Collective ownership of protest, and inclusivity

I’ve been thinking about protest and inclusivity a bit lately. We live in a time of unprecedented attack on the welfare state. We have a cabinet of millionaires, record unemployment, shutting down of access to higher education, our national health service up for sale, jobs and services being slashed across the public sector, attacks on workers rights and conditions, and a wall of rhetoric designed to repress any acknowledgement of the role power (and lack of it) plays in recreating society: the disabled and unemployed are scroungers, women who cry rape are to blame for dressing provovatively or drinking too much, trades unionists are trouble-makers out to rip off the working poor, religious groups are independent counsellors. There is a lot to fight against, and we have to fight against it together.

The biggest and most dangerous obstacle to a collective fightback is apathy. The general public don’t trust politicians (quite often with good reason), and the model of democracy we use often sees career politicians voting on issues which the people they represent know little or nothing about, inspite of the impact this voting will have on their lives. People have little or no control over the things which actually affect them, and it is not just out of a lack of knowledge but also a lack of direct democracy. “People just don’t care enough” is often the lament of the seasoned protester, often followed by blaming either themselves, fellow activists or the apathetic public themselves. If we could just get round this obstacle, then maybe we would have a decent chance of real social change. What we need really is a permanent state of reflection and analysis on how to engage, but this usually gets overclouded by misdirected rage, leading to internal conflict between increasingly fractional divisions within the left.

The problem seems to be that much too much of what could be useful critical analysis gets caught up in individual or group experienced ownership of protest issues. I first noticed this about a year ago, while I was reading up some of the reports about the March 26th London demonstration, including one piece by the journalist Laurie Penny. As a disclaimer: I don’t agree with her on some things but think she is an interesting writer and a valuable female voice in an industry which is largely male dominated. Unlike the majority of people on the streets, Laurie Penny is privately educated and has been to Oxford University. I read with interest her account of the Fortnum and Mason’s action, but was irritated to notice she referred to the majority of the people involved on that day (a huge number of which were public sector workers such as myself who had juggled their childcare and their weekend work, got up at some ungodly hour of the morning, travelled up to hundreds of miles to be there, and who were watching with horror the impact of cuts on their students, patients, jobseekers or whoever else they work with, as well as looking around nervously at colleagues to work out where their jobs might be going and who might be vulnerable) as sitting around eating hummous and listening to speeches whilst other (presumably “real”) activists had been elsewhere. It left me wondering: can a protest movement ever be successful if it cannot get around the barrier that different people will act in different ways? Can a protest movement ever be a popular movement if an elite of people with their views amplified beyond others are consistently attacking either the majority or other factions rather than directing most of their anger outwards? Property is theft, but it appears that for some that political issues are very much something which can be owned, and other people messing with “their” stuff by being active in an undesirable fashion is a source of much anger.

I saw this in action a few weeks ago, when I was involved in coordinating two of the (apparently controversial) NHS candlelit vigils: one in Birmingham and one online which I set up in response to some queries from people with childcare commitments and disabilities who were unable to attend in person but wanted to participate. The vigils were set up by Eoin Clarke, the director of Labour Left, as a noise-making exercise in what was essentially a media blackout. It happened after a discussion in the Labour Left forum over what kind of event to run: Eoin was originally talking about pickets (which over here generally relate to strikes but in Northern Ireland apparently refers to static protests). Vigils were mentioned and were popular: at the time I commented that in the past there had been some negative reponse to the symbolism of vigils because it evokes passive reception of something ending – though arguably it is also symbolically a form of standing witness. The majority were in favour of vigils and, as the organisation is democratic, that is what we went with.

