We’ve been on more protests that we care to remember. Huge mass marches, smaller marches, spontaneous on the spur of the moment protests, pickets…the lot! Our experience of these spans right back to 1980. Without wanting to come over as ‘know it alls’, we’ve learnt a lot about the many aspects of protest ranging from the hard graft of mobilising for them, working out how to conduct yourself on the day through to security. There has always been state surveillance and when deemed necessary by the authorities, repression of protest. With recently passed legislation and more to come in the pipeline, that’s only going to increase. Going forwards, all of us need to think about how we adapt to a political and social climate where protest is not only coming under more constraints but also, the very act of it is being subjected to more denigration.
Let’s start with mobilising for a protest. Before the Internet, building support for a protest was a hard slog. It involved everything from flyposting, leafleting, street stalls, street meetings, meetings in hired rooms through to telephone trees and word of mouth. All very labour intensive and the only way the state could keep tabs on what we were up to was by the bastards inserting undercover cops into our circles.
These days, it seems like a lot of mobilising for a protest is done online. With the ever increasing level of state surveillance, disruption and when deemed necessary, repression, questions need to be asked about how much we can rely on online methods of mobilising. Sometimes it does work, particularly when a new protest movement seemingly emerges out of the blue. One example of this was the many currents of opinion who came together on the streets every month or so to protest the Covid lockdowns, vaccine mandates and vaccine passports. Because these currents emerged out of the blue, encompassing and going beyond the conventional spectrum of political opinion, the authorities were initially caught on the hop. Obviously as the protests went on, the state became wise as to who some of the players were and started to clamp down and harass people. There was a brief window of opportunity to organise some pretty sizeable protests but, it’s one that will not be repeated.
If you’ve been established for any length of time as an activist group with relatively clear aims and objectives, obviously the state will be on your case. The working assumption has to be that pretty much every post and subsequent discussions on social media about a forthcoming protest will be monitored. Anyone who does rely mainly or even exclusively on online methods to build support for a protest should be aware of this. As a consequence of this, a number of old school methods need to be re-evaluated and brought back into play. Granted, they involve a fair bit of graft but, it also means the authorities have to work harder to keep tabs on what we’re doing.
Flyposting is one time honoured method of building support, albeit the legislation has been toughened up on that since I was slapping up posters on the streets of East London back in the 1990s. However, some groups such as XR still use postering as a means of mobilising for a protest and seem to get away with it, in spite of the legislation. Leafleting is a useful way of building for a protest, particularly as that offers the chance for a face to face conversation. From experience, talking to and building a relationship with people results in more of a commitment to not just show up on the day but also to help with the mobilisation. For the really big protests, having meetings to explain the need for the protest and to inspire people to help with building support is something that works. Basically, it’s about re-evaluating analogue methods and re-working them to suit the circumstances we now find ourselves in.
Then there’s the actual protest itself. What’s the protest all about? That’s the question that any watching members of the public will be asking themselves. Sometimes, real efforts do get made to inform the watching public what the protest is about. One that sticks in my mind was a housing protest in the London borough of Newham back in 2017 called by Focus E15 amongst others. A plentiful supply of leaflets was available for volunteers to hand out along the route to explain the issues behind why the protest was called. I was one of those volunteers who handed out a good few hundred leaflets on the long slog from Canning Town all the way up to the Carpenters Estate in Stratford. Another example of where the message was pretty clear was the Stand with Kill the Bill protesters march held in Bristol on Saturday 6.8 where the banners and placards as well as the leaflets and papers being handed out made it abundantly clear why people were marching. The common factor was that the both of these protests were clearly focused on specific issues which makes communicating a message to the public a lot easier.
With the big protests against the Covid lockdowns, vaccine mandates and vaccine passports that encompassed a wide range of people, getting a clear message across was going to be a lot harder. I went on them with the specific aim of handing out copies of The Stirrer paper. The intended audience was other protesters, many of who had never taken to the streets before. The aim was to get to them with an anarchist message before the more nefarious elements skulking around on the fringes could do so with theirs. My gut feeling was that watching members of the public got a general idea of what the protests were about but not the specifics of the many issues involved. It’s sort of been the same with some of the big anti-austerity protests I’ve been on in the past with the marchers ranging from the trade unions all the way across to the anarchists plus a myriad of small far left groups competing with each other for paper sales. They were a total mishmash and in quite a few instances, I doubt that onlookers were any the wiser after the march had passed as to what it was actually about.
Dress codes… Being asked to wear black bloc gear on a march is going to put some people off attending. Okay, we get the need for some degree of anonymity. The point is, a balance has to be struck. However, if you want to get a message out to the public, you need to look approachable. A hoodie, mask and sunglasses putting a distance between you and the public you want to get the message across to is going to be a problem. Sunglasses (when seasonally appropriate) and a hat are fine but if the aim is some kind of engagement, people would prefer to be able to see facial expressions, particularly if they want to ask what the protest is about. Going full black bloc style may look theatrical and make for some dramatic images but it’s not going to win the public over. Particularly on a hot summer day where the average member of the public will take one look at you and think, ‘what are these sweaty ninjas actually trying to achieve?’ For sure, there are times when full black bloc is pretty much a necessity when you’re on a direct action that involves occupation or sabotage, the stakes are high and the penalties for getting identified and subsequently caught are draconian.
It’s getting tougher out there. Tougher for some rather than others though who, at the moment, seem to be getting an easy ride from the authorities. That’s quite possibly because it suits the authorities to have a differentiated approach to the range of groups and campaigns who take to the streets. There’s nothing like a bit of divide and rule to stir the pot… The more the very act of protest gets denigrated by the authorities, the more they hope the public will turn against us. The bastards are playing a pretty sophisticated game in this respect. This means we need to think a lot harder about why we take to the streets, how we build for a protest, how we conduct ourselves on the day and most important of all, how we get our message across to the public in a way that’s accessible and engaging. We won’t even pretend to have the answers because we don’t. There’s a lot to think about and discuss.