In 2011, during my second year of university, Time Magazine chose The Protester as their Person of the Year.
On the one hand this is a great cause for celebration as the millions of individuals committed to the struggle were, in some way, rewarded for their actions. The hours of work, the days of organisation, the minor victories; whatever it was, their efforts were now recognised, and praised, on a global stage.
One of the reasons given by Kurt Anderson of Time Magazine for choosing their Person of the Year as The Protester, was because protest had once again become “fashionable”. (So long as it was being conducted in the MENA region and toppling dictators).
But this representation of “the protester” did not sit well with me. No protester wants to be on the cover of Time Magazine, and if they do it would be for the wrong reasons.
The glorification of the protester and the activist, or at least the romanticisation of their image – something we see on an almost daily basis with female Kurdish fighters – has gone hand in hand with the protester’s loss of control and their assimilation by the media and the state.
In much the same way cowboys’ image were diluted, sold to us as nothing but heroes in white hats who saved helpless women from savages, the protester – or at least the ones the media praises – is seen as respectful, law-abiding, and peaceful.
The protesters we are shown and told to emulate are the ones who tow the line. They give interviews to the media, providing soundbites and slogans, they obey the law when conducting their protests and actions, and their demands are small piecemeal reforms. The latter a point made repeatedly by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their book Inventing the Future.
This pacification of the protest movement has been conducted alongside the demonization of individual protesters who don’t follow the unwritten rules.
On the one hand the protest movement gets diluted and mainstreamed, making it easier to control, whilst on the other, those who remain true to their activism and see protesting as something more than just holding a banner whilst walking down the street begin to stand out from the crowd. These people are then attacked and criticised by the state and media, alienating them from both the public and their comrades in the movement.
As Martin Luther King said: “a riot is the language of the unheard”, and yet when London erupted into riots in 2011 following the murder of Mark Duggan by the police, the people on the streets were vandals, hooligans, or worse.
When the students turned their anger and frustration on Millbank following the university tuition fee rise 9-months earlier in 2010, they too were demonised. We were told that the demonstration had been hijacked. The Telegraph ran an article entitled: “the ‘battle’ of Millbank has undermined a perfectly reasonable student cause”. It opened with the statement: “No one in their right mind could claim that the violence of students (and possibly others) in London today is justified.”
The smashed windows of the tower and the graffiti covered interior was easily fixed. Yet, the cause of both the rioters and the students’ anger has still not been corrected.
As much as people would like you to believe that by solely practising non-violence and participating in legal protest results can be achieved, it is simply not true.
Undoubtedly non-violence and obedience to the law has its place, but it is just one option in the inventory available to every protester. And no single option in the inventory brings success, a multi-dimensional approach is needed.
Though I can’t recall it outside of the weeks following the London riots or the Battle of Millbank, there must exist a time whereby protest was feared rather than accommodated. A time whereby those in power genuinely thought they would have to give in to the demands of the protesters. Where a protest was not simply an end in itself, and neither was it a matter of casually walking from A to B accompanied by a police escort.
The only thought that comes to mind is that of the Suffragettes. Their militant tactics terrified the Establishment and through perseverance and a diverse range of methods, the Suffragettes were ultimately successful.
Though they may have been domestic terrorists, they were right. Their world refused them justice and so they took the necessary steps to take what they deserved.
Nowadays it seems the necessary steps are to get on your knees and beg. Beg in the form of petitions, beg in the form of civilised protest, or beg in the form of writing a letter to your local (un)representative. There is no glory to be found on your knees. And pleading with an oppressor to be kinder will result in little change.
Demonstrations, protests, petitions, they are allowed, and at times even encouraged, precisely because the State can survive them. They pose no danger to the Establishment, whilst at the same time seemingly empowering those who participate within them. It’s a toxic mix which serves only to weaken the protest movement.
The student marches through London were a spectacle, and though I enjoyed participating, I am left with the knowledge that they achieved nothing.
As many as 100,000 students marched through the streets of the capital, and it only made front page news because of the damage caused to Millbank. Without that it would have been nothing. A ripple on the lake, and one that the boat can easily glide over. Before long, the lake would become still once again.
In our “democracy” – and lets be honest here it is an oligarchy or a plutocracy in reality – there is an obsession with doing things by the book. We repeat the same tactics against the same people in the naïve hope that the results would change. We are then both surprised and disappointed when our efforts produce no results.
“Insanity”, after all, “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The effort put in to such endeavours is not the problem, because the will power is there, the fight, the desire, and the passion. It is just that it is being funnelled – or should that be kettled – down the wrong path.
100,000 passionate, angry students. What could we have achieved if we decided against marching in London? With 10% of that we could have shut down the country for a week, occupying roads, railways, and motorways. The country would have been forced to come to a standstill. With 5% of that we could have staged a mass synchronised hunger strike, occupying our university lecture halls and live streaming the protest online. With 100,000 students we could have signed a pledge declaring that neither ourselves, nor any of our offspring, would ever contemplate voting Liberal Democrat, consigning them to the history books as two whole generations of educated and politically engaged citizens boycotted them.
