathering I’ve ever seen, a police officer casually asked my friend Kat, ‘So, where are you all off to next, then?’ (To which the only sensible answer is: ‘Oh, probably somewhere we can do a few crimes, officer.’) I could tell you about the time the police arrested a load of people dressed as Santa in Brighton or, my personal favourite, the time the police said 70 officers were injured at a climate camp protest at Kingsnorth power station, only for a Freedom of Information request to reveal that the injuries included ‘officer injured sitting in car’, ‘officer succumbed to sun and heat’, and ‘officer stung on finger by possible wasp’.

I love politics, I love protesting, and I love forcing rich and powerful people to acknowledge that there are people willing to fight their corruption and violence. But, more than anything, I love absurdity. And modern activism has it in spades. Come to live comedy, and come to my gigs. But for the true hilarity, go to a protest, stand by a police officer, and simply wait. You will be richly rewarded.

Chris Coltrane is a stand-up comedian and anti-austerity activist. Follow him on Twitter: @chris_coltrane. His show ‘Activism Is Fun’ is a free download at chriscoltrane.com

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 460 This column was published in the March 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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