SOME THOUGHTS ON ‘PROTEST’
This essay is part of our Threat Levels series. In 2006, the UK passed from a seemingly more casual and non-specific BIKINI state to a more serious state of threat, varying from substantial to critical. The reference to the likelihood of a terrorist attack has manifested itself in our day-to-day and conversations, and “threat” as an emotion, rather than a factual state, has spread to many other aspects of political and social life. In this thread, we feature essays, interviews, long reads, short reads and other forms of political writing that engage with issues of public discourse that induce menace and threat.
Some Thoughts on Protest: both the anthology of short stories from Comma Press, and the thing that happens in the streets.
Protest: Stories of Resistance, edited by Ra Page (Comma Press, 2017)
By Henry Bell
On the sterile bit of lawn between the Scottish Parliament and Holyrood Palace sits a protest camp of extreme Scottish-nationalists. Extreme not necessarily in the sense that they hold far-right views, but in the sense that they are extremely committed to Scottish independence. Presumably, the Nationalist First Minister of the Nationalist Government, now in its 11th year of power, looks out at the Nationalist protesters and thinks: “Aye lads, we’re kind of on it.” But then the protest is not there to alter government policy, or to effect any kind of change. It is there as a statement of identity. The protesters are protesting not to achieve an outward aim, but to inwardly say I am #StillYes, this protest, the flag, that referendum is a part of me.
Similarly the Remain Voters who march for Europe, flying EU flags outside Westminster, are protesting to say something about themselves. Perhaps they are hoping to derail Brexit, but chiefly they are there to show that they didn’t choose this xenophobic disaster-trip. As Harry Giles points out many Boycotts too have become a deeply individualist pursuit. You boycott Nestlé and Coca-Cola not because people power will bring them down, but because it is part of your particular brand – your own ethical corner of capitalism.
These protests, when portrayed by us and by the media as individual branding exercises, create a space for the alt-right fantasy of the professional protester: mysteriously paid by Soros or some other shady billionaire to destabilise masculinity, to victimise whiteness, or destroy family values. The professional protester, who has no politics, is a thug for hire that will hold a placard or shout at a cop whenever required.
Whilst in reality no one is getting paid, there is some truth to the image of the perpetual protester. Perhaps many of us do turn out at every antifascist action, at every picket line, every march against the government, the council, the police, every May Day and Day of Rage, every Pride, Pro-Choice, Reclaim the Night or Cap the Rents event – not as a job, but certainly as a hobby. Every Saturday in town there we are with our quirky handmade placards – “Chapatti to the head, ya bam,” ”Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism Now.” Some droll rhyme, a bit of weegie patter, or piece of ironic Maoism, clutched eagerly in the hope that it will look good on Twitter, Instagram, or maybe even make a Buzzfeed list. Our protests are not just individualistic; they are performed pieces of our identity, our own personal clickbait, future Tinder profiles. During the 2010 student occupations The Laboratory of Imaginary Insurrection produced A Users Guide to Demanding the Impossible, it said:
A March from A to B with placards, repetitive slogans chanted with hoarse voices, protesters kettled in the cold for hours, crowds listening to a man with a beard giving a speech, boring banners hung from buildings, flyers filled with statistics of doom […]. Do these acts resemble the future we want? How else could our demands and desires be manifested? How else could our actions look and feel?
In the seven years since that was written, those boring marches from A to B have not become more imaginative, but they have become increasingly fetishized and ironized. Our banners are now in-jokes, we tweet about how the man with the beard will be having a bag of cans with us after his speech. As we re-enact a ritual again and again it has changed – we used to perform it hopefully for the local news, and now we do it resignedly, with raised eyebrows, for our social-media followers.
There is something else in turning out to every demo though. You know the people. You know who sells what paper, which trade unionists you like, who the cool kids with the flares and balaclavas are. You know who knew Jimmy Reid. And Jimmy Reid knew which of his comrades had known Helen Crawfurd. And when Helen Crawfurd formed the Communist Party she knew which of the Ukrainian Glaswegians at her meetings bore scars from the 1905 revolution, and they knew folk who had lived through the Paris Commune. There is a direct link through these protests that keeps a culture alive, an unbroken history of resistance and solidarity that stretches directly from you standing in George Square next week, a hundred years back to the striking workers beaten by police in 1919 and another hundred years to the fighters of the Radical War executed in 1820. These protests form a bridge through time and space, connecting us with the past through a tradition of resistance, and forging links with our comrades today. Whilst protest are increasingly sold back to us through social media and clickbait as something individualistic and ironic, you are earnestly keeping alive thousands and thousands of stories that teach us how to be kinder, more hopeful, how we might carve out moments of resistance against the crushing cruelty and banality of oppression.
