On September 8, somber newsreaders across the world announced the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. Cue Britons absolutely losing it: hospital appointments, football matches, and even labor strikes were canceled. Drug dealers offered discounts, supermarket registers lowered their beeps, and a Canadian citizenship ceremony was delayed after officials were confused about who they should swear allegiance to.
An estimated quarter million people joined “The Queue” that extended up to ten miles to see the queen lying in state. Soccer star David Beckham spent twelve hours queuing to see Her Majesty last Friday. Meanwhile, media commentators constructed a hazy view of Britain, painting a picture of touching yet dignified national mourning and unity after the loss of the longtime head of state.
Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997 cost around £7–8 million, and costs are expected to be higher for the queen’s. Amid a cost-of-living crisis due to spiraling inflation and rising energy bills, this left many feeling angry. Buckingham Palace even had to ask the public to stop leaving marmalade sandwiches outside, citing a rat problem, although they would surely have understood the optics of food being left for a dead queen outside a palace as others across the country starve.
Watching all this, baffled and bemused, were British republicans. Despite having seventy years to prepare for this, many seemed paralyzed by the waves of Union flags. Neither the queen nor the monarchy is loved universally — in a poll earlier this year, 27 percent said they would abolish the monarchy, including 40 percent of those under twenty-five.
Yet there have been no large, organized protests against the monarchy or direct actions. Instead, we saw small individual protests leading to scores arrested across the country, including thirty-four in London alone. Protesters were heard booing as King Charles and his wife, Camilla, arrived at Cardiff Castle, and in Scotland, one brave person shouted, “You’re a sick old man” at alleged pedophile Prince Andrew as the coffin proceeded through Edinburgh. Two of those protesters who hit the headlines across the United Kingdom after being arrested are Mariángela, who did not share their surname, and Symon Hill.
Mariángela is a twenty-two-year-old student at the University of Edinburgh. Growing up in Northern Mexico shaped her politics through the lens of a postcolonial world still healing from imperialism. In a statement released with Global Majority VS, Mariángela decried the “violence of empire” that is “sustained by the crown and the establishment.”
When interviewed, she explained: “Growing up in a state that is in some ways unstable economically but also politically makes you realize how centuries of colonial power in a country can make it so hard. Even if we’re independent now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t still see the aftereffects of what happened. . . . I’ve witnessed things that people [in the UK] haven’t witnessed. I’m trying to start a conversation and make people here realize what that institution represents to people outside of Britain. . . . The monarchy in the United Kingdom represents centuries of genocide, extractivism, murder, colonialism, and rape of the Global South.”
Mexico was not a British colony, but the crimes by European powers there bear comparison with Britain’s own. Under Elizabeth II, during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, up to 1.5 million people, including almost all the Kikuyu population, were forced into concentration camps or “protected villages” where they were tortured, sexually abused, and murdered. The total death count is still disputed, as many official documents from the time have gone missing. Elizabeth wasn’t just the daughter of a colonizer or an innocent bystander — she was an empress; she was a colonizer.
Elizabeth was often spoken of as the rock that held the country together through difficult periods, representing the best of Britain, but she never spoke out in situations of injustice or held her governments accountable for atrocities committed at home and overseas. “Mourning or showing your support for an institution like that. I mean, what does that say about your morals?” asks Mariángela. A supporter of Scottish independence, she sees the monarchy as fundamental to the antidemocratic architecture of the UK state itself.
Symon Hill is a part-time history teacher and activist for the radical pacifist campaign group the Peace Pledge Union. He grew up in the English Midlands, where his mother was a housekeeper for a rich family. “We lived in a sort of servants’ cottage in the grounds, and so I saw some sort of microcosm of inequality right in front of me,” he says.
“The house had a large number of bedrooms that were not used, whereas in our cottage, my sister and I shared a bedroom. Even before I was old enough to articulate it like this, it didn’t quite make sense to me — you know, I didn’t understand why it was like that.”
In his late teens, Symon became a Christian and was influenced by liberation theology and radical interpretations of Christianity. “Within Christianity . . . there’s also a strong anti-monarchy tradition,” he explains. “Early Christians effectively broke the law every day by refusing to worship the Roman emperor. When Charles I was convicted of treason, in 1649, those who opposed him often justified their opposition on Christian grounds, and many of them were parts of the same sort of traditions.”
