The independence girls who stood up to the unionist riot


The unlikely heroes of September the 19th explain their political journey from education to jail and back again.

Their photograph came to represent the resilience of the independence movement. Sisters Sarah and Sophie Johnson, ages 20 and 16, stood proudly holding a saltire while George Square was overwhelmed with disorder and arrests.

The juxtaposition of youth, hope and determination alongside the conflict of police and union flags resonated with many coming to terms with the referendum result.

In an interview with CommonSpace, Sarah and Sophie tell their story of what happened, the violence, their arrest and why they remain determined to see an independent Scotland.

“I’ve just always cared”, explains Sophie, who is into her penultimate year at a Glasgow secondary school. “Politics does make a difference to everyone’s lives and there’s no point being ignorant or nothing can change.”

“I went down to Manchester last year for a huge anti-austerity march outside the Conservative party conference and I went to rallies against the bedroom tax. So I’ve always been interested in politics. I’ve always considered myself a socialist.”

Her older sister, Sarah, shares a similar passion for politics that was ignited by the referendum. “I’ve been interested in politics for a while, especially after looking at issues as part of my degree,” she says. “During the campaign I compared the two governments [the Scottish government and the UK government] and that’s what fuelled me.”

Studying sociology and politics at Caledonian University in Glasgow, Sarah was part of the highest youth turnout in a public vote in living memory. In her city, the run-up to the vote was defined by spontaneous gatherings in the city’s George Square and Buchanan street, where musicians and speakers entertained thousands into the night.

“It was amazing,” Sarah says. “I was there on the 17th [of September] and it was electric. I really thought it was going to be a Yes. Everyone was ecstatic. There was so much hope and we were going to get a fairer Scotland. I think people still do [believe that].”

Her young sister remembers the sense of solidarity: “There were so many people there who hadn’t looked at politics before. I never felt so many people together, so happy and wanting change.”

The enthusiasm in Glasgow and elsewhere wasn’t consigned to public squares. Across Scotland there were exceptional acts of campaigning, from mass canvases of housing schemes and political motorbike convoys to Lindsay Jarrett scaling the walls of Edinburgh.

School students, able to vote in an election for the first time, proved to be a major success story of the referendum. In Glasgow pupils like Liam McLaughlin and Saffron Dickson rose to prominence through debates and appearances in the media.

McLaughlin, after months of campaigning in Glasgow’s East End, spent the election day touring the city in a converted ice-cream van. Dickson, from the city’s South Side, addressed both Radical Independence Conferences, criticising alienation from politics and low pay.

A similar urgency for social justice led the Johnson sisters to join the rallies in the lead up to the vote.

Sophie explains: “I wasn’t always a Yes supporter, but the more I looked into it the more I thought the best chance at a better democracy was an independent Scotland. I can’t support a country with an undemocratic voting system like first past the post. I became aware of the scapegoating of different communities like immigrants and the disabled.”

In response, Sarah rolls off the full list of Yes talking points, still fresh in her mind months later. “First of all it was seeing the budget cuts. In 2012 the hit to Scotland through the Barnett Formula would affect the National Health Service and education. I think nuclear weapons in Scotland are completely wrong. The cuts to benefits are unfair. The House of Lords is undemocratic. I think the Westminster government is completely corrupt.”

Memories of the 17th and 18th return hopes of change, a feeling that will be familiar to many of their fellow campaigners. For the Johnsons, the result was hard to stomach.

“I watched it on the TV all night. I was crying all night. It was one of the worst nights of my life, heartbreaking.”

Sophie remembers the young crowds in Glasgow city centre who stayed out through the night as Scotland’s biggest authority was one of only three areas to vote Yes.

“People were still there in George Square for what they believed in. It didn’t totally hit me and then it all came crashing down on me at once. Sarah called me up an hour or two later and there were people there and we all held hands for a bit. After a while our hopes were raised and we thought ‘We can still do this. It’s not over yet’.”

By the following day, both sisters were part of a resilient mobilisation of Yes supporters who sought solace in positive action following the result.

“People started being really negative after the No vote,” says Sarah. “Then by late afternoon on the 19th there was a change in mood that this wasn’t over yet. There were still Yes supporters in George Square. We had to go and stand with them.”

The 19th saw the beginning of the surge in membership of the Scottish National Party, which eventually soared from 25,000 to 92,000 in just three months.

It also witnessed the most sour moment of the referendum campaign – as a loyalist mob led to a heavy police intervention with mounted police and helicopter support. It began as British nationalists arrived in George Square on mass to goad defeated Yes Campaigners, who had held public rallies beside the city chambers. Hundreds of nationalists, draped in union flags, ran towards the Yes Campaigners causing the police to intervene.

