To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands of streets. (Michel De Certeau)
This is not a criticism of action taking place on our streets. This is not to excuse cracked heads and open wounds. This is not to rationalise or justify disabled journalists pulled from their wheelchairs and horses charging at girls too young to even vote for the government that has just sacrificed their education to a market which drove the country into the state of disarray it is presently in. This is not to say that protest doesn’t work. A majority of 84 was reduced to just 21 in the house of commons yesterday. If even just one less vote was a consequence of the protests on our streets, they were worthwhile.
This is merely to question the rhetoric that we use to protest. To think about the language that we speak. And by that I don’t mean the slogans that we chant, I mean that protesting is itself a rhetorical device. It is a way of communicating through doing that has its own codes, it’s own metaphorical flourishes, it’s own linguistic devices. It speaks in a certain way.
Protesting creates a temporary space for itself in which authority is challenged and overthrown. It is about presenting a body of people and saying “look how many are here, listen to them chanting together, look at them running, look at them marching” – in so doing it creates its own brief sphere of power. A contestation of the authority of the state, of big business, of the police. Sometimes this is merely through the size of the protest and its physical presence but at other times it occurs by physically acting out that contestation of authority – by fighting the police, by breaking barriers, by going places they have been told not to go. All of which is a means of saying we don’t simply resist your authority, we reject it. On these streets we quite literally push back the borders of your power and claim our own circumscribed space of influence. In here we are in charge now – we dance, we chant, we set fires, we smash windows, we wave banners, we write on the walls – our voices are the ones that are heard.
Rhetorically, protesting is a demonstration of a certain kind of strength. The strength to reclaim some space from the powers that control us. A space in which we can exert our own authority. The action of a protest march is a synecdoche for our wider relationship with power. We reclaim the streets, and in so doing demonstrate the potential to take power back from the powerful.
But this rhetoric is failing. It is failing because the space we create is not our own, however much it might appear to be. That space still belongs to the powerful and our resistance is manipulated and controlled by them.
Perhaps the most obvious symbol of this was offered 5 years ago by the introduction of the Serious Organised Crimes and Police Act which forbade protest without prior permission in the vicinity of Westminster. You couldn’t protest unless you’d been invited to do so, thus whatever you did in that space was sanctioned by the powerful. That space, both literally and figuratively, still belonged to them. We were not actors not in the sense of having any agency, more in the sense that we were performing someone’s bidding upon a stage that was not our own.
We’ve seen this same effect time and time again in the most recent protests. The actions of the protesters, the rhetoric of protesting, no longer speaks of the reclamation of power from authority, it speaks for that authority as exemplary of mindless violence and discord. Strength is re-framed as aggression. The contestation of power as the destruction of civil society.
This is done primarily through a kind of unspoken pas de deux between the police and the majority of the mainstream media. As a protest develops it is quickly kettled. What was briefly a liberated space immediately becomes a prison. Or potentially more accurately it becomes a giant peep show booth in which the nostalgic posturing of revolutionary violence is played out for the media. As Dan Bye said yesterday on Twitter – the only inevitable thing about a kettle is that it boils. And when it does so the photographers and journalists are there to collect the photographs they require. A kind of protest bingo in which they seemingly have to get as many of the following as possible:
- Young men with their faces covered throwing things
- Someone with their arms thrown wide and their head back in a gesture of power and incitement
- A fire
- A smashed window
- Someone smashing a window
- Someone with blood pouring from an open head wound
- A protester screaming at an anonymous riot officer from less than a foot away
- A line of protesters facing off against a line of riot police
- A statue daubed in paint or hung with signs
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This parade of cliched protest-porn images is so predictable they might as well have been recycled from the last protest. That is how little influence those who are actually protesting have over how they are represented and repurposed by the powerful.
This rhetoric is no longer the rhetoric of the disposed. It is the rhetoric of the powerful. It tells the story they want to tell. The space we make for ourselves in a protest is not our own. We are not strong enough to do so and we never will be. But that powerlessness is exactly where we should begin, in making a new rhetoric for political action.
If we start from the assumption that space (both literally the space of our towns and cities and the social and political space in which we live and exist together) always belongs to the powerful then the aim of protest is not to take possession of that space through acts of force, but to find ways to re-purpose it. To use our weakness as our strength. To find tactics that infiltrate the spaces belonging to the powerful without trying to overturn them. Ways of communicating with people that circumvent the tired channels belonging to the mainstream media.
We need to find means of political agency that slips inside the forms of interaction upon which market-driven late capitalism relies and in doing so transform them. Ways of protesting that turn those actions and mechanisms to our own purpose. Not aggressively replacing the systems that are there but re-imagining them from the inside out. Acts that are as poetic as they are political. Cunning strategies, artful manoeuvres . New languages that the powerful have yet to learn.
These are languages that don’t simply speak of protest but speak of the future world we want to imagine on the other side of that protest. As this beautiful, enthralling piece of writing by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination stated:
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?