On September 11, heralds in cities across the UK proclaimed the ascension of King Charles to the throne — but Symon and Mariángela, who was in attendance at another event, couldn’t let that happen without voicing their opposition.
“I was with a few people. They all had flags that said ‘Our Republic,’” says Mariángela. Her sign was more provocative, though; she had a placard that read “F*CK IMPERIALISM ABOLISH MONARCHY.”
“Someone said to me, ‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’ And I said ‘No, I’m not ashamed of myself.’”
Mariángela felt it was important to raise the voice of people who couldn’t be there to speak out at the proclamation. “We were acting in representation for millions of people in the Global South who are fighting imperialism and colonialism — the liberation movements in the Global South and the Ogoni people, for example. I’m not an individual acting by myself, I’m part of a community of millions of people.”
Around the same time, three hundred miles farther south, Symon was leaving church as the proclamation was due to happen in the city center. “I was in two minds as to whether to object as it was read out,” he says. But as it came into view, he began to change his mind. “I felt really upset and angry to see it. You’ve got these dignitaries in there with sort of ceremonial and almost medieval robes standing on a platform next to military leaders and the Bishop of Oxford and other bigwigs.”
“It’s weird to witness the sort of devotion toward this outrageous display of wealth when the reality of our country is so much different than that,” agrees Mariángela.
Around midday, heralds began declaring Charles the new king. Symon recollects, “They proclaimed Charles to be our only and rightful liege lord. I was thinking, is this how we announce a new head of state in the twenty-first century? Some blokes in medieval costumes stand on a stage and tell us to accept somebody as Our Liege Lord?”
“I was appalled that we were just being told to accept this with no debate or anything, so I called out ‘Who elected him?’”
Under What Law?
The arrests took both Symon and Mariángela, as well as people across the country, by surprise. Symon has previously been arrested for taking part in direct actions. “While I don’t think those arrests were okay, I wasn’t surprised by them,” he says. “But this time I was really surprised, because I don’t think I’m naive about police behavior, but I’d literally just said a couple of sentences in the street and got arrested.”
Mariángela recounted similar thoughts at the time: “When I went up there, I thought: worst-case scenario, people are gonna get angry at me, and maybe the police will ask me to take down the poster. If they ask me to, I don’t really want to get arrested, so I’ll do it. But it just came out of nowhere.”
The police seemed just as confused by it. Symon hasn’t been charged with any crimes, and while arrested, he kept asking why they had detained him. “The policeman who was with me didn’t seem to know. He kept saying he’d find out. I mean, he should know, he was supposed to be responsible for it.”
Only when they were driving Symon home, as he was handcuffed in the back of a police van, was he told he’d been arrested under the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. However, later that evening, when the Guardian asked Thames Valley Police for a comment on his arrest, they said he’d been arrested under the Public Order Act 1986 instead.
Mariángela has since been charged with “breaching the peace,” but officers on the day weren’t so sure. “They just had no idea what was going on. On the way to the station, they were laughing on the radios, being like, ‘What is she even arrested for? We’re gonna be such a laughingstock when we get to the police station.’” Mariángela says one even commented, “I don’t even know if it’s lawful.”
The arrests should have shattered the perception that the royal family has no power or influence over politics. “It’s completely false,” says Mariángela. “The fact that police have been arresting people simply for speaking out against the monarchy, which is completely legal, shows that they still hold a lot of power over what can and can’t be said and the conversations that we can and can’t have,” she continues.
It hasn’t deterred either of them from speaking out. Symon says he’s already considering protesting Charles’s coronation, and is looking into legal action for wrongful arrest. “I’m a citizen, not a subject,” he tells me. Mariángela is also resolute in her defiance, and she sees her arrest as a vindication of what she’s arguing. “The fact that I was arrested for holding a sign that said F*CK IMPERIALISM — to me, it’s like, ‘Oh, so you’re admitting to being an imperial institution?’ They’re not going to shut me up. I’d like to think it will catalyze people.”