In this way, art made by and about past dissent is central to future dissent. Every time someone sings Alistair Hulett’s “Mrs Barbour’s Army” they invoke her memory but also build up courage for future fights against landlordism. Victor Jara’s power couldn’t be taken when he was murdered, because his songs continued to embody his resistance. Protest: Stories of Resistance edited by Ra Page adds to that treasury with twenty short stories each covering a protest that took place between 1381 and 2003. These stories are all followed by a companion essay offering some historical context. The book largely ignores leaders and icons and instead looks to the people, engaging in a bottom-up myth-making that is about the collective rather than the individual.
Page’s introduction describes coming to the history of protest as an outsider, but an ally. He takes the reader on a march where they feel out of place:
why should the harmless customs of more seasoned protesters (the songs, the chants, the familiarity with basic circus skills) somehow upstage the ideological affinity that brought us all together […]?
Page goes on to wonder why one might feel this disconnection: what has happened to the ideologies that should bind us? By way of response, this book offers itself as an overtly provocative survey of “the Struggle”; a vibrant history of resistance calling out for reclamation and reconnection, rather than a BBC style “quest for balance.”
The stories themselves begin with The Peasants Revolt and move quickly towards the twentieth century. Matthew Holness’s story ‘The Mastiff’ provides a gruesome image of the massive social unrest following the Civil War while Dr John Rees and Professor Mark Stoyle offer a thoughtful overview of The Diggers – particularly interesting to those of us whose knowledge doesn’t really extend beyond the lyrics of World Turned Upside Down. They conclude that “The Diggers are still remembered because the questions they asked have not been answered.” Can we call this a good society, even a tolerable one, in which there is no economic equality, no right to the land?
Laura Hird’s moving account of young men swept up in the Radical War is the last of the six stories that cover the 600 years before the twentieth century. The events of the remaining 14 stories are in general more familiar: The Suffragettes, Orgreave, Greenham Common. This is understandable, though it is perhaps a shame that the focus is so heavily rooted in the last fifty years. Rent strikes, Hunger Marches, The General Strike, and Cable Street all seem slightly missed. But then how could 20 stories, or even 200 make sure that everyone felt their favourite rebellion had been covered. Slightly more problematic is the absence of Ireland. But maybe we can hope for a sequel covering the many stories of Irish resistance.
One protest I had not heard before is that of The National Blind March of 1920. Sandra Alland tells the story of a Manchester couple and a Glasgow poet and their fight for justice instead of charity, elegantly laying out the facts and context in three touching and human vignettes. Her character Ada Edge stayed with me. In the accompanying essay Dr Francis Salt adds that it speaks volumes that this particular episode of our history, of resistance by the subjects of charity, has been forgotten.
Avtar Singh Jouhl contributes an excellent essay about his own experiences of racism in England in the 1950s and 60s and his part in bringing Malcom X to Smethwick to protest against the colour bar and the racist Conservative MP Peter Griffiths. It ends:
writing this in 2016 in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, however, I can’t help but feel a shudder of familiarity […].
In the sixties, Enoch Powel spoke of ‘Rivers of Blood.’ At the end of the seventies Thatcher swept into government defending people’s fear of ‘being swamped by an alien culture.’ Now we have Theresa May, whose rise to power has been ushered in by the jovial, ‘friendly’ face of xenophobia – the ideology of the forever beer-swilling Brexiteers.
Jouhl’s disturbing account of England in the middle of the twentieth century and his fears for the future give the book an urgency that continues across the final stories. There is a connection of the past and present that opens up these stories and essays as spaces for rehearsal and learning. As John Maclean said, a good strike allows us to develop a fighting theory, giving us real experience of a sharper class-warfare to come. So stories about protest, like protests themselves, provide a space for experimentation and training, to look at tactics and prepare for future confrontation.
Some common themes of course emerge. From the Pentrich Rising to Orgreave and the New Cross Fire, the same cocktail of disempowerment, discrimination, and the sinister hand of the police and the state lead again and again to acts of resistance, community and solidarity. Taken as a whole the writing here provides a series of snapshots that disturb our scrolling social media feed and embrace a less atomising, more unifying landscape that we can see all kinds of people we know in. The variety of voices and subjects create a series of ever moving perspectives, but they unite around one focal point: our collective experiences of oppressions and our political responses to them.
As A Users Guide to Demanding the Impossible says, political art can always be used as “a cool cultural mask over the catastrophe that is capitalism.” Just as your instagramable handmade placards can render protest an aesthetic commodity, so art about political struggle can disarm the protesters, render them a museum piece, defeated. Stories can act as hagiographies, take a movement that we ought to feel part of and instead create icons, others, a series of disconnected individuals – not something that is part of a process. By focusing on the roots of protest and the everyday people that rose up, and by bringing them into print all at once as history, fiction, myth and memory, Protest seeks to avoid this.
The books epigraph from Stuart Hall reads:
The only interest in history is that it is not yet finally wrapped up. Another history is always possible. Another turning is waiting to happen.
And at their best these stories are true to that. They do not seek to wrap up or fossilise these protests and uprisings, but show that they are still alive; they are struggles that are still ongoing, fights that we are still engaged in, and a history of resistance that cannot be turned away from.