Whilst I’ve got a long history of activism (I was pretty much raised in the Christian peace and social justice movement, was involved in the student movement against the original fees, and am a trades unionist who has been involved in groups co-ordinating both local and national action repeatedly in the last few months) the experience was a new one in that I’d never been responsible for so much of the running of that kind of event before. It went as well as it could: there was a good turnout for both, and people from various groups spoke about their anger and directed attention/traffic towards various local fights going on. There were probably a mix of people in attendance; young and old, able bodied and disabled, veteran and new protesters, liberals and radicals: try calling Jane Sinden (who spoke at the event about how she is currently involved in a fight against the poor treatment being received by her partner and his fellow kidney dialysis patients as a result of health privatisation) a slactavist. You’ll probably get a right hook, and it will be deserved. Would a more direct form of activism such as an occupation been successful? Not with the same numbers, and it is not something I could have suggested or participated in as there would have been nobody to look after my kids or take my classes. With massive numbers, yes, but so would the vigils: the problem is not that protest in the UK today is too radical or too liberal, but that there are not enough people involved.

That night, and in the next week or two, there was a bit of a backlash from within against the vigils. I read tweets where the people I stood with were dismissed by young London, academia based activists as a bunch of middle aged women standing around in anoraks (this is presumably different from sitting around at the appropriate time or place in an occupation, where people are younger and better dressed). There was lots of criticism for Eoin’s call for the events to be peaceful. His intention, I’m sure, was to avoid media write-ups of the event to draw on the already dominant narrative of protest as coming from deviants outside of society rather than people within it, a big factor in dismissing legitimacy. It was read as hateful dismissal of the violence endured by protestors targetted by police on previous occasions. A useful point, that we need to look at how calls for peace can be used to carve a false division between legitimate and illigitimate protest, got lost in a lot of personal abuse, and I saw someone who spends most of his living hours working on trying to publicise and build opposition to the government described, once more, as a slacktavist along with a lot more insulting terms. The anger intensified after Eoin made a comment on his write up that the vigils had been woman dominated and enabled women to build their skills. This was a comment based on discussions after the event, which had predominantly involved women in terms of organisation, and had included reflections on male domination of previous experiences of events. He was making the comment as an equal (he is, after all, a feminist, and I have found him to be a strong ally in discussions about equality and inclusivity) but it was misrepresented as a pat on the head, and subsequently met with frustration from radical women who felt their actions had been dismissed.

The problem is, action in any form can reproduce hierarchy, and a lot of the direct action of the last year or so has shown this to be the case. Women were raped at occupy, and then their concerns were dismissed. It is my personal belief that violent protest (which occupy wasn’t, in intention) reproduces norms of violence which will inevitably favour the physically strong over the physically weak, and that the call for violent protest is a call for an exclusive rather than inclusive form of action. Peaceful protest does at least hold the basic assumption that people can be equals regardless of the capability of their bodies, even if it does have to be routinely unpicked to see who it could be excluding.

Don’t get me wrong: I think a movement with no reflection or criticism is just as likely to stagnate, and a movement without passion is unlikely to burn very bright or attract much attention. But there has to be acknowledgement of collective ownership of issues. My children stand to lose out in a health system which if it continues being driven towards privatisation could see them priced out of their own well being. My students are facing record obstacles to education with the imposition of fees and the withdrawal of financial support. Conditions and pay are being eroded for my colleagues on a local and national level. I’m angry beyond belief about this, but it is caused not by people who share my views that it is wrong, but the power held by the elite in our country in immobilising the masses through a steady feed of corruption, plutocratic control of the media, and the opiate of steady consumption. Not liberalism, or radicalism, in themselves, but the failure of either to get the numbers they need for success. Outside of the twitterati, liberals and radicals and people in the middle (like me) can and do work together on shared issues. In the ideal world, enough of the general public would be both informed enough about what the changes to the NHS mean for their families, and confident enough in their ability to cause change, that they would have occupied parliament and circled the surrounding area, calling for at the very least an immediate referendum, while those of us not in the capital took to the streets in their thousands in villages, towns and cities across the UK in solidarity, or occupied online spaces. It isn’t happening, however, and it won’t happen, until we have a huge discussion about inclusivity: inclusivity in terms at looking at the people who want to be involved but have issues with access or have their contributions dismissed or talked over, but also inclusivity en masse: building numbers for the effective action the UK so desparately needs.

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