During my mayoral liveblog last night, I got an email from someone who, because I was mocking candidates for being so overwhelmingly pro-police after a series of truly ridiculous abuses of power during the G20, asked if I thought that this was out of institutional fear of the protesters; that the protesters represent a threat to the established power structure and etc.
The answer, of course, is “no.” The protesters aren’t any threat to the established power structure, not as they currently exist.
Now, many a protester will tell you (and has told me) that the reason most people don’t take them seriously is because the mainstream media12 has obscured their message and chosen to portray them as a bunch of silly, flighty, violent thugs. As I’ve said before, though, the problem with this theory is that the protesters’ message comes pre-obscured to the general public. Since a mass protest – and just about every G-whatever protest – frequently has no specific central organizing issue, this means that every protester brings their own issues along with them. Since protesters are generally an accomodating lot, there’s genial support for all issues being protested so long as they’re reasonably somewhere on the left of the political spectrum. But this also means that the issues, as they are, are lost. All that is communicated is that the protesters are angry (or, if you prefer, passionate).
Which means that the average viewer of a protest takes away the following:
- the protesters are angry (or passionate)
- they are shouting
- they are marching
- sometimes some of them break things and/or fight with police
- and usually some of them get arrested
You don’t need a compliant media to decide that this movement is composed of silly, violent thugs if that’s the information you’ve got to work with.
On top of that, though, is that when protests turn violent, what I don’t think many protesters understand is that this is always a losing situation for them. Yes, it’s always only a few idiots; that’s a given. But one thing that remains relatively constant (not universal, but relatively constant) is that their fellows are reluctant (or worse, unwilling) to condemn them. Understandable, of course – even if the cries of “solidarity” weren’t genuine (and they mostly are), simple commonality of focus and the shared experience of being targeted by police would do the job.
But here’s the problem: when protesters are reluctant or unwilling to condemn violence – and honestly, it happens more often than not – what they’re doing is setting themselves up in a state of moral equality with the state using force against them. Saying “but the cops have guns and shields and riot armor” isn’t a justification for violence3; if anything it’s a confirmation that the speaker’s issue isn’t that use of violent force is bad, but that the cops can do it more easily than they can.4
Finally, it’s worth noting that the movement itself is likely counterproductive. Kevin Drum recently posted about how Tea Partiers and Republicans catering to Tea Partiers were driving independent voters away from the Republican party and making Democrats more willing to vote and organize. Looking at polling on the issue of police reaction, Canadians by and large sympathized with the police over the protesters despite the fact that police overreach was both massive and pretty well documented. I don’t think there can be any question that this is antagonistic public reaction to the protests themselves, and if you look at previous polls concerning protesting in Canada the trend holds up5, and largely isn’t about anger at their use of violence so much as it is dislike of the general protest movement.6
Can all of these issues be overcome, and thus make the protest movement more effective at shifting public opinion? I think it’s possible, but here’s the thing: everything that would make it possible – IE, would serve to fix the abovementioned issues – would likely require greater central authority and coordination among the protesters, and the protest movement is by its very nature decentralized (and not really keen on the idea of greater central authority anyway). Which is why I don’t think the protest movement isn’t going to see its objectives come to fruition any time soon.
- Or politicians, or whatever permutation of The Man you prefer. [↩]
- True story: at one point during the G20 protests, a protest organizer refused to speak with us because we were wearing our media accreditation badges and explained that he was sympathetic only to the media accredited for the Alternative Media Centre. So we showed him our Alternative Media Centre accreditation, which we had gotten first, and he immediately became receptive. When he asked us why we weren’t using that centre, we explained that it was shit and absolutely everybody in it was trying to get proper accreditation. [↩]
- Trust me when I say that at the G20 in Toronto I heard this so often I constructed a Bingo card in my head of Stuff The Cops Have and played it anew with every conversation. [↩]
- At this point an anarchist may wish to say something, so let me pre-empt them by saying that communal anarchism is at best a meaningless philosophy when applied to a group larger than a couple of hundred people, and even then its failure rate is tremendous. Please go get a realistic philosophy of government and get back to me. Thank you for your time. [↩]
- A key point would be the polling over time surrounding the prorogation of Parliament earlier this year. As the protests happened, outrage against the Tories noticeably dropped. [↩]
- I think the general public understands that the vast majority of protesters do not use violent tactics. I also think the general public believes that the vast majority of protesters don’t or can’t keep the violent assholes from attending protests, even when they know what’s going to happen. [↩]