The politics of protest: The emergence of an ‘alternative’ breed of protester

19 Apr

26 March saw several thousands of people from all backgrounds protest on the streets of London. Organised by The Trades Union Congress (TUC), many came from near and far to voice their disdain over the government’s manhandling of UK public services.  With protesters ranging from students to pensioners, 26 March exhibited the kind of unity last seen in the anti-Iraq war march of 2003. People from all kinds of professional and political persuasions stood shoulder to shoulder to voice their anger and to, ‘March for the Alternative’.

Deemed as an all-round success, no one can deny that the events in the day were mostly peaceful and paid tribute to the stella organisation skills of the TUC. However as the day moved on, a more aggressive form of ‘protest’ developed. We’ve all read about the backlash and many heard of the ammonia filled light bulbs that were thrown at the police.

As shocking as this was, this violent undertone of protest is unfortunately nothing new. There will always be a violent aspect to larger protests whether from a minority  group of ‘protesters’ or the aggressive actions of the police, Ian Tomlinson being a fitting example among many others.  People looking to cause trouble will always gate crash other people’s causes and use it as a platform to justify their own violent behaviour.

However can the same be said for the minority involved in the Black Bloc movement, a masked group who vandalised symbolic property throughout the march?  Their anonymous interview in the Guardian was telling. Far from the yobs and misfits the government would have us label them; they spoke articulately about their cause and motivations and were able to voice this to the mainstream media without sacrificing their anonymity.  And for the group to do something seemingly spontaneous (although this is a bit too hard to believe) and still out-fox the police indicates that this required more than a black hoodie but actual brain power.

As misguided was these actions were, they brought the demonstration and the nature protest to the top of the agenda. Granted, with up to an estimated 500 000 people protesting for such a topical and important cause; it was always going to attract media attention. But rightly or wrongly, to what extent would this have happened without the actions of these alternative movements such as the Black Bloc?  Although for the most part the media was clear that the main demonstration was a success, the debate that lingered was over the nature of the violent protests. What does this say about our society when it is violence and damage that attracts more headlines?  Do you remember the fire-fighter’s protest last September or the recent protests in Germany against nuclear power? These were peaceful protests that didn’t stay in the media spotlight for long, presumably because respectful people protesting in the streets en mass and then going home isn’t sexy media fodder.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to don my balaclava (and in this weather?!) and hoist a paintball gun on my back. I saw the damage done to those shops and the fear these actions inflict on others who have nothing to do with the government. Despite the Black Bloc’s intention to, ‘send a message’ I couldn’t help wonder who they actually thought they were hurting.  Something tells me that Phil Green isn’t about to roll up his sleeves and start scrubbing the paint off the walls of Topshop. It’s the underpaid worker that has to deal with it which only maintains the vertical structures we live in where the ‘poor’ cleans up after the mess of the rich.

But what actually are our alternatives? When nothing in society tells us we have a say worth listening to. With no overall majority during the 2010 elections, the coalition government was formed based on back hand deals and sly manoeuvres we’ll presumably only know about when some backbencher memoir is released years down the line, demonstrations see the police kettling and manipulating protesters, thus stifling their right to protest, tuition fees are soaring thus excluding a good chunk of people in to their right to higher education. The list goes on but the point is, now more than ever, our government is sending out signals that majority has no say over the society we live in.

Politically, on the day of the march we had Ed Miliband as a speaker for the ‘alternative’.  However he compared the anti-cuts struggle to the civil rights movement (let’s just let that one go), didn’t really seem to offer an alternative and just rode the bandwagon placed before him.  When we push Ed’s awkward clichés aside, there doesn’t seem much hope in the Labour party leading the way to genuine change.

March 26 seemed to confirm this new era of protest we are entering based on our frustrations. The rise of groups that pioneer direct action tap into this feeling that to actually gain the attention of the government and wider public alike, you’re going to get your hands dirty. However, how this can and should be interpreted is another question. Groups such as UK Uncut and Climate Rush protest in a way that doesn’t inflict fear on Joe Bloggs walking down the street minding his own business. Instead Joe might even be inclined to watch the theatrical means of protest those groups employ and actually question what the fight is for, as opposed to fleeing from wayward shards of glass from broken windows.

On looking back at the media reaction from the march, I’m left feeling unsure by how much the demonstration would have made the news had the protests ended at Hyde Park with the majority of the other demonstrators. It’s a sad state of affairs when we need to ponder on this, but do we need the tactics of the Black Bloc ilk to push forward our agenda? The idea of this makes me feel uncomfortable and goes against my principles. And yet it seems like while society looks down on this kind of violent action, it readily engages in the necessary debate associated with it. Contrast this against peaceful protests, where coverage remains fleeting and limited.

In light of an age where more people are looking for their voices to be heard and to express their anger against the government, what message does this send out to people wondering how to protest?

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