These actions, easy to suggest in hindsight I know, could have produced the victory we were fighting for. Instead we followed the rulebook, as if reading from a script, play by play. Even falling into the trap of attacking obstacles that were planted as bait to ease the media’s efforts to portray us as hooligans and thugs.
Mass demonstrations may have worked once, but they do not any more. Adaptation is needed, creativity is Queen. We need to realise that the battlefield is all around us and that by only marching, signing petitions, and remaining on our laptops, we are committing political suicide.
With this being the case, I propose that we go back to the drawing board. I believe there are four key principles to remember when planning for a successful action.
In both senses of the word. What is your target – in that, a) what do you hope to achieve? And also, what is your target – in that, b) who or what are you targeting? Both of these need to be clearly defined with outcomes being realistic, but ambitious.
The student protests covered both targets. The first, a), was the cancellation of the rise in tuition fees, and the second, b), were the MPs voting on the bill. The outcome that you hope to achieve is related to the target that you are planning the action against, i.e. the university tuition fees will only increase or decrease because of the MPs decisions.
I feel very strong about Syria and its revolutionary forces, but I must recognise that I cannot affect the Syrian conflict. Therefore, if I am to conduct actions on Syria, both my targets need to be appropriate. I can target the UK public to raise awareness of the situation, I can target my local MP to try and pressure them into being more vocal on the issue, or I can target mechanisms and systems which spread pro-Assad or pro-Russian propaganda. To demand a No Fly Zone, or UK/US/Nato intervention, or military assistance is unrealistic.
Who is the target audience? Who do you want to hear or see your message? Not everything needs to be shouted; sometimes a whisper to the right person can be far more effective.
Public awareness campaigns obviously target members of the public, whoever they may be, but more refined campaigns may narrow the audience. A large audience tends to be a good thing, as publicity helps, but there are instances where it may be best if the world did not know.
By and large, these would be situations where you would break the law or at least flirt with breaking it. Blackmail would be one, graffiti would be another, as would vandalism, property damage, or use of currently illegal substances.
Linked closely to the previous principle comes coverage and communication. What coverage do you hope your actions will receive? How can you maximise the chances of this happening? What will your communication take the form of? Will you have flyers, banners, posters, chants, a press release, a statement?
Communication itself deserves an article of its own really, but to keep things brief, your communication needs to be simple, concise, and passionate. Why use 100 words to say something, when you can use 10? Don’t alienate your audience and potential supporters by making your communication inaccessible or needlessly dense. You can talk about Conservative ideology and the parties links to the fossil fuel industry, but to make things more relatable, speak about the threats climate change can pose to the reader and how renewable energy sources can lower energy bills.
Address the reader. Scare them, inspire them, educate them, and then recruit them.
Take a page from the enemies book, because they learnt the efficient tactics a long time ago. “All in this together”, “Support our troops”, “they hate our freedom”. They are short slogans that are easy to understand, agree on, and relate to. The French Revolution used similar tactics with their demand of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, as was Lenin’s slogan of “Peace, Land, Bread”.
Never conduct an action without using communication. Your silence will be overshadowed by the media and the commentators who will communicate on your behalf. Don’t let your enemy tell your story.
Coverage relates to the communication that occurs outside of your movement and control. You are able to control what story and narrative you promote, but what the media and the public do is out of your hands. Here is where you need allies.
Coverage of your action can be conducted across a number of mediums: radio, television, social media, newspapers, journalists, bloggers, and word of mouth. To maximise the chances of getting good coverage that will benefit your movement, make a media list to accompany each of your actions. Who is sympathetic to your cause? Who has a wide network or following? Contact them all, let them know what is happening, when, and why.
Be vocal and active across as many media forms as you can.
Even if all the previous elements are successfully in place, your action may fail because the wrong tactic has been used.
Your target has been chosen, you have contacted the necessary media and ensured that your message is well articulated, and you have highlighted the audience you want your message to reach, but none of this matters if you use the wrong tactic.
There is a time and a place for demonstrations, for occupations, for flyering, for hunger strikes, for petitions, and for boycotts. The success of each one of these depends on the target that you have chosen. The two must align and must be supported by strong communication to your audience.
A picket line with supporting boycott and flyering is perfect to shut down a shop, as PSC Brighton proved with Soda Stream, but a petition or demonstration would have failed despite their best effort. Similarly a petition or boycott may fail to take down a tax evading web company, (Google, Facebook, etc) but hacking would be successful.
For each target there is a suitable tactic.
It’s time we moved away from the easily controlled and almost entirely futile feet-on-the-street form of protest. It’s time for creativity and for success.
The aim is to create maximum results or disruption with minimal resources. If you bear in mind the four key principles of TACT you won’t go far wrong
Good luck comrades.
Recommended Further Reading:
This article that featured in the New Statesman. Written by a self-confessed Tory supporter, he is bang on the money. “Here’s the reason – the government don’t need to order a media blackout because the sad truth is “Lefties march in moderate numbers, again, and then go home, again”, isn’t much of a story. That’s it. That’s why the BBC didn’t cover it.”
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