Having been involved in various forms of activism since the late 1970s, I’ve been on more protests than I care to remember! Thinking back to the 1980s when I was younger and had more energy, I actually used to get pretty bloody excited about going on a demo. In the 1990s, it was different because I was involved in a political set up where every protest was treated as a sales opportunity with a target to reach for paper and journal sales. It was a combination of the pressure I was under to reach the target and the hostility I frequently experienced that made me radically re-think my attitude towards demos. Basically, I ended up hating them!
2003 – 2009 were the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) years for me when the focus was very much on community politics and protests weren’t in our political lexicon. Well, there was one exception… We were up in Blackbird Leys on the edge of Oxford (but NOT of it) helping out the local IWCA branch with their local election campaign. At the end of a very hard day of delivering the Blackbird Leys Independent door to door plus canvassing, we were roped into a picket of a local drug dealer who was dealing from his front door to local kids. While we stood outside the dealer’s gaffe with our placards (pinned to lumps of 3”x3” wood!), the local IWCA councillor talked to the dealer in no uncertain terms about the need to cease his activities. We think he got the message…
My involvement in anarchism started relatively late, running from 2010 until…well, I still consider myself an anarchist but there are others who would beg to differ! The early years of this involvement did to a certain extent rekindle my enthusiasm for street protest but, there’s only so much kettling, being shoved around by the cops and threatened with arrest I was prepared to take and after a few years, the cynicism about street protests returned.
At this point, I’d like to stress that there’s a bit of a difference between street protests which could end up going in any direction, metaphorically and literally and targeted direct actions such as physically blockading construction work on an unpopular, unwanted infrastructure project. Obviously as direct action is intended to disrupt the workings of capital, the risks and penalties are higher. One thing about direct action is that while the general public may or may not agree with the aims, at least it’s generally clear what the target is and why it’s being targeted. Although, there can be slip ups…Just Stop Oil blocking a tanker full of cooking oil in Thurrock being one that provided a fair bit of amusement for the locals!
Having said this, there are obviously events where a street protest will merge into forms of direct action and back again. Again, with the intention to disrupt, the risks and penalties are higher. While personally speaking, for a variety of reasons, it’s not my thing, there’s a place for it for those willing to take the risks. All I would say is that if a bloc is called, in as secure a way as possible, comrades should make it clear what risks may be involved so those joining it know what they’re letting themselves in for.
Then there’s been the last couple of years where I attended a number of anti-lockdown / anti-great reset / anti-vaccine passport protests in a bid to ensure that among the plethora of voices there, an anarchist viewpoint (of sorts) was available. The vehicle for that was handing out papers specifically produced for the protests – you can download PDFs of them from here: Papers. When the papers ran out, I had a bundle of stickers to put up as another way of continuing to get the message across. Two of them can be seen on this page: Free sticker designs.
The point being that I had a very specific reason to attend those protests. Personally speaking, the days of just turning up on a protest to see what happens (the Poll Tax protest in London on March 31 1990 being a classic example!) are over. If I’m going to make the effort, I want to have a clear reason to attend and what I hope to achieve by being there – these days, it would tend to be for the purpose of distributing propaganda. Material tailored specifically for the protest in question, not just a bundle of papers hanging around that need to be cleared before they date! That’s just me though – it’s different strokes for different folks and other people will have their reasons for turning up on a demo or joining a bloc.
I shouldn’t have to stress this but protests and direct action are just a small part of what anarchists and other radicals do. This ranges from propagandists (us amongst many others) through to those setting up community kitchens, food banks, food gardens and many, many other forms of grassroots, neighbourhood level and workplace action. Which as the state increasingly clamps down on the more obvious forms of dissent, may well be where more of us pivot our activity towards. Something discussed in this post from our sister blog, Grassroots Alternatives: Prefigurative action.
To conclude, these are my personal opinions. Ones that reflect the need these days to pace my activity rather than recklessly through myself into the fray. Other comrades have got different views and different ways of doing things. All I will say is make sure you’re aware of the risks, FFS never sit down in the road and be prepared to be mobile and flexible in your plans…