I’ve passed through London’s Piccadilly Circus a dozen or so times over the last couple of years, but unlike many other of our capital’s tourist attractions, every time it was without any thought whatsoever for its history or why it’s so well known.
To be honest, I still don’t know why, nor do I have any desire to find out, just why Piccadilly Circus is such a well-known landmark. I suspect it is so because of shopping and capitalism, since almost every person walking past is holding a paper bag of overpriced goodies bought at some designer store or another, while massive if not gigantic screens above flash the latest advertisements for whatever product Coco Chanel is attempting to con you out of a hundred quid this Christmas.
The only reason it was on my radar before was because as a younger man Piccadilly always served me well as part of the “Yellow” block in the board game ‘Monopoly’, a game where the winner is the one who has made everyone else penniless.
So maybe my gut instinct is right?
You may have guessed by now that I think, well, that it’s a bit shit really, is Piccadilly Circus. Kind of like a poor man’s version of Time Square. Underwhelming. Not worth much thought whatsoever. A fake version of the real thing. It’s what I imagine Mark Wright from TOWIE would look like if he were a place.
That was until last Saturday, 12th December, 2020.
From that date on, London’s Piccadilly Circus will have a special place in my heart. It’s the place that reaffirmed my faith in a great group of people, a group of people I happen to belong to:
I had joined some friends in their weekly vigil at Piccadilly Circus as they sang, chanted slogans and talked to any passers-by who looked interested in the arrangement of placards and candles which spelled out messages of support for Julian Assange, former editor-in-chief of Wikileaks.
For over a year this small group of a dozen-plus people had gathered in the same spot almost every week, chanting the same slogans and songs, and talking to as many people as possible about the plight of a man who they say is incarcerated within our most secure correctional facility, along with violent criminals and the most infamous terrorists, while accused of no crime in this country.
Perish the thought? Nope. Perish the reality. They happen to be correct. Something a young teenager sporting braces and a really smart blue zip-up sports top can’t get his head around.
“It’s mad, innit!?” he declared, puzzled look on his face, like he’d just had gravity explained to him for the very first time.
“Does it make you feel proud to be British?”, I asked, aware that this is London during a lull in Covid-induced lockdown and the flags were indeed, out, in every shop window and on every screen.
He took a second, before stepping back and looking even more quizzically at me. “Nah, man!”
He hung around for a good few minutes did that young guy with braces. Every now and then I’d look over and watch him as he read a sentence from the flyer he was given then looked up, shaking his head in amazement. He couldn’t quite get his noggin around the concept that we, the ‘Greatest’ of nations, Great Britain, might just be the bad guys.
He wasn’t the only young person flummoxed by the information they received that evening. A group of young guys knew who Julian was, but weren’t sure why they knew him. This was a common occurrence throughout the night. As was their absolute horror when they were informed he was currently being held in Belmarsh prison.
Londoners may not know much about the Ecuadorian embassy, Wikileaks, the Iraq and Afghanistan logs or collateral murder, but they know all about Belmarsh prison. It’s the worst of places. A hell hole. It’s where we keep the terrorists and murderers. Not journalists. Every Londoner that listened to me talk was horrified to hear where he was being kept.
“What do you know about Julian Assange?” was usually my first question when talking to passers-by. “I’m learning about it!”, declared a tree-trunk of a man with tattoos. After some back-and-forth lasting about 30 seconds, he nailed the crux of the reason we were there.
“It’s free speech ‘aint it?”
Yes it is, my tattooed friend, yes it is. But so much more than that.
After explaining to another group that a judge is scheduled to rule on whether Julian is extradited to America for publishing material that proved the US had committed war crimes on a widespread basis, one particularly wonderful mum of at least 3 dressed from head to toe in pink asked, “Can we superglue ourselves to the plane to stop it?”
Although the three teenagers accompanying her laughed, I got the distinct impression she was serious. And this is the over-arching feeling I got from almost every person I spoke to last Saturday.
I don’t know whether their temporary relief from lockdown had the people of London in some sort of doe-like trance that evening, captivated by anything bright such has been their isolation this year, or whether I just never had the confidence to talk to them, but I went away with the distinct impression that the British people will not stand for a journalist even being tried for publishing factual information, let alone punished for it.
The trouble is, nobody is telling them about it. The British public understand what is right and what is wrong – they just need to be made aware of it.
The simple reason that so many are uninformed or worse, misinformed, on what many people believe to be the greatest threat to press freedom ever, is our media has done such a bloody awful job of informing them. Hardly anybody we spoke to knew there was any trial at all, such has been their silence.
One person we spoke to, who had half a dozen or so teenagers leaning in digesting every word we said, was part of what he called, “the foster system.” He understood totally just how badly our media have failed us, explaining to us that when new foster kids are put in the system they are asked word association questions to gauge how they think.
“When kids are asked what they think of when they hear the word ‘Muslim’, it’s highly likely their answers are ‘bombing’, or ‘terrorist'”, he said. “It’s heartbreaking. We have got to do better than this. We have to educate our people better.”
Everybody nodded in agreement, before he asked the question we were asked multiple times that evening: “What can we do to help?”
If you’re thinking the same, it’s real easy to help. Our media are silent, so talk to people! Talk to your mum, your teacher, your neighbour. Tell them about this travesty of justice. Explain to them the importance of a free press and a robust 4th estate. Explain to them that if we do not have a shared consensus of what the truth is, democracy is impossible, which is why we have to fight for a reformed, responsible media.
It is no wonder our media have been so quiet on the issue of Julian Assange, because if the Great British public were aware of what is happening, they would be apoplectic with rage that it is happening not just on our shores, but in our own Capital City.
So thank you to Piccadilly Circus a to every person we spoke to last Saturday, I enjoyed our evening immensely. Not a single person had anything bad to say about Julian Assange, and every one of them were supportive of him once they heard the truth. It went a long way to restoring my faith in the British public. So much so, that I’m doing it again this Saturday. Come join me at 4pm and spread the word.
Gordon Dimmack is an independent journalist, writer and podcaster. Support his work here: https://gordondimmack.com/support-my-work/
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