cops nick disabled Charlie Chaplin outside parliament

  • Post last modified:May 1, 2024
  • Reading time:16 mins read

I go on trial at Westminster Magistrate’s Court on May Day, having been nicked protesting the genocide in Gaza, blocking the entrance to parliament dressed as Charlie Chaplin.

This is what I hope to tell the judge.

Gaza protest: Why I did what I did

I had been feeling increasingly distressed by the tragic events unfolding in Gaza. Israel, with one of the most sophisticated arsenals and surveillance systems in the world, had launched a sustained attack against one of the poorest and most densely populated places on Earth, indiscriminately firing on defenceless and innocent people, many of whom were children.

Cutting off all water and electricity from 2 million people as a form of collective punishment. Using disturbing language to describe the Palestinians, such as likening them to, ‘human animals’. Ordering more than a million people, 80% of the population, to evacuate their homes within 24-hours before a barrage of near ceaseless bombing would begin.

A million people on the move in one day. Too many with just the clothes on their backs and a couple of carrier bags. Ordered to walk to one spot, Rafah, nearly 20 miles from Gaza City, where apparently it would be safe.

Hope and sanity seemed to be draining from the world, so I welcomed the ceasefire vote in parliament. But MPs voted 293 to 125 to reject the call. With the vast majority of MPs not even bothering to show up.

The final straw for me was seeing a video on LBC, three days before my Gaza protest. Headed, ‘They’re bombing the bit they told people to go to,’ a reference to Rafah. They were actually bombing the safe haven.

Amnesty International said that at least 95 civilians, nearly half of them children, had been killed in four rocket strikes.

This was not Israel defending itself or trying to rescue hostages. LBC’s James O’Brien said it well, ‘You can’t call it anything other than a massacre now. And you can’t justify it, frankly, on any level, unless you are prepared to accept the untold killing of innocent people, in the spurious pursuit of the guilty,’ he said, spurring me into action.

Mime activism: What I did

I arrived at Westminster on Wednesday 6 December, around the time PMQs would have been finishing up. The busiest time for both Parliament and the media who report on it. I positioned my mobility scooter outside the Carriage Entrance. My plan was to attract a swarm of police officers and elevate my protest to news-worthy-ness, and I’d do it dressed as Charlie Chaplin, with the hat and tails and full make-up:

For 18 years, I have inhabited a character that I have called Charlie X, a form of mime activism based on Chaplin’s the Little Tramp.

I held aloft a placard showing a powerful image of a young Israeli boy, and Palestinian girl tending a sapling, that was growing amidst the rubble. I’d added the words ‘Peace’.. ‘Shalom’ in Hebrew, and ‘Salaam’ in Arabic:

Disabled solidarity with music and art

40% of Gaza’s population is aged 14 and below. Save The Children says there’s about 610,000 children, or one for every 2 adults. That’s tens of thousands of babies, tens of thousands of toddlers, tens of thousands of kids of primary school age. Children trying to survive devastating injuries sustained in airstrikes and sniper attacks, their stories painting a harrowing picture of the human consequences of Israel’s prolonged hateful indiscriminate onslaught.

I’m disabled, but enjoy the support of family, friends and the NHS, so I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for a crippled toddler to survive the extreme trauma of terrible excruciating injuries? An estimated one thousand children in Gaza have become amputees since October 2023, have lost one or more limbs, often operated on without the use of anaesthetic, with no family, and no health service. A child who has to somehow survive their wounds on the streets of Gaza, with 24 bombed hospitals and 400 murdered healthcare professionals.

On the back of my placard was a little music box that played ‘Hey Jude’, when you turned the handle, it chimes, ‘Take a sad song and make it better.’ There is nowhere sadder than Gaza right now.

