Here’s a tl;dr of this post:
- I went to my first protest
- It was a worthwhile exercise
- Actually, sack that. It was a massive waste of time
- It was also really boring
- It reminded me that humans are terrible
- But I’m really glad I went
- And then this happened…
I went to my first protest
I’m new to the whole ‘protest’ thing.
It’s always seemed too pointless, too earnest or too fucking tired to me.
The one protest I nearly went on, and apparently everyone else did, was against the Iraq war on February 15th, 2003. I was hungover, having first met the woman who’s now my wife the night before. So thanks, hindsight. That turned out to be a pretty good excuse.
But yeah, I always questioned how effective protest was, and seeing vast chunks of the populace turn out against Bush and Blair’s (latest) imperialistic mission, only for their clamours to be later ignored — and of course for those protesters’ misgivings to be proven correct, later still — didn’t exactly whet my appetite for the old placard-waving and chanting.
Nonetheless, someone like Noam Chomsky would argue that engaging in protest is worthwhile even when it’s not directly successful. And when uncle Noam talks, dear reader, I tend to listen.
It’s always interesting to me that Chomksy has much more of a platform to say what he’s against than what he’s for. It’s pretty easy to find him dissecting the diplomatic statements of a major world power, pulling apart their inherent contradictions or hypocrisy, but if you want to glean a decent understanding of his counter-proposals for how the world should operate, it won’t be regularly found within op-eds in the liberal press.
And what he proposes is anarchism. So having delved into quite a bit of anarchism recently via Chomsky, I’ve been intrigued by the anarchist position that liberal forms of protest are essentially… too pointless, too earnest and too fucking tired.
Perhaps you can see where this is going.
I attended two protests recently.
The first, in Glasgow’s George Square, was to show defiance in the face of Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK.
It was a sunny Friday at 5pm in the main civic square of the city, albeit one that’s essentially always for hire, meaning it’s frequently fenced over for various trite functions. But no fences on that day, just a brightly-painted breeze block wall. The protest was well-attended, maybe two or three thousand people. There were speeches, including one by Patrick Harvie, who I’ve a lot of time for. There was folk music. There were placards. There were cheers at all the right points.
It was, I’m afraid to say, pointless, earnest and fucking tired.
It was a worthwhile exercise
But let me talk first about what its good sides were. I’ll try, at least.
There was news coverage (though more on that later). So when the protests across the country were picked up by television and radio, it meant that those who didn’t attend were able to see how people dislike Trump enough to symbolically stand against him. There’s an element of consensus-building here, of the attendees helping to create a narrative for others that Trump’s policies and rhetoric are beyond the pale.
How useful is that exactly? It’s all a bit woolly for me. If events end up taking the form of rejecting Trump in some concrete way, then the public’s perception of him may have been a factor in that… and protests like this may have been… a sub-factor in that?
Like I said, woolly.
The mirror image of that effect is the idea that those on the protest would have understood themselves and their co-protesters as, I dunno, morally engaged or somesuch. Now, understanding yourself as a political and moral actor can be a useful state of mind to cultivate if it leads to further positive action. You’re writing your own story as someone who gets off their backside and tries to create a better world. And, if you understand a sufficient number of your fellow protestors as having the same sort of ethical-type compass then I think there’s room for more of that consensus-building to generally create an atmosphere where change occurs.
But that’s all horribly contingent on actual shit getting done by actual shit stirrers, isn’t it?
More wool. You’re not writing your own story if it’s a work of fiction.
Actually, sack that. It was a massive waste of time
I’ve tried to be nice so far. Yes, that was me being nice. So it’s perfectly plausible that individuals attended the protest and had some radical awakening, or that the event was an early swelling of the tide against populism.
How it felt to me, though, was an opportunity for vaguely liberal people to salve their consciences about the state of the world while changing nothing.
I’ll give you an example. At one point in the evening, I’d heard about the need to protect women’s reproductive rights, to support diversity, to accept people into our communities who’re fleeing horror from overseas and I thought: “FUCKING HOW THOUGH? Give me one practical resource, a flyer, a website, a name I can speak to, fucking anything that I can actually hang my hat on to make a difference!”
Because standing in a square in the sun does NOT make that difference.
