In the wake of recent protests, and through the pre-emptive arrests for the royal wedding, the government and police have made it clear recently that only ‘legitimate’ protesters are protected by our ‘right’ to protest. I would expect them to make this distinction but it seems crazy for protesters to adopt it too. I’ve seen too many rants online and in newspapers against the ‘aggressive’ protesters who spoil things for all the peaceful protesters. This should be a debate about tactics but many people turn it into a debate about morals (I posted on this recently) and worse, happily adopt the term ‘illegitimate’ protester. If you’ve been using the term, even implicitly, you need to start questioning what the crazy liberal in your head is making you do.
This legitimate/illegitimate distinction comes to us from those currently in power. What ‘legitimate’ largely means is protesters willing to comply with the antiprotest laws of recent years and protesters who will not cause any trouble. About fifteen years ago we had far fewer anti-protest laws on the books (Do you remember those crazy days? It was barely safe to leave the house. It was anarchy. Thank you lords and masters for legislating for that problem). The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters could still be made – ‘peaceful’ protest as ‘legitimate’ is an oldie and a goodie – but the laws have made it much easier. Now if you haven’t consulted the police about where and when you will protest, it is illegitimate. Hence the police could comfortably claim that those in Trafalgar Square who were violently dispersed by police on 26th March weren’t ‘real protesters’.
As an aside, many people, establishment figures and good liberals, have recently attempted to describe the recent Egyptian protests as ‘peaceful’, which obviously helped to legitimise them in their eyes. Though the Egyptian people didn’t start a war it is absurd to describe the protests as peaceful. Talking to people in Egypt when I was on holiday there I realised that many people didn’t protest against Mubarak primarily: they went out on the streets to fight the police. They went out to oppose the arbitrary and abusive powers that had ruined their lives for decades. They burned down the police stations that Mubarak’s security services operated from. They confronted police lines and fought through tear gas to push the police back. Many protesters (close to 700) were killed, but finally, with the military largely standing aside, they won. It was to a large degree a physical fight and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring the facts.
Ah but things aren’t as bad here, is the stock response to this. Yes, this is a good one. Things aren’t as bad here. We don’t need to oppose our government with force, say the moderate liberals. That’s just too extreme when they aren’t locking us up and torturing us. This misses the point spectacularly and it misses it in a way very particular to the liberal mindset. The biggest problem, the defining problem I would say, of the socially liberal worldview is a failure to recognise and understand power.
Protest is the action of the relatively powerless against those who have much power. It is not, I’ve always thought, a particularly good way to exercise power – it lacks finesse and often direction – but when a corrupt system robs you of power, it is one of the few avenues to express power left to you. The advantage of street protest is that all it requires is numbers to make it effective. Enough people to disrupt the narrative, enough people to raise a dissenting voice, enough people to make it clear that the consensus is broken. What should matter then, in terms of tactics, is the ability of the protest to disrupt the abusive status quo, and not the severity of the abuse of power fought.
I can kind of see the argument for saying that protest should be ‘proportionate’ to the level of abuse, but I’m not comfortable with it because what do you calibrate your scale against – Nazism? Pol Pot? Relative to those things we’re all doing fine and should just go home. But in recognition of this argument, if you do think that the level of the abuse matters, if you do view the number of deaths caused by the government as the scale against which you should match your protest level, then please do examine the current plans for dismantling and privatising the NHS, and the cuts to the NHS they said they wouldn’t make. Standards of care will fall and as a result people will die.
There’s your death count for you, and you can add plenty to it for the benefits cuts, but that’s not why you should reject the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters. You should reject it because if you adopt the definitions of those in power, you’ve already lost.
Again this is about people refusing to think about the problem in terms of power. These words, legitimate, illegitimate, were carefully chosen to help entrench those with power in their positions. If you allow them to label certain protesters legitimate and others illegitimate it should be clear that they will seek to attach the label ‘legitimate’ to those who don’t bother them too much and ‘illegitimate’ to those who do bother them. Since the purpose of protest is to bother those in power, surely only a mad person would accept the labels offered. It is a recipe for failure.
The purpose of protest is to disrupt and confront. Those who engage in protest seek to express their desires when few other options are available to them. There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only protest you agree or disagree with, only protest that works or doesn’t. Yes, within any group some person may commit a foolish act, like throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof too close to people on the ground. Some may even engage in violence for the pleasure of hurting other people. Those people can and should be judged on their own actions. To attach labels to whole groups on the basis of those people is the logic of collective punishment.
There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only effective and ineffective protest. If you keep listening to the liberal in your head then you’ve chosen the latter. You should perhaps be asking why the liberal in your head is telling you these things. It frames the game in a way that ensures you lose. Where did your liberal ideas come from then, and who do they serve?
Perhaps its time to have a stern talk with the liberal in your head. There’s nothing worse than having your own head stab you in the back.
Many thanks to In Bed With Resistance for permission to repost this piece from May.