It’s that time of the year again! See account from last year
Every now and again, a protest happens that functions on many levels, turns the city into a party and has a potent, temporary effect on the city. This happened on Saturday when between 600-700 people took off their clothes to ride naked through central London to say no to oil dependency, to encourage people to get on their bikes, providing their own means of transport in a car-clogged culture.
It just so happened that it was the day of England’s first game in the world cup.But why decide to do this bike ride naked? Why expose one’s own body to laughter, ridicule, and unwanted attention. Surely these people don’t think that the freedom to be without clothes is as important as the freedom to earn a decent living without exploitation, to live free of violence, trauma and environmental disaster. Before today I had thought the link between pollution, the world’s petroleum power struggles and the naked human body tangential, even haphazardly conceived, but after the flesh feast of today I doubt if there is a more potent symbol of human fragility than the naked body.
It is the site of the differences of gender, race, sexuality and physical ability.
The forced removal of clothes involves violence and torture.
The voluntary removal of clothes is an empowered act and makes us smile.
The covering and ‘discovering’ of the body is such a fundamental part of our daily working, leisure and sex lives. Yet the naked body is considered so inalienably other to ‘modern’ life; which let’s say for argument’s sake began with the expeditions of Columbus and Vasco da Gama. What if, as anarchist anthropologist David Graeber argues, that the people who these travellers ‘discovered’ on their expeditions were just us? Or certainly, just as much ‘us’ as Columbus and da Gama ever were? What illusions has the West been constructing – scrupled on the conception of some random sense of superiority over other people and other lands – ever since?
But why protest naked? Cycling through central London naked is obviously exciting and liberating for the protestor through that beautiful mixture of weirdness and normality which makes one suspect that the act isn’t actually so difficult after all. But this protest works on another level. It was immensely popular amongst the shoppers, tourists and football watchers. We were irresistibly cheered, applauded, and endlessly photographed. A woman in a wheelchair on waterloo bridge clapped us by, enraptured, repeating ‘This is so good. This is so good. On the other end of the bridge, three football-kit clad men raised their arms into the air and dropped their shorts and pants to the ground in a riotous salute; an old lady shielded her eyes as the ride halted to let her cross a pedestrian crossing on Westminster Bridge, and everywhere mouths dropped open or sprung into beaming smiles.
There was embarrassment, ridicule and alienated attempts to humiliate of course, the coincidence of England’s first game in the world cup finishing as we were starting meant the regimented, leering, drunken masculine found it difficult to cope with the penises and testicles that were on the street. One guy who was holding a large golf-sale style advertisement for a South American restaurant didn’t think twice. He abandoned his advert and tried to grab the breast of a rider in front of me, a rider whose beautiful bum I happily cycled behind for most of the ride. But these people were in the minority. The majority sang and cheered. One football fan hollered ‘Good on ya’ with such an aggressive intensity that it seemed beyond doubt that the bikers were articulating something that the shopping, working, football-worshipping, oil-dependent, profit-subservient Londoners were loving and needing. Most fans couldn’t believe their luck that such a parade was cycling past them to extend their victory celebrations. In fact, this seemed to be something real to celebrate, something physical, palpable, unmediated, something that struck at the heart of the illusions which sustain the lifestyle of the majority, and this something was joyous; much more joyous than a dreary one nil victory over Paraguay, from an own goal to boot.
And this mixture of football and protest made me think of how when Argentina won the World Cup in 1978, the people took to the streets, celebrating their win and reclaiming the national sport for the people’s enjoyment from the sinister and bloody machinations of the military dictatorship. When football manages to free itself from the clutches of power … government, media, idolatry, gender division, propaganda for a reductionist masculinity, it can become part of the party towards a more equal world.
To create the world we want to live in, there needs to be a massive shift in the daily priorities of a huge number of people. For this, we need actions that gobsmack and delight people, seducing them into pleasure of a living that strives to refuse the enslavement of themselves and others.
And did I go naked or not? Well, if you weren’t there, you’ll never know.