If I want to support these and other causes, it seems pretty obvious to me that I need to actually put my body on the line and do something. Donate my time, my money or my expertise to turn that wish for a better world into a reality.
And it seems equally obvious to me that if I don’t put my body on the line in some way, while proclaiming to support those causes, I’m, well… a liar. Support is support. It’s doing things. It’s often doing hard things. It’s not merely saying the right things.
What I really wanted to scream at everyone in that square was: “Every one of you needs to do much, much more than just THIS.” But there was zero chance of anyone on that stage saying as much. Because they all had to be encouraged, every one of them. They’d shown up, swelled the numbers, and clapped at the right times. Nobody wanted to berate them. They wanted to pat them on the back and say “this was a success. We all spoke up. Well done for coming.”
But of course, many of the attendees could well have actually been doing those other things I’m advocating; those practical, useful things. I just didn’t see ANY evidence of that being shared or encouraged. Picture it. You’re in a situation where you’ve got thousands of like-minded people in a small space. USE THAT OPPORTUNITY, dammit! “Hey everybody, there’s this thing on next week! Or if you’re into this other thing, go and speak to those folks over there. And up the back we’ve got experts on this or that, information on whatever, further resources about X.” Above all, I wanted somebody to say “Hey everybody, stop looking at, and listening to, ME on the stage! Turn inwards, talk to each other, get informed, get organised, get to know each other!”
It was hard not to look at it as ‘protest as spectacle’. Admittedly, after reading Debord, it’s hard not to see everything as spectacle, though I guess that’s the whole point of his shtick.
This was ‘face the front’ protest/entertainment. The paradigm was a folk concert from 1967. You passively took it all in and then fucked off home smugly.
It was also really boring
About that format though. Jeez, it was tired. Quite apart from the fact that music’s obviously found new forms and creative processes since Joan Baez was in her prime, I just found the whole thing lacking in imagination. Off the top of my head in an idle moment, I’d come up with the following ideas:
- Have a few volunteers wandering through the crowd, filming them as they sum up in ten seconds what drove them to attend. Get the same volunteers to periodically check in to the stage area and upload those statements for broadcast on a screen everyone can see. Straight away you’re breaking down the barriers between stage and audience; you’ve got the person five feet from you saying something at 20 kilowatts that really resonates with you and you strike up a conversation; the crowd as a whole coheres, interacts, starts to make practical connections between ideas and people that could actually amount to something fucking tangible.
- I was struck by the fact that I was almost certainly surrounded by the majority of the artistic people in Glasgow (’cause you know they love a liberal cause!), but the event was dry and unimaginative. Making sound art out of noise fragments sourced throughout the day would be pretty easy for anyone versed in electronic music and performance — work on it as the day progresses and play it somehow at the end.
- Similarly, try the same for visual arts — I dunno, mount a big piece of plain canvas etc for everyone to create whatever they feel like on it. Get someone to live-create a visual artwork based on what they’re seeing.
- If the above all sounds a bit ‘spectacular’ (in the Debordian sense — I know it doesn’t sound all that spectacular otherwise!) then I guess it is, but I’m not suggesting anything that’s to be bought and sold, I’m proposing that when we’re a small part of the art process, and the event as a whole, or the work as a whole is tangibly made up of us, it can bind us rather than dividing us into our own solipsistic streams.
- Ask everyone to bring something — a toy for a refugee child, some food for the hungry — or ask them to make something while they’re there — write a letter to a prisoner, create an artefact that can be sold to raise some money, anything.
And that’s what I came up with in about ninety seconds of suppressed mild ire anyway. How do you turn liberals into activists? GET THEM ACTIVE!
Anyone who’s spent time at a corporate away day, or a festival, or a conference will know that they’re desperate to use new technologies and initiatives to make you feel involved. Protest has to do the same.
My mild ire at the above was interrupted by severe ire, though.
It reminded me that humans are terrible
Look, these sorts of thing are always full of well-intentioned people with what they think are hilarious signs. They vary from the fairly good (“We shall overcomb”) to my personal nemesis: rage-inducing twee swearing (“Trump is a cockwomble”, “Trump is an arsebiscuit”, “Trump is a SwearwordCuteThingAren’tIFuckingWittyThoughEh”). Jaunty signs with apparently hilarious words on them abound in this situation.
