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July 09, 2013

Protest! - an essay

This essay was written as an entry for a competition run by The Guardian, asking for 3000 words on a personal experience of protest. I rather ignored the brief, which called for reportage on a recent involvement. It goes without saying that I didn't win...
I wrote about my experience over a lifetime, really as supporting material for an argument, which is that protest over issues is all but futile - that at best it moves the goalposts (I initially miss-spelled that as 'gaolposts', and it was appropriate, as single issue protest can be seen as a call for no more than 'Bigger Cages, Longer Chains!'). The argument is that protest which is simply a rejection, which refuses to get involved in negotiations, in detail, in compromise, is more challenging to the status quo, harder to answer, more subversive - and more satisfying.

Anyway, rather than write it all again, here it is:

21st Century protest in a liberal democracy

Protest and opposition of many kinds has been a constant thread through my life.Born in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis, my mother took me collecting signatures on a petition down Penny Lane in Liverpool. I was taken on 'Ban the Bomb' marches in my pram by my grandmother, a lifelong peace activist and founder member of CND.
My father was also an activist (still is), and was present at many demonstrations during the '70s and '80s - Grunwick, Wapping, the miners strike - the fierce flash points arising from the competing ideologies of free-market capitalism and mass socialism.
In my early teens I was part of many Anti Nazi League marches, a member of Youth CND, a marcher against the Falklands war, protester against education cuts (occupying the Vice-Chancellor’s offices at Manchester University was memorable, as was the student ‘strike’ at Manchester Polytechnic).  I did benefits for the miners, along with many other events now lost to immediate recollection.
I was clearly a protester, but never a member of any party, indeed of any organised political grouping after Youth CND (it was effectively closed down by mainstream CND who viewed it as a far left entrist vehicle - which it was - nevertheless the struggle against shut-down still felt, in microcosm, like another protest against an inimical power structure). As a notional anarchist and punk, I was almost as dismissive of the antics of the SWP and their ilk, the leadership of CND and the Labour left as I was of the government and institutions we were protesting against.
I was a demo regular; interested, opinionated, passionate but always peaceful; believed at some level in the value of standing up and being counted (although of course the police counts and the organiser's counts were always in complete disagreement); participating as a citizen - as an individual under a western liberal democracy. Even if I had strong doubts about the legitimacy of ‘the system’, still, it was what I had grown up within; it was the reality, and protest seemed the accepted way to register dissent. The democratic tradition, from mainstream left to hard-line Trotskyites, believed that participation in protest had a central role in the furtherance of the democratic project; even if some groups had explicitly ulterior motives, they were still there, still joined in the argument, made the case. So that, wherever I might place myself in that tradition, protest always seemed relevant and important.
At one extreme, incrementalists suggested that protest could at least make a marginal difference; less bad IS less bad, a small improvement IS an improvement. At the other extreme, participation in and solidarity with any anti-system protest was the vehicle some avowed revolutionists (about whom I was always ambivalent) believed could be the birth-place of real change.
And so went the ‘80s.
Then came the Poll Tax. And the Poll Tax Riot. A day which I often describe as the best day of my life.
A day on which the protesters, not just 'the usual troublemakers’, but thousands of them, seemed to realise that calm, orderly, lawful marching and applauding speeches from the stage was not enough - that a bigger noise had to be made. Or was it just the pent-up rage of people who had spent their whole adult lives (as I had) under a government which explicitly rejected, suppressed or attacked everything that seemed important, while promoting so much that seemed inhuman? Alternatively, was it simply that poor decisions and aggressive action by the police sparked the trouble? Arguments will no doubt persist in corners of politics, sociology and history departments for decades.
No matter. The fact remains that the Poll Tax riot was effective; for the first time in my experience, the demands of the protestors reverberated through the country; it led to a complete change of policy and was instrumental in the fall of Margaret Thatcher, after which John Major’s first parliamentary speech on becoming Prime Minister promised the replacement of the  Poll Tax [officially the ‘Community Charge’] with the Council Tax.