Despite the No victory, the loyalists party was marred by nazi salutes, clashes with the police, the burning of the Scottish flag and threats of stabbings. Blame for the violence was pinned on Rangers football ultras group the Vanguard Bears and thugs associated with the sectarian divide in the west of Scotland. The Orange Order, an anti-Catholic organisation, had also been a vocal opponent of independence. In the end, 20 arrests were made, including for disorder, breach of the peace and vandalism.

For many, Sarah and Sophie became the heroes of the night, after a photo of them being surrounded by British nationalists circulated online. Later, when it emerged that they had been arrested by the police, there was a flurry of disbelief that those who appeared as victims could face a fine or even a court case.

It’s only now that they have had the opportunity to give their account of events.

Sarah recalls: “We stood with our flag in front of the No protesters that had blocked the road. The police were splitting up the two sides and there were horses everywhere. Unionists were throwing smoke bombs. People were steaming drunk. People started spitting on us and throwing beer on us.”

As the group surrounded Sarah and Sophie, the police intervened for their protection. One man pulled their flag out of Sophie’s hand, the moment captured in a video that would quickly spread across the internet.

“People were shouting at us to leave as if we didn’t have a right to be there,” Sophie says. At first the police ignored the calls and monitored the situation. Then the atmosphere changed.

“They changed their mind and asked us to stop protesting. We said we’d continue our right to protest. People there said ‘They’d kick our cunt in’, there was a fear of violence.”

Given the threats, were they scared?

“Not particularly. The police asked us if we were. When we said that we weren’t particularly scared they kept pushing us on the point, saying ‘I’d be shitting myself if I was you.’ It didn’t matter,” said Sophie. “Anything that was thrown at us flew right past us. Our movement wouldn’t be going away and you can’t stop that.”

The police eventually ignored their protestations. Rather than simply remove the Johnsons, they were arrested and driven off to a local police station. For the young women there is still a feeling of injustice at how the night was handled.

“They could have taken us home. It was out of line to arrest us for not moving as part of a protest, since no one else was being made to move,” says Sophie. “The people spitting at us or throwing things didn’t get the same treatment.”

There were driven to the station, their fingerprints and photos taken, and placed in a cell.

“The police were reasonable,” says Sarah. “We were never handcuffed or anything like that. We got our fingerprints done and the officer started talking to me saying ‘There’s a video of you with millions of hits!’. We could hear each other in the cell next door and we just sang Scottish songs to each other through the gap to keep our spirits up.”

Meanwhile, the image of Sarah and Sophie at George Square was going viral online. One tweeter posted: “The brave girls in this pic, anyone know them, I would like to tell them how proud I am of them.”

Mark Barnes, who was compiling a referendum photography book, ‘A Nation Decides’, found the image inspiring. When he found out what happened he launched a petition regarding their arrest which gathered over 9,500 supporters.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Barnes says: “I had been trying to find out who the girls were since the 20th of September, because I was collating material for a book and wanted to feature that image. As you can tell from the reaction to the petition, and how viral the news of them coming forward and allowing their names to be shared went – they are truly inspirational. They demonstrated a passion which simply can’t be bought.”

The interest in who they were, the photo and what happened came in many ways.

“It was crazy going back and going on the internet and seeing the photo going viral. It was odd. We didn’t feel like we did anything particularly noble. We did what we thought was right in the moment. The photo just captured the idea of people standing up for themselves”, says Sophie.

“Someone even stopped me in the street saying ‘You’re the girl with the flag’. Then her husband gave me a hug and said ‘Keep the faith’.”

The image, standing up to the abuse and the time in police custody will forever be a memory for Sarah and Sophie of the risk that they took to air their views.

Even now, months after the referendum, they see independence as a goal worth standing for. From family experience they have reason to believe that the issue won’t retreat into the shadows.

“My mum changed her mind after the referendum after they started bombing Iraq again. It’s biggest regret she’s ever had.”

Their passion, like many others’, changed people’s view of the world in small ways. But in this case was it worth the hassle, the arrest, the drama all for a night to symbolise their beliefs?

“Of course. I still believe in an independent Scotland,” says Sarah. “One hundred per cent. No one’s giving up”, adds her sister.

And now even the law is on their side. After months of uncertainty over whether they would face a court date, the Procurator Fiscal released confirmed to CommonSpace that no further action would be taken.

“After full and careful consideration of the specific circumstances of the case and the available evidence, the Procurator Fiscal instructed that there should be no criminal proceedings.”

Beyond the legal outcome, the greatest victory was that Sophie and Sarah stood up to fear and didn’t flinch. There’s an example worth following.

Image of Sarah and Sophie Johnson, 19th September.