Political activism and protest today

Sunday 29 October, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 4-6Contemporary Controversies

Recent years have seen something of a revitalisation of political protests and marches, from Black Lives Matter in the USA, the Women’s Marches around the world, and even an international protest organised by scientists in defence of evidence. Giving the lie to the idea that people are apathetic about politics today, millions have taken part in protests for a variety of causes in recent years.

If protest is usually associated with ‘progressive’ causes, recent ‘alt-right’ demonstrations have changed the debate about protest. The ‘Unite the Right’ march in the USA was widely reported as a gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. There have been controversial demonstrations in Europe, too, by everyone from Pegida in Germany to the UK’s EDL.

These protests have provoked an increasingly selective understanding of the ‘right to protest’ by many writers and commentators. For example, the Women’s March in Washington officially distanced itself from anti-abortion feminist groups. More recently, anti-fascist groups attempted to disrupt both the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville and the later ‘Free Speech Rally’ in Boston. It seems that for many, the ‘right’ to assemble, march and protest is restricted to certain groups with approved aims. To defend the rights of neo-Nazis to march – as the US Supreme Court did in 1977 – can provoke accusations of being an apologist for hate and fascism. A related theme is the thin line between protest and violent riot: are some demonstrations just too toxic and risky to be allowed?

While debates rage about who should be allowed to protest, there are questions about the nature and depth of contemporary protest today. ‘Clicktivism’ is one such case: the seemingly endless appetite for online petitions – both state-sponsored and from organisations like 38 Degrees – means that with little effort anyone with a laptop or a phone can easily become a protester making headlines. Meanwhile, online activism pursued through social media such as such as Twitter and Facebook has been credited with playing a key role from the Arab Spring through to Labour’s 2017 General Election campaign. Yet for all the admiration for such attempts to build pressure for change, doubts remain as to the longer-term impact that online protests make in achieving political change.

While many of today’s protests are well attended and subject to widespread media coverage, some question if they are becoming too superficial and ephemeral. When a Pepsi advert featured model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner diffusing a tense stand-off between police and protesters with a can of cola, critics berated Pepsi for trivialising protests against police killings. But real-life contemporary protests are also under the microscope, particularly where mass gatherings seem to be treated more as an opportunity for virtue signalling rather than realisation of political objectives. As a result, many of today’s protests can attract huge crowds, but disappear immediately afterwards. Far from being a forceful ‘demonstration’ of a wider movement for change, protest often becomes performative, a thing in and of itself, with few wider consequences.

Is a protest a failure if it doesn’t lead to changes – or if successes are overturned, as in Egypt after the Arab Spring? How should protesters organise themselves – or should they eschew formal organisation, as with Occupy? Should protesters be happy with ‘sending messages’ – as was the case with the Women’s Marches – or should they aim at more comprehensive goals? Just what is protest, historically and today?