Why was it the best day of my life? Not because of its results - which were not foreseen on the day - but because for a short time the police lost control, and the people, the protesters, were on the streets; in charge of the streets. It was an exhilarating experience. I may need to make it clear that I threw no stones, broke no shop windows, did no looting. I neither condemn nor condone those who did, but I certainly understand them, and I was certainly with them, rather than with the police, or with the bystanders, or even with the large majority of the protesters who no doubt felt varying mixtures of shock, disgust, fear, anger, and despair. The state had conceded territory - temporarily, unwillingly - but incontestably; for a short time, areas of central London belonged to us, were outside the control of the police. We were free, in a way that I had never felt before.
We were proud and happy; felt strong, and, when we ceded back the territory, we went home mostly unscathed (and in my case, on to a thrilling gig by the Levellers in a squat in Peckham). The day belongs, in history, to us, to the protesters, and the subsequent fallout has cemented its reputation as a rare, large-scale victory in the history of post WWII British dissent.
But did I believe that the experience of that day was something that could be built upon, that from it a flame would grow that could transform the society we live in for the better? Not for an instant. Because, despite the fact that the day was fuelled by years of discontent over a wide range of issues, the protest was focused on the 'community charge'. Once it became clear that the point had been taken by our rulers, the 'single issue' was gone; and so had the force that united the heterogenous group of campaigners and malcontents that propelled the riot.
There were other marches - memorably the protest against the closing of the majority of the British coal mines in October 1992, [bizarrely supported by The Sun, which printed a memorable front page damning Michael Heseltine: blank except for a small photograph of the then President of the Board of Trade, with the caption: 'This page contains all that Michael Heseltine understands about the worries and fears of the ordinary working people in depression-hit Britain.'] for which there was an enormous turnout, marching in the teeth of strong winds and a torrential downpour.
Some marches offered brief reminders of the frisson that the Poll Tax riot had afforded: the May-Day events of the late ‘90s and the early years of the new century.
I went to a few of these (as an individual, with no connection to the organising groups); not the official marches led by TUC brass bands, accompanied by glorious but moth-eaten tapestry banners, but the unofficial ‘anti-capitalist’ marches, which garnered such extravagant and out-of-proportion reporting from a mock-horrified tabloid press. You know, the time when Winston Churchill grew a grass mohican, and a MacDonald’s window got pushed in. Compared with other rallies, although they were billed as ‘anti-capitalism' protest marches, they had no conceivable political significance as ‘protests’ on the national consciousness, being more like fun days out for the anti-capitalist fringe.
You remember them? Well, it’s bizarre (if at the same time unsurprising) that you should, because they were events of negligible real significance; attended by almost nobody - a few thousands at the highest, hundreds only on the last one I attended; events which challenged no specific policy, which drew attention to no particular cause other than the all-encompassing ‘anti-capitalism’. And, press coverage notwithstanding, the events were not intended to be violent or honestly believed to be insurrectionist.
Compared to any of the events I have described above, these were negligible little irritations to the establishment, involving small inconvenience to the commercial life of the city (at least not before the hysteria whipped up by the press, politicians and police), which had no purchase whatsoever on the public mood, and actually required no real response at all from the political class.
Yet the coverage was enormous, the outrage mighty. Tony Blair himself gave a speech at the end of April in 2001 [the year after the mohican incident] which very thoroughly made it clear that anyone attending the forthcoming rally was doing so against his firm and fatherly advice, that they would be at best foolish and more likely criminals, and would be treated as such by the police. As quoted by the Daily Telegraph, he said;
"I want to express our absolute and total backing for the police in dealing with anyone who seeks to bring fear and violence to our streets. The limits of tolerance are past when protesters, in the name of some spurious cause, seek to inflict fear, terror, violence and criminal damage.(1)
In these sentiments he was broadly supported by such notable dissenters from the status-quo as Ken Livingstone and George Monbiot.(2)
Two years later, however, he did not see fit to advise people not to attend the Iraq war rallies.  Despite the fact that these protests expressed a specific and far more widely supported challenge, and had much greater immediate political significance, he said, in a speech given shortly before the final march, and explicitly in anticipation of it being a huge event:
I rejoice that we live in a country where peaceful protest is a natural part of our democratic process(3)
What was so different about these May-Day marches? Well, for one thing, it wasn’t that they presented any immediate danger to anyone. Having attended several, I can assure you that the tone was much more hippy than punk; much more carnival than revolution, much more surrealist than insurrectionist. As well as giving Winston his fetching (biodegradable and non-destructive) make-over, bulbs were stamped into the turf of Parliament Square which, had they come up, would have spelt out; ‘Reclaim the Streets’. No doubt the cost of re-turfing the whole of the square was included in the reported £500,000 of damage done that day.
