The Issue with Protest


TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011 was the Protestor, a figure that occupies popular and political stages  in different forms. In the past year we’ve seen this figure in the continued Arab uprisings, in Gezi Park in Istanbul, in the Passe Livre movement in Brazil, as middle class outrage in India against the gang-rape of a young student, and most recently as the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine.

This recent  visualisation of protest data since 1979 is part history lesson, part category-lesson. The flashing dots represent a range of citizen actions – protests, civil disobedience, violent and non-violent resistance, demonstrations or rallies.  Each of these events has it’s own particular trajectories, outcomes, memes and languages. Yet, a common thread runs through them – making the demands of the citizen legible to the state (and the state has many faces).

Protests are about the thrill of pranking, agitating, talking back to  and sometimes brazenly challenging authority.  This is what is compelling about them: there is something persuasive and heady about the sheer emotion, force and energy of thousands, sometimes millions, of people seemingly united and asking for, nay, demanding, something. Can so many people be wrong? Anyone who has been part of a protest knows that feeling of hope and excitement that …. perhaps everything could change with this.

And yet, how we think about measuring change may not necessarily fit the ambitions, scale and biographies of protests. Protests are marked by talking heads on television (and many more on the street and the internet) asking – what does this mean? What changes? What may work as an indicator of success for a movement against the building of a shopping mall may not for a revolutionary struggle against dictators and political systems.  If we were to narrow the perspective: the removal of dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have resulted in starkly different outcomes although all three are about an altered relationship between citizen and state in the Arab world.  Trying to construct linear scales of contrast, comparison and cause-and-effect is handicapped from the start.

Nishant Shah interrogates this idea of change as well:  “If we wish to recognise real change, we need to move beyond the binary of success and failure and examine the actual histories and practices of change, within specific contexts and political movements. We also need to look beyond spectacular events, and pay closer attention to less conspicuous but no less significant acts that are central to the civil and political landscapes of change. To start with, we need to critically rethink our notion of change. What is the understanding of change we are working with? What are the kinds of changes being imagined? Can change be ‘made’? What are the new formats and languages we need to develop in order to build this change infrastructure?”

One of the problems with wanting to measure change is that it is hard to know where to start. Slavoj Zizek, writing in the aftermath of a teargassed Gezi Park, says that none of these protests are about just any one thing. How do you reduce a complex history to “any identifiable ‘real’ goal. The protests are not ‘really’ against global capitalism, ‘really’ against religious fundamentalism, ‘really’ for civil freedoms and democracy, or ‘really’ about any one thing in particular. What the majority of those who have participated in the protests are aware of is a fluid feeling of unease and discontent that sustains and unites various specific demands.” Applying Shah’s call to move away from binaries of success and failure to the complex biographies of protest that Zizek refers to seems like a worthy challenge.

Sometimes, a single event can sway the nature of the discussion. The presence of (notoriously apathetic) Indian middle class people on the streets of New Delhi in response to the fatal gang-rape of a young woman, and the subsequent violence by the police and ineffectual hand-waving by politicians, has changed the discussion about sexual violence in India. It has made discussion possible where there was none. It hasn’t necessarily stopped or ended violence against women, and perhaps that is not what the intention was in the first place. The problem was the silence around violence and how it is not being addressed. Now, there is more discussion (which tends to limp more than flow, sometimes) within the mainstream about institutional responses to sexism, gender discrimination and sexual violence.

In other places outcomes may be less clear. A line in the video poem by  Mosireen,  Prayer of Fear,  asks the question that captures the uncertainty many of us feel: “are we winning? Or in line for slaughter?” In this issue of the Micro-magazine, Lobna Darwish from Mosireen says that the question of success and who gained from the revolution has to be seen differently. She says that bringing people into the equation was in itself success after decades of crony capitalism, state violence and corruption. Now, no one in power can take a step without first consulting the people.  Mariz Tadros says  that “The Egyptian streets will continually reinvent its strategies of resistance, subversion and entitlements’ making” suggesting that “the act of revolting should not be confused with the ‘outcome’.”

Akshay Khanna and his colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies have named spontaneous eruptions of protest as ‘unruly politics‘ to suggest that they challenge traditional ways of imagining (or measuring)  how change happens and how politics works. Jake Levitas of Occupy Design tells us that amplifying the issue of income inequality in the United States through the presentation of statistics was a response to being characterised as ‘vague’ by the US media. The establishment was attempting to manipulate Occupy by asking them what their demands were and to organize and present themselves in a  way that is expected in politics. At its unruly heart, Occupy is about challenging the legitimacy of how that very question is framed, of how organising is supposed to happen, of even being legible to the US media and capitalist institutions on their terms.

This echoes what Noortje Marres says about how questioning the value of protest-action is in some sense rhetorical, often used by authorities to discredit the very act of questioning power:

“…sometimes there can seem to be a cartoon-like distribution between Power and Counter-power, where we all know that it’s a staging, and where Power knows, and is quite sophisticated in it’s ironic or cynical appreciation of the situation: ‘Yes, we know that the public good is a just a story. Yes, of course we know that this is dirty business’. Then Counter-power gets pushed into this role of defender of purity and virtue, seeming naive.”

Khanna writes of unruly politics as something ‘pure’ when he says:

“they lie outside of or jar with civil forms of civic and democratic engagement… take forms that are illegal, violent, disruptive of the social order, strident or rude… because of the politically transgressive nature of actions, they have a potency: they all make things happen. It is not our view that they must make permanent or even very positive change: but they do elicit a response, or force official attention to the specific concerns being voiced… we are interested in this not as the automatic kneejerk response of a hungry, angry mob, but because underlying and informing unruly politics tends to be a normative position – a moral economy of entitlement and obligation, a kind of proto-rights that encapsulates, constructs and defends a powerful popular sense of fairness.”

The conversation about the role of protest in activism is not likely to reach any conclusion soon nor should it. Every protest challenges us to wrestle with our ideas of technology, change and activism; as well as all the difficult things like history, politics and economics. This, our final issue of the Camp Micro-magazine, is inspired by and dedicated to friends around the world whose acts of truth and resilience keep such conversations going.

Maya Ganesh


One thought on “The Issue with Protest

  1. The protests by the ex-Chief Minister of Delhi (Aam Admi Party) planting himself and his party members on delhi’s streets – a sit in and sleep in, near parliament (to demand that Delhi’s Police come under the delhi govt and not the central govt) turns the idea of protest on its head – can a government in power protest? Many called it anarchy, others said it was a gimmick.It spurred debates about the lines between anarchy and activism. I agree with Shah in your article that the words and concepts we use or were used to describe our positions on issues (and actions) need a new barometer. When institutions fail to deliver it sparks protest whether you’re in a democracy or fighting for it. According to Dipankar Gupta. ‘ a little anarchy is a dangerous thing but a good protest is a joy forever’…

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