Unity makes us feel good, joining together with other like-minded people gives a sense of belonging, a sense that there are others who think like you when often you feel like everyone else is crazy and you’re the only sane person around.
Take London for example, because it’s where I live. There is nearly 9 million people who live here, it’s easy to get lost amongst the crowd of people and not be able to find those you can connect with, but you know within 9 million people there has to be a few you can get on with. Eventually you’ll find them, most people who move to a big city not knowing many people will understand that if you don’t try to meet people you will be left behind, go out, go to places that play music you like or serve drinks you like…
In London, it feels like there is a protest every day. It could be 10 students outside a bookshop selling Nazi literature, the owner swears it’s for historical interest only but the students are outraged. Or, it might be 200,000 people marching through the streets debating war or immoral government policy. Or, it might be the guy standing outside of the Iceland in Kentish Town with a megaphone shouting about the awful ingredients in their food, he’s quite witty, hard to tell if he’s serious or it’s an art prank (either quite likely in London).
I feel like I’ve become immune to protests, I feel like if people protest everything the power is lessened. It is important to question and challenge the Nazi literature, or the contents of food and definitely Government policy, war and injustice but I often question whether marching the streets has any effect.
I know many people who are active in anarchist or antifascist movements, who are at every protest, out to fight every cause and they mean it. They believe that being out En masse is the way to tell the powers that be they are wrong. I ask these people how often a protest can be directly linked to a positive change and the examples are few and far between, the ones that do have effect usually turn into a coup.
I also know many people who go on protest marches and they aren’t even sure what the march is for.
All important, but the protest is more than likely organised for a specific purpose.
I have been on one protest march, this was around 2009 and post-worldwide recession the UK Government had instituted many cuts to public funding and as I was working in social care my client group were beginning to feel this. We were part of a huge march through central London, in what may have been the biggest single mobilisation of disabled people in history (not an over exaggeration) I was even lucky enough to be in a small group to enter parliament and speak with an MP (Glenda Jackson) about the plight of the people we were supporting. The outcome of the protest? Nothing, absolutely nothing. The Conservative Government continued to slash budgets and vulnerable people continued to lose services and providers of those services like myself had to stretch resources more and more, it was a failure.
Did I feel it was important to stand up and say something? Yes, absolutely. Did it feel good to be part of a mass of people speaking up, yes? But it all felt pointless at the end, the adrenaline faded and back to normal life making do.
This is the outcome of most protest marches and I would hazard to say most people involved gain a great feeling of togetherness and pat themselves on the back for standing up but go home afterwards and haven’t really done anything, nothing has changed because you walked the streets.
Mobilising 200,000 people is amazing, a great feat even in a city of 9 million like London, but 200,000 people is still a minority, still not enough to say:
“The people have spoken”
Some people have spoken, if that number of protesters was 4.5 million, you could say that represents the people because it’s at least half the population. However, that’s half the population of London, the UK has over 60 million residents, therefore if the issue being protested is a national or international one even half the population of London still signifies a minority. It won’t feel like a minority when you are amongst 200,000 others because it’s very rare to be amongst so many people, but you are still the few.
Of course, there are many people who are on the side of the march but unable to attend, some might say they are not committed, some might say if they can’t be bothered then the issue obviously isn’t that important? Which is bullshit. The majority of protest marches are for good moral and ethical causes and I agree with the protesters for the most part. But I don’t go on marches, I don’t think they make much difference. And there are many people sympathetic to a cause who can’t make it for many reasons (health, finances, distance, child care, work… you know? life)
The numbers are clear if we use London as a model, but look at Iceland (the country, not the shop) the population is approximately 330,000 as of 2016, most of them native Icelanders. After the publication of the Panama Papers around 22,000 people protested demanding the Prime minister step down, due to the unquestionable evidence and what was probably the highest percentage of a population to ever protest, he stepped down, a protest that worked. Had the Panama Papers being published been enough for him to admit guilt and quit? Unlikely, but people noticed and said so.
That is one of the ones that worked, so I cannot deny the power of a crowd on the streets shouting loud protest. What I think is important is that the Icelanders are a small population and they speak up when they mean it.
I won’t go into the behaviour of protest that I may deal with at work, or a parent might with a small child who will hold their breath or refuse to move until they get an ice cream or at work for me it is likely more severe, that’s a very different thing. The aim of the protest in question is the aforementioned unity with other believers, the need to stand up and speak and often to disrupt a system.
I protest frequently, I will be the first person to complain about goods and services that aren’t good enough. I will happily send back a plate of food in a restaurant if it isn’t good enough, that’s protest too. But even in those situations I make a calculated decision.
If I am in restaurant and going to pay £30 or more for a meal, then I will certainly send something back if it’s not good, but if I have bought some fried chicken for £2 and it’s horrible I’ll just throw it out and simply not go back to the shop, different types of protest.
Which goes back to the original question of is it worth going on a hundred thousand person march or is it better to not engage at all? Protest by omission or by purposeful refusal to use are just as valid and often more effective.
For example, a large multinational restaurant chain is sourcing the beef for their burgers from farms where the animals are mistreated, even meat eaters will agree this isn’t right. To protest this, should we all go and stand outside the local branch of this franchise or should we simply stop eating there?