Of course, there were some hard-cases, some revolutionary fantasists, but the real joy, the real desire, was to carve out, for a short time, a space where the inexorable realities of globalised capitalism did not completely hold sway, did not define the gamut of all possible futures.
The marches were not sanctioned, so there was no agreed route. The police tactics were to catch the march at a junction and apply the now infamous ‘kettle’; the marchers’ aim was to evade this and put on various ‘stunts’. I was lucky enough one year to be with a group of a few hundred who had escaped the main kettle and were on the move, accompanied by only a small number of police. What did we do? Did we smash windows, terrorise innocent tourists, throw bombs through windows in Whitehall? No; we led the increasingly hot, bothered and sweaty cops a merry dance through central London, wrong footing them at every turn, grinning hugely at each other. We were free, and they were the captives; slaves to their duty, looking more ridiculous at every turn, and obviously powerless. There was no threat; almost, there was no intention. Eventually, by unspoken mutual consent, we split into smaller and smaller groups, and went home.
On another march, we were gradually caught up with by some fairly sinister police units, including three man video camera teams, who ostentatiously approached individuals and filmed them; clearly a purposefully intimidatory tactic. I was filmed myself, immediately after having cycled up to a younger marcher, one of the fantasist brigade with a black bandanna over his face, to suggest to him that he be a little less provocative, as I suspected that one police team were paying very close attention to him (snatch squad tactics were used by the police). This attracted the attention of the camera team, who moved up to me. The officers around the cameraman stared aggressively into my eyes, looking for conflict. I did my best to ignore them until they found another target, the same approach taken by other marchers.
Ultimately, though, apart from the transient joy of thumbing our noses at the establishment, these protests too were ineffectual, and petered out as fear of aggressive policing significantly reduced the numbers of casual protesters.
After the Poll Tax Riot, the next protest episode that had a real impact on my thinking (I intensely enjoyed the Mayday events, but at the time I applied no analysis) was the million-plus march against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, one of a large number of simultaneous protests around the world - by far the largest protest event in world history. I was there with the whole of my wife’s family - not ‘regulars’ by any stretch of the imagination, but genuinely outraged at what seemed to be about to happen, along with an enormous proportion of the population, according to opinion polls.
It achieved nothing at all. The invasion went ahead on the basis of frothed up and inaccurate information, in accordance with the US timetable, against the public mood.
And this was the end of marching for me. Not that I decided to throw in the towel, not that I changed my views, not that I vowed never to go on another demo; rather, the fact that the government - that all the governments - ignored the protests, completely, made it very clear that protest was pretty much a waste of time. That without enough repressed anger or despair, widely shared, to make the action something more than just a march, more than just an expression of sentiment, protest is very nearly useless; worse, although it might well be useless for the causes espoused by the protesters, it can actually be very useful for the state, for the system, might well be a necessary safety valve through which a great deal of dissatisfaction can be released, without effect.
Protest is used by governments as ideological evidence to support the image of western liberal democracies as real examples of free societies - paradoxically more useful as such when the protests express strong opposition - there appears to be no need to actually change policy as a result of protests for the establishment to promote this argument.
To underline this gloomy view, let’s review the protests I have been involved with, poll-tax excepted.
No UK government has ever shown the least inclination to scale down Britain’s nuclear capability; quite the opposite. Labour governments, whom one would think might be the natural allies of CND campaigners (Joan Ruddock, ex CND chair, is now a Labour MP, and I grew up listening to Tony Benn speaking at anti-nuclear rallies), have been the UK governments who have commissioned all major nuclear arms developments apart from Trident.
These protests were not directed at the state. The British state appears to have no truck with fascism, which is denounced whenever the British far-right becomes impossible to ignore. Despite this, the experience of being on these marches was very much that we were viewed with suspicion, and met with aggressive tactics by the state. Several marches turned very nasty as the police used violence to enforce their will on the marchers. Notoriously in one instance, this led to the death of Blair Peach.
