When push comes to shove: Give in!

IssueMay 2009
Feature by Kelvin Mason

My sympathies go to the family and friends of Ian Tomlinson. At the G8 in Germany in 2007, the peaceful demonstrator next to me was beaten to the ground by a policeman wielding a similar baton, probably supplied by the same arms manufacturer. Unprovoked, another policeman punched my wife.

Intimidation and violence are not confined to London or “The Met”; they are the stock-in-trade of police the world over when dealing with peaceful democratic protest. Peaceful, I hear some query, but what about smashing the windows of a bank? As I listened to radio and TV pundits condemning damage to property, I couldn’t help but wonder again why they are so morally immured to condemning the warfare, exploitation and environmental crises such banks fund without a qualm. And, no, I’m not advocating violence.

What I am doing is pondering whether we shouldn’t give up protest altogether.

Not because we protesters, passers-by or bystanders could fall victim to institutionalised police brutality.

Not because we may turn to violence or vandalism.… I believe we should give up protest because we’re rubbish at it.

And, no again, I’m not criticising per se all the organising, commitment and creativity that goes into our protests.

But when we set ourselves up in these mass confrontations, we are easy meat for elites, their police and their media. The police kettle us body and soul with consummate ease; the media pay us air-kissing lip-service, preoccupied – and preoccupying the public – by salivating over the wives of presidents, and then drooling over “a tragic death” and the prospect of a sacrificial scapegoat cop. I am too old a stager, though, to expect us to give up protest. We are too earnest, too full of our own moral outrage, our own political commitment, our own unfounded sense of hope.

Paradoxically, if we could kick the protest habit, we might catalyse that change: the policeman would have no one to shove, the pundits no one to condemn, the media no one to pigeonhole. We might actually change the space of encounter: unresisted, the cop falls over; lost for words, reporters must open their eyes to new stories; and the public might stop shopping long enough to wonder what all the fuss isn’t about.

I know someone somewhere is choking with indignation, spluttering a list of instances of when “mass protest” has worked and policies have been changed, elites have been shuffled.

Generally, though, what’s missing is mass. And that’s why I think we are currently a bit rubbish. That’s why, because we are addicted to protest and unable to kick the habit, I think we should start protesting against ourselves, against protesters and protest itself: it just doesn’t work any more, if it ever really did.

Down With Us! Protest Sucks! In My Name! Bank on the Banks! (Can’t) Stop Climate Change! Too Little! Too Late! Too Few!

And so on.

Tee hee, what a card this Kelvin Mason is! Why, if we gave up serious-minded protest where would the world be? Exactly! If we gave up serious protest in favour of a deeply-felt and through-going irony, I contend the world might – just might – stop turning so predictably down to die.

Could it be worse?

Is our moral presence, kettled and stereo-typeset on the streets, making anything like the scale of difference necessary within, say, the terrifyingly short time time-frame available to stop the runaway climate change that banks are funding, corporations fuelling, politicians fudging, and police enforcing?

I contend that it couldn’t be worse, that we are making little or no difference: Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action.

I’m serious: let’s get silly, hysterical even; you know it makes sense. But, I’m very much afraid… Yes, we can’t.