There’s a very good chance that those protesting already don’t eat there, so the effect on sales will be limited and even if sales drop for a period will the chain even associate it with the ethics of diners? Or maybe they’ll assume some other trend. By standing outside and shouting the message is clear, but does the company care? It’ll certainly cause quite a few people to not go in due to guilt (who are probably already guilty about eating junk food anyway) These types of things have happened and been effective, as the food we have available to us has changed, we may have more ethical practice in food production or not, do we believe it if the company CEO comes out and states they will no longer source their beef in such a way, how do we know? Do we trust what they say when we didn’t trust them enough to eat in their restaurant? PR is powerful and the people at the top of the PR world are very good at making you believe them.
The next step is more guerrilla style protest, sabotage, chaining yourself to airplane wheels, cutting electricity to factories, blowing up… wait, is that protest? Is what the IRA used to do an extreme protest? Is Daesh simply protesting against people who they disagree with? OK, that’s a bit absurd but we do have to question the method with which we deliver our message. And at what point are our morals more important than someone else’s, that guy who wants to eat the burger and doesn’t care where the meat comes from because he works hard and he’s hungry, doesn’t hurt anyone and just wants a burger, why should I question that?
Evolution is why.
As we have evolved, grown and changed as a species, we originally didn’t know that chopping down all the trees would have a negative effective on ecosystems and our atmosphere, now we do know that, so we should stop using trees. Many will say:
“It’s not my problem, science proved that, but science will solve the problem”
It’s easy to bury your head in the sand and carry on, stick with the establishment and not stand up and fight. I do believe in standing up and fighting but again, method is everything.
I often feel as though many people engage in these protests to go along for the ride, because it’s what their friends are doing. Social Media has become a fascinating place to observe human behaviour, something that initially was seen as dismissive has now become subject to in depth psychological analysis.
Many people will say and show things online they wouldn’t in real life, they see the internet as some buffer to real people and also as a way of stripping off their filters where social rules would normally apply. I’ve seen people say things like.
“I hope they rape her with a shovel”
“I hope that guy dies of cancer”
Horrific things that they wouldn’t utter to a person face to face, like it somehow makes a difference. But what this also shows is the opposite, people who are overly empathic online, they “like and follow” every cause, they change their profile picture to show solidarity and so on, but do they act in actuality. They may rant on social media about a particular issue, but how do we know those people do anything about it? I’ve seen people go on about making sure to vote, then in person they say they couldn’t be bothered. Pointing out that the time spent posting on media could have been used to do something meaningful is usually pointless.
It is of course fine to have a bit more bravado when you aren’t in the room with someone, but to claim others are not acting properly when you in fact don’t is wrong. The armchair warrior seems ever more common. I know many people who use their social media purely to communicate socially conscious messages and some of these people do act accordingly, but it makes it easy to look like you are doing the right thing when you aren’t doing anything. This just makes me wary of people telling me what is right.
“Let’s all join together to stop them bombing Syria”
“OK, but stop who?”
“The ones bombing the Syrians”
“OK, what shall we do?”
“Go and protest an embassy?”
“Let’s get a pizza and watch TV”
“Maybe start a Facebook group?”
“Haven’t got time to moderate it”
It does take work to do something about something, but picking battles is very important, there is vast amounts of injustice in the world and no single person can deal with all of it. You might choose to dedicate your life to a cause, and leave your home and go to a foreign and distant land to help people, or you might simply just live your life as ethically as you can day to day. It might be you aren’t a fighter, you don’t find it easy to confront people and situations (let alone armed police or huge faceless corporations and politicians) it might even be you live in a country where stating your views counter to the mainstream will get you killed quite literally but those aren’t the situations I’m discussing.
This started out as a way of proving that the crowd marching in opposition down a London high Street was in fact pointless, I’ve changed my mind to an extent as I have found many examples where that type of protest has been the right thing, it’s just very rare it should be the first thing. Should we jump straight into attack or try diplomacy first? Diplomacy has let the people down many times. There isn’t a formula to solve problems, each individual problem has its own solution and that solution may have numerous ways of being achieved. The question is what drives us to choose a particular method? Like anything our life experience plays a huge part, our intellect, our personality and our position in life and any other possible factor.
I’m not against the crowd marching, I just think it’s a powerful tool that shouldn’t be overused which can make it have less impact.
We also need to choose our cause carefully before mobilising people to make sure the message we’re portraying is right, otherwise the crowd marching can look like bullies or at the least a great inconvenience. Just because you believe strongly in a cause is not enough reason for it to fuck with other people’s lives.
And finally, just because someone doesn’t make grand gestures doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something. We all have different ways of taking action. I often think about what I may be able to do about something and rarely do I consider arranging a march, it might be using my other activities to communicate a message, it might be physically helping someone.
As I write this, there is a horrific situation in Chechnya where gay people are being taken to camps and tortured. What can I do about this? Will signing a petition and sending it to the Government inspire change in Chechnya? Maybe, if we can get political sway behind it, are there sanctions our Government can put in place to make them listen? I don’t know.
This is the latest in a long history of people being shit to each other, if 200,000 or 300,000 or more people marching through London was effective I’d join that march.
My attitude is to try and solve a problem universally, how do we change attitudes in people? How do we change the way politics work? Can I get a message through, maybe in an article like this? It might all be wishful thinking. By all means stand up and have your say, just make sure it’s worth it and you say the right thing.