No noticeable nuances even, in policy or action, over wars in the Falklands, in Iraq (first or second time around), in Afghanistan.
The Miners
The miners and the British pit industry were ruthlessly disposed of.
Ha ha ha.

I have been on various marches since 2003 (usually about Climate Change), mostly in a spirit of nostalgia, as well as from a strong sense of solidarity with those who still have hope that protesting means something. To do nothing seems untenable, and old habits die hard, so I find myself marching, protesting, standing up even though I no longer believe anyone is really counting. I have no expectations whatsoever, beyond the hope of a gentle walk in clement conditions, in congenial company, with any luck within earshot of a samba band. I can’t bear to listen to the speeches any more.
And my lack of expectation has been resoundingly fulfilled. Despite many promises and public good intentions, nothing effective has been done to address climate change; the rate of CO2 emissions rise is itself rising. Climate rallies (the most middle class and non-threatening marches ever) have ended in police brutality and at least one death.
So, is this it? A lifetime of standing up to be counted for lost causes; a few brief moments of unsustainable exhilaration, followed by slow disillusionment - perhaps accompanying an inevitable age-related conservatism?
Not at all. If anything, I am more radical now than I ever was. The fact that protest achieves nothing in a mature liberal western democracy only serves to make clearer the need for protest. A different sort of protest. Effective protest. A sort of protest that the reaction to the May-Day rallies gives clues to.
But hold on, I hear you say. What about the gradual acceptance of the legitimacy of organised labour? The eventual success of the Suffrage Movement? What about the introduction of the Welfare State? Civil rights in the USA? Were not these large advances built upon decades of committed activism and struggle? If you still believe there are things worth struggling for, how can you give up on this sort of protest?
Well yes indeed. What about these successes? Let’s agree not to argue about the details, or about conspiracy theories of politics (even if these perspectives do give insights), and simply accept them as successes that came about in large part due to the efforts of those who protested and campaigned, on these and a hundred parallel issues.
My argument is that the reaction of the establishment to these successes has been to develop mechanisms that make it much less likely that such activism can be effective in the future - that this has been an important aspect of the development of western democracy since WWII.
But then, you may say, what about the Berlin Wall, what about the Arab Spring? Protest has achieved great things in the last few decades. How can you be so feeble, so defeatist?
These have indeed been landmark events; huge expressions of popular dissent have resulted in enormous societal shifts. Brave and committed people have joined together in their tens of thousands and forced out oppressive governments and dictatorships. Along with huge numbers of people in the west, my heart surged with joy at the waves of news of the collapse of the Iron Curtain satellite governments, at the successes of the people of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt.
But what were these people struggling for? Very broadly, for the right to be more like us. To vote in mass elections; to have access to consumer goods; to live under the rule of law; to watch the output of Hollywood and Bollywood without extreme censorship; to participate in the globalised capitalist economy.
And what were they struggling against? Dictatorships, autocratic and sclerotic fake democracies, single party states. Not mature liberal western democracies.
The conditions were different, the struggles were different, the enemies were different. These are different protests; ones that we can perhaps empathise with, perhaps support, hopefully celebrate, but which are ultimately inapplicable to the concerns and struggles faced here. They grew out of powerful repression, out of fear and disadvantage experienced by significant proportions of the population as part of daily life. The pent-up energies were huge, the deprivation immediate and constant, the irrationality offensive and obvious.
Somewhere inside us, we know that more freedom is, simply, more freedom, and that it makes us feel good. As Kingsley Amis says in Lucky Jim;
“There was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.
Nevertheless, we cannot look to these events for anything other than the affirmation given by our emotional response to the achievement of greater freedom.
All cavilling and nit-picking apart, more freedom is better than less freedom. But we already have the freedoms that these struggles are about. We want more freedom, other freedoms. And while this desire is present in all of us, the need is less stark, the absence less glaring, the freedoms more complex, less easily stated, however real.
This year, I have been involved in another protest; a smaller, localised protest, but one no less deeply felt - perhaps more deeply than many others, as it concerns and will affect my life on a daily basis.