I also held a large sign showing a section of Picasso’s powerful painting ‘Guernica’, depicting the bombing of a Spanish market town in 1937. One of the first acts of genocide committed by the Nazis. Someone had filled it in with Palestine’s national colours, drawing a direct link to the bombing of Gaza:

Never again: from the Blitz to the Nakba

In one corner I had added in a Remembrance Day poppy to connect to Britain’s experience of war. My Great Grandparents were bombed out twice during the Second World War. The family archive has this newspaper clipping that says, ‘BOMBED OUT TWICE – Now couple celebrate diamond wedding’

Their son, my grandfather, was in the fire service, stationed at Lewisham. He never spoke about his wartime experiences, but it must have been extremely tough. He was probably on duty in July ‘44, when Lewisham market, was bombed, destroying a Marks and Spencer’s, killing 59 people, and seriously injuring hundreds of others.

My father, who was 7, fled London with hundreds of thousands of other kids. Somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people fled the capital in near panic during this period.

So, you see, the Blitz is very much part of my family history. It’s in my DNA. It’s partly why I think I have a natural affinity to the plight of the Palestinians today. Like them, my family knew what it felt like to be hated and hunted by a genocidal regime. Like them, my family knew what it felt like to face death at any moment, to lose everything, to have to flee their home, to run for their lives. In Britain we called it ‘The Blitz’. In Gaza they call it Nakba, which means – ‘Catastrophe’.

Charlie Chaplin getting busted for Gaza

I felt calm, empowered, exactly where I should be. I was soon approached by a police officer who told me to move, motioning towards the pavement beyond the cordon, saying I was free to carry out my protest ‘over there’. But ‘over there’ I was just another tourist attraction, and they would have no doubt already seen another and better Charlie Chaplin on the South Bank. My version was more ‘Modern Times’ than ‘do the box’. Defiant, political, prone to getting into trouble, wave a red flag, and recite the Speech from the Great Dictator at the top of my lungs. That has always been my version of the little tramp, and it was like the tourists expected to see Charlie Chaplin getting busted on their big day out in London. Hundreds of people from all around the world took pictures, and video, and many showed their approval:

At one point, an officer asked me if I would be prepared to move out of the way if an ambulance needed to enter parliament in an emergency. I gestured ‘yes’.

I don’t think that it can be properly said that I was blocking the gates. At no time was I aware of a vehicle needing to enter or leave Parliament. The double gates remained shut the whole time. The width of my scooter is 68cms, and judging by the Body Cam footage of my arrest, you can clearly see that there was still enough room for a vehicle to pass:

So, you could describe my obstruction as more than minor, but less than major, well targeted in terms of the time and place, and designed to attract media and by extension government attention to an immediate and dire situation, to warn about the moral jeopardy that the UK will find itself in if it continues to turn a blind eye to genocide. And to British companies that are currently facilitating it:

After my arrest

In Charring Cross police station, at midnight, a detective came to my cell and offered me a caution to effectively forget the whole thing, and drive away. And after being in a cell for 9 hours, I have to say it was tempting. But I just thought of all those dead and injured Palestinian children being collectively punished for something they had nothing to do with. And so I thought, ‘No, let’s see this through.’ Let’s get my day in court and hopefully get a chance to say what I think needs to be said.

On the 29th December, about a week before my plea hearing, South Africa reported Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for the crime of genocide, alleging that Israel’s actions in Gaza amounted to a deliberate policy of extermination against the Palestinian people. And on 26 January, with reportedly 1% of Gaza’s population, some 25,700 people, mostly women and children then killed, the ICJ delivered its interim judgement, with15 of the 17 judges finding plausibility in South Africa’s case.

I felt vindicated. On the right side of history. My little act of defiance justified. Happy that I hadn’t allowed myself and, by extension, my Charlie X character, to lose our humanity, our ability to act when it matters by taking a stand, and then to stand by those actions. I stand by my actions, my civil disobedience on the grounds of conscience, and am more than willing to vouch for the sincerity of my beliefs, and the world I want to live in, and accept any penalties imposed by law as a price worth paying.

Featured image and additional images via Christine Ongsieg and videos via Paul

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