Try as I might, I was standing reasonably close to one of them. I forget what it said.
So my mild ire was interrupted by someone saying “Hi there, I’m from Sky News. We’re just going to go live and we’ll set it up like it’s an improvised walk through the crowd, but we’d like to talk to you.”
Now let me be clear, she wasn’t talking to me. I’m six feet tall with a shaven head and I was wearing all black in the searing heat. NOBODY there was talking to me. (Maybe that’s why I’m so cheesed off with the whole affair.)
No, the Sky News lady was talking to someone near me, and she wanted to interview them about their hilarious sign.
At which point I desperately wanted to shout “FUCKING ZOOM OUT HERE PEOPLE! We’re here to protest a sexist, a xenophobe, a vile creepy old man who believes that chasing profit is more important that anyone who gets trampled on in the pursuit, and you want to generate broadcast content (and hence advertising revenue) for SKY FUCKING NEWS, majority owned by RUPERT FUCKING MURDOCH, who also happens to own, amongst others, THE FUCKING SUN NEWSPAPER, known for its sexism, xenophobia and support for any politician right-wing enough to support that same ethos of naked profit over ordinary people?”
I wanted to shout that, but I didn’t. Ideally, I’d have followed that camera crew around the rest of the day pointing out exactly that, depriving them of their precious content and hence their advertising dollars, but I didn’t. More fucking fool me. I’ve got a few ideas on why I didn’t, but they wouldn’t change the fact that I stewed instead of doing something more worthwhile.
[Ironically, I then wrote this blog piece, one of whose major themes was outward practical action vs an internal moral high-ground, so I’m effectively shouting at myself as much as anyone else here…]
But anyway, fifteen lustrous seconds of fame on the telly was too great an allure for anyone to engage in critical thinking of that advanced level. There was to be no zooming out. There was only zooming inwards, ever inwards, to the microcosm of the self and the projected individual view amidst the spectacle. And that was, despite the blazing sunshine, a pretty bleak fucking thought.
I didn’t stay until the very end. I figured I’d done as much as anyone else by pitching up and standing there for a bit, even though I was frustrated that I didn’t find any real opportunities to do more.
But I’m really glad I went
As I was driving home, I was chewing all this stuff over. I suddenly caught myself as if from afar. I was eyeballing the traffic lights, impatiently awaiting the switch from red to green, aware of the guy who’d pulled belatedly into the lane on my left and who probably planned to undercut me when we started to move. At the same time, I was internally bemoaning the self-centred, dog-eat-dog mentality of, not just a Trump figure, but so much of our behaviour and culture.
And I thought: “this is how Trump would drive home.” The desperate need to be ahead of the other guy. The “time is money” scramble. The inability to recognise that the other guy may have his own struggle going on, his own family to rush to, his own reasons for trying to get ahead of me.
And I accelerated at those lights like a tortoise coming out of a coma. Buddy sped past me. Good luck to him.
I managed to zoom out.
So… weirdly, I did get something tangible and useful out of the Trump protest. I realised that if we’re to take practical action and make effective changes to the world that successfully undermine Trump’s worldview, we also need to tackle the most basic assumptions we carry with us every day
We need to ask “What would Trump do?” and, in any case I can think of, do the exact opposite. Waiting in line for lunch, deciding how to talk to someone about a problem, choosing in what manner to dress or eat or interact. Everything.
Trumpism isn’t just Trumpism. It’s the normalisation and exaggeration of those tiny behaviours that compel, compete, titillate and satiate.
If volunteering at a homeless shelter or giving up a room to a refugee family is too big a step — and to many, it is — then start there: “What would Trump do?” What are the little kindnesses we can do for others, and ourselves, that help to create a fairer and less frantic world?
To me, that was the key takeaway from the Trump protest.
But, in all honesty, it wasn’t a takeaway. It was a home-cooked meal. Nobody at the protest was asking me to rigorously self-evaluate my assumptions.
Nobody was, frankly, asking anything of me. Except to clap at the speeches and cheer at the right points.
And then this happened…
And what happened next was, I went to my second protest, which is… a whole other post.