Tesco have taken over a large pub on the other side of the main road from our house, and plan to open it as a Tesco Metro.  It will inevitably weaken our little parade of local shops, that serve us well, and know us as individuals. It’s probably only another lost cause. You see, the planning laws don’t require turning a pub into a supermarket to be subject to a ‘change of use’ application - so that no democratic intervention is possible. It’s a done deal.
Nevertheless, there was significant local opposition, and some effective ad-hoc leadership, together with sympathy from some local councillors. Our local MP called a ‘People’s Question Time’ meeting. One hundred or so locals turned up. The MP, a couple of councillors, the protesters’ spokesman and a man from Tesco were on the panel.
Our MP spoke, setting the tone and purpose of the evening. First, though, he said, he had to declare an interest; he was working in his parliamentary capacity with Tesco on a nationwide basis. Nevertheless, he said, he had an open mind on whether the development of this particular shop was a good idea. He would make his own mind up only once he had heard everyone.
The debate was opened to the floor. When a show of hands was called for, not one person in the room was in favour of Tesco’s proposal.
Many cogent and pertinent points were raised; presented intelligently and politely under the firm and competent chairmanship of the MP. Following the best models of open discourse in a democratic society, all who had a point to make were allowed to speak and were heard, but not to dominate the proceedings.  No-one was allowed to be disruptive. Process was exemplary.
Then the councillor spoke. Firstly, she too had to make a disclosure; she had worked closely with Tesco on an important development in the borough. Then, she had to make it clear to us that the planning laws offered no means by which the Council could even question Tesco’s intentions, let alone block them -  that while any planning applications that were required would be subjected to the most detailed scrutiny, in practice these would be limited to the detail design of the signage and the chiller plant at the rear.
Then the man from Tesco spoke. In calm, reasonable language, he sidestepped or ignored most of the interesting and provocative points brought up from the floor, and effectively told us that market forces and the law allowed Tesco to do as they planned, and that if no-one wanted the shop, we simply shouldn’t shop there. He was confident that many others would. In other words, we didn’t matter.
At this point, I stood up and suggested that, since it seemed there were no democratic processes through which our objection to Tesco could be made effective, and that since Tesco obviously cared not what we thought, further participation in the meeting was a charade; that we should leave en-masse to consider other options (I was perhaps not quite as calmly cogent as this sentence might suggest....). The chair/MP rather heatedly suggested that I was free to leave, with any others who wished to, but that he would not permit the proceedings to be further disrupted, so could I please go - now.
I did so; not one person came with me.
I lurked, disconsolate, outside, until the other core objectors should be finished so that we could discuss what to do next (in the pub, of course).
Later, the MP published a letter in the local media stating that, on balance, he had decided that there probably was no good justification for Tesco to develop that particular site.(4) He would write to them.
We had some further meetings; suggestions were made about more active protest, but these have come to nothing. A possible avenue has been found whereby the land might be registered as a Community Asset under 2012 legislation, which would allow the community to bid for the property should it ever again come on the market, and this is being pursued.
And that is where we stand. Perhaps our MP will convince Tesco management that, as a personal favour, they should not go ahead with this one shop, to spare him embarrassment. Perhaps we will be able to convince the planners to be so restrictive over signage or chiller policy that Tesco will decide to go elsewhere.  Precedent suggests that Tesco almost never respond to public or political pressure not to open a store.
Perhaps we will succeed. I doubt it. On the basis of their response to our MP, Tesco certainly do not seem to be giving up. (5) Indeed, the shop will open in late August .
But what about the experience and practice of protest? What does this issue tell us about these?
Several things, I suggest, and none of them comforting about the state of our society as a functioning democracy, where the strong and organised expression of views is meaningful and effective.
Firstly, the experience of the Tesco protest group before and after the public meeting. Beforehand, the feeling was positive; ad-hoc, enthusiastic, swift-moving, fertile with ideas and initiatives; ideas for action were followed through. Since the public meeting, activity has been much more focused on the bureaucratic and legal means by which strong feelings might be turned into change. Perhaps this is the right thing to do - it is probably the only potentially effective thing to do within the system. But for a fact the campaign depends more on a few individuals prepared to engage with the formal requirements of the various processes, and not on widespread shared feelings expressed in public. That’s not unusual, that’s how most group activity works. But the public meeting mopped up the wider energy and largely neutralised it.  
