Chris Hayward wrote a lengthy post on the G20 protests and, in his opinion, why they work and are necessary. It’s well worth reading, even if there are important parts of it where I think he’s completely wrong. (His extensive summary of police abuses is not one of those parts.) Go read it and come back; I’ll be sitting here eating salt and vinegar Crispers.
…okay. (I didn’t need to eat them anyway. They are fattening.) So, here we go:
“Does protesting really accomplish anything?”…
I think it does. One of the best – and most current – examples I can offer to back up my conviction are the accomplishments of the Gay liberation movement, in its broadest sense.
He goes on to offer a pretty good argument of how protesting – and specifically Pride marching – helped energize and legitimize the gay rights movement. And he’s totally correct about how protesting helped the gay rights movement. But as I’ve argued before, the difference between the gay rights movement (or the black rights movement, or the feminist movement, or really any civil rights movement in general) and G20 protesting is dead simple: every one of those movements have had fairly clear, easy to explain goals that were widely agreed upon by those involved. You can sum up most of them in a single sentence: “we just want to be treated the same as white men, and have the same rights and privileges afforded to white men.”
Hayward, later in his essay, starts writing about what reasons exist to protest the G20. Here is a summary:
– the misbehaviour and/or rapacious policies of the IMF
– the effects of 20th-century neocolonialism
– the responsibility of much of the political/financial elites for the financial meltdown and their ensuing lack of punishment/responsibility
– the move towards budget austerity
– failure to agree upon an international banking transaction tax
– job losses
– indigenous sovereignty
– human rights abuses
– abuse of police authority
– environmental damages of the tar sands
All of this combined is not a protest message. This is a political philosophy, and it’s not a particularly simple one either.1 That it’s not simple frankly isn’t much of a plus from a communication standpoint. Hayward’s summary of the issues involved is about as concise as you can manage and it would still be multiple pages, and frankly Hayward is a lot better at making his point than ninety-nine point nine nine nine a lot more nines percent of protesters because his summation of issues is coherent while being able to deal with complexity.
Multiple pages in a book is too much for a protest. Again, harkening back to the aforementioned civil rights movements: I would suggest that the reason they were successful, more than anything else, was their simplicity. The message was easily communicated, which is key because protests generate a lot of attention but only for a very brief time. Protests are by their very nature not good at nuance, and the G20 protesters’ message is, when it’s coherent, extremely nuanced. Hayward himself admits that the protests are “unfocused,” but he seems to think this is to the good:
The world economy is affecting people in diverse ways. And our response to that is diverse. A meeting of the people who are steering the global economy is an opportunity to say “These are all the ways that you are hurting people. Cut it out.”
Look, it’s wonderful and affirming and all that the movement celebrates diversity, but there’s a difference between upholding the principles of IDIC2 and effective communication. Why does the left so desperately need to avoid the principles of advertising that have been demonstrated to work, time and again? (Moral rectitude is not a worthwhile response to that question; I don’t care if you think Company X’s ads are soul-destroying, because the techniques they use to communicate their position work and they can work for the left just as easily as they work for the corporate First World.)
Look, let’s take one issue from that list above. I’m going to pick the banking transaction tax, because it was both an issue under consideration at the Toronto G20 and also an unambiguously simple and good idea. Now let’s pretend that, rather than the usual disorganized chaotic mess that we saw, they (somehow) managed to get everybody on one page, chanting “TAX THE BANKS! TAX THE BANKS!” over and over again. It’s simple. It demonstrates popular support on one side of an important issue, which would have given those leaders who were pushing for the international transaction tax – and bear in mind that included the USA, France and Japan, which is why before the summit most observers figured the transaction tax had a 50/50 chance of passing – additional ammunition. Would that have been enough to get the G20 to agree to the tax? Maybe, maybe not. Would it have given the tax a better chance of success? I think that’s unarguable.
Anyway, I know I’m jumping all over Hayward’s article like a rabbit on crack, but I need to leave alone that hobbyhorse and switch to a different one: elsewhere, Hayward is writing about violent protest.
I believe that the advocates of property destruction are responding to a sense that the peaceful forms of protest are simply not working. And I have to say, having attended a hundred or so demonstrations myself, I agree. It certainly feels to me like governments are quite happy to ignore the demands of demonstrations, knowing that, in general, people will get together for a few hours, make some speeches, chant, follow an escorted and permitted route, and then go home. It’s routine and ritualized. It appears to me that protest of any kind works when it is an implicit threat to misbehave; not just a moral appeal that says “please do the right thing,” but an appeal that says “listen to us, or we will stop co-operating.”
Now, I don’t disagree with any of this paragraph, actually. It’s all correct: peaceful protest isn’t working (although I don’t entirely agree with Hayward as to the reasons why, I suspect), and part of the reasons protest can work is because of that threat of disobedience.
The problem I have here is that Hayward seems to think that the protesters are capable of making that threat. They aren’t. This is one of the reasons a lot of the public is willing to simply dismiss protesters as cranks (at best) or criminals (at worst): there simply isn’t any threatening capacity. If 20,000 people had been involved in the riots, then possibly there would have been a scenario comparable to the race riots of 1967-68 or the DNC riot in Chicago in 1968. But, as many people on all sides of the political equation pointed out, only about one or two thousand rioters actually stuck around once the goon squad started smashing things, and most of those one or two thousand weren’t willing to do anything more than stand around and chant slogans. This is not threatening. This is not even close to threatening. The reason protesters can be so easily vilified as criminals is because, when you’ve got a couple hundred people smashing things for no real reason, most people can very easily make the mental jump to “criminals.”
And while I agree that protests can be routine, there simply isn’t any justifiable reason for the sort of violence that happened at the G20. Yes, I get that things like Starbucks and RBC and the like were targeted, but so what? Damaging their property accomplishes literally nothing. “Yeah, you totally dealt out some pain on that imaginary corporate entity!” If a protester smashes RBC’s window, that’s not going to affect RBC’s bottom line; it’s not even going to going to hurt their public image. All you’re doing when you smash up a Starbucks is causing economic pain to a franchise owner: somebody who’s usually the definition of “small businessman.” How does that help your cause? Answer: it doesn’t.
The unfortunate truth is that any significant protest movement is going to need an economic component to it, akin to the black “strikes” on busses and white-owned businesses in the Sixties, or the mid-70s clustering of gay neighborhoods around gay-owned businesses which in turn gave them economic self-sufficiency and an instant business lobby in local government (which, while unglamourous, drives social change faster than just about anything). The G20 protest movement doesn’t have this, and honestly I’m not sure that in this era it’s even possible for them to have one, although I’d love to be proven wrong.
Oh, and one more thing:
(I was way more scared when the [Toronto Blue] Jays [baseball team] won the World Series and people were throwing bottles out of their apartment windows, than I have ever been in a political riot).
Dude. I was at both World Series street celebrations, right at Yonge and Dundas, and if you’re going to suggest that sports riots cause more damage than political ones (an argument that actually has some heft to it), don’t ruin your point by telling us how scared you were of what were easily the most peaceful and civic-minded sports victory celebrations in sporting history. The Toronto celebrations were so non-violent that for literally years afterward they were pointed to as aberrations against a growingly dangerous norm.