This is not a conspiracy theory - it’s a description of the mechanism that the establishment has evolved to contain and neutralise protest and allow it to claim that the people ‘were consulted’, that democracy 'works'.
Another aspect of the way protest is neutralised in this society is that it’s now so bound about with law, policy, procedure and initiatives that local personal feelings, however widely or deeply shared, have little purchase. Even supportive elected officials have little actual power, so hemmed in by conditions that they have little freedom to act except at the gross level of policy - individual cases rarely have the weight to force an exception.
Democracy has been bureaucratised, corporatised. This is what allows politicians to safely ignore enormous protests like the marches against the Iraq war; they are allotted their proper place, given their due acreage of media coverage, endlessly analysed and considered - but that is all that is necessary. An unlucky government may find that such a crisis occurs only a month or two before polling day, but otherwise, they can sleep safe in the knowledge that such issues are not, in the end, seen as proper to the normal course of political affairs. The state of the economy is, in the end, what counts in elections.
In response to this corporatisation of democracy, protest has evolved corporate methods. In the last couple of years, I have saved the arctic (rather oddly, I’ve had to do it twice), the NHS, victims of injustice in Kuwait, and a variety of other deserving cases - all by typing in my email address and pressing ‘send’. Large-scale, internet-based activism is with us - and by all accounts has purchase. Again, I participate, not in the belief that it will really change anything, but because it is a way of doing something, rather than just hand-wringing.
But this is not protest; it may well be marginally effective (though if I was a politician, knowing how little time and commitment it takes to click a button on an email, I think I’d apply a significant discount to the petition of 5 million names that is delivered with such breathless urgency), but it is not protest that can ever change the world we live in, that can transform our polity in the way that universal suffrage, civil rights or the welfare state did.
It can’t even save a local pub from being engulfed by a corporate juggernaut.
The modern state has evolved to absorb, deflect and even to incorporate such protest, so that it becomes just another of the many strands which it weaves together. Additional freedoms will not result from protest that allows itself to be contained and constrained in this manner.
Rather, protest groups now need to consciously stand apart from the accepted mechanisms, the usual channels. To secede from the sanctioned approaches, because participation in these will render the protest minimally effective, neutered, dispiriting, disheartening, bureaucratic and disempowering to all except those few individuals who find themselves co-opted into the power structures to become professional examples which the state can use to trumpet its tolerance and openness (George Monbiot, Jonathan Porritt).
The May Day marches, eschewing negotiation with the state as to route, timing etc, and refusing to tie the protest to any specific policy issue, adopted this secessionist approach.  In contrast, the anti-Iraq war marches were exemplary in the level to which they co-operated with the authorities and explicitly sought to avoid confrontational incidents.
I believe that fear of the secessionist approach explains Tony Blair’s very different responses to the May Day marches and to the anti-war marches. The huge and confused coverage given to the Occupy movement of 2011/12, and the response of the establishment, spoke again of a fear that this diffuse and angry protest movement did not adhere to accepted norms.
The lack of ‘legitimacy’ of these protest actions; the fact that they were NOT single-issue campaigns gave them potential (whether realised or not) to allow for expression of any and all feelings of dissatisfaction, of dissent - to become vehicles for significant challenge to the established order. Media coverage that wished to attack these protests found it impossible to do so by using the typical approach of muddying the waters with dissection of the issue, of the pros and cons, but were reduced to attacking the character and intelligence of the participants - an outdated tactic that is often counter-productive, and easily circumvented in these days of social media.
If more of this form of protest mushrooms as the discontent with the promised ‘decade of austerity’ grows; if it evolves the capacity to move beyond inchoate anger to imagining new freedoms, then I can look forward to marching with more purpose and optimism than emotional solidarity and a simple enjoyment of the sound of samba.  
More instances of this type of protest; open-ended, non-cooperative with corporate mechanisms, non-violent yet unafraid of civil disobedience, sophisticated in the use of social media - must be the model for protest that propels real social change.

Other reading: Protest in a Liberal Democracy by Brian Martin

1. Press Club Awards lunch, London, April 2001
2. Independent, Tuesday 20 October 1992: Government in Crisis
3. Speech at Labour's local government, women's and youth conferences, Glasgow 2003

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