Their Meaning of Protest vs. Ours

Today I went to London’s Gaza Solidarity protest, which was ‘successful’ in as much as it got truly vast numbers of people – the police say 12,000 but the organisers say 200,000, and from being there all I can say is that I was constantly thinking ‘wait, there’s MORE of us?’

As is always the case on these kinds of things, the negative attitude toward Israel’s government and its policies was the only real constant – apart from that there was huge diversity. I personally carried a ‘no gods no masters’ banner right next to people chanting ‘God is Great!’ in arabic. The speakers too didn’t have a coherent line – some were clearly pro-Hamas, others clearly anti. This is natural. I hope I don’t soon stumble over people trying to smear the march as homogenously one thing or the other, but then I’m sure no-one would ever stoop to such a ridiculous low.

Anyway, only after getting back did I learn of how heated events at the front got (a tribute to the sheer size of the thing) – essentially, there were scuffles between people trying to block entry to the Israeli embassy and people trying to occupy it (the former being police). Similar things happened at a similar march last saturday.

The discourse around these kinds of incidents always intrigues me. Essentially, police say things like “A hard core of demonstrators are undermining the cause of the vast majority of people on this demonstration, who are law abiding citizens wishing to protest peacefully.” And protest organisers respond with things like “I have never seen policing as irresponsible as this.” Both sides try to project belligerence and, if I may use a usually emotive word as dispassionately as possible, violence, onto the other. Both sides want to project themselves as entirely non-violent, as ‘peaceful’ and ‘legitimate’.

I think that’s a mistake.

I disagree with this and I think it illustrates something important about protests. There are two very different interpretations of what a protest is: one is strenuously pushed by the police and government, and parroted by march organisers because they need to stay on the police and government’s good side. The other inconveniently intrudes through the actions of protesters themselves.

The first interpretation is that they are a form of petition: the offering of a demand to the government by the people. They happen to be particularly loud, but nevertheless their goal is to appeal to the powers that be. As such they are both supported by those powers, at least in liberal countries, whose ideology is insistent on the right to petition one’s representatives, and they also support those powers: by saying “use your authority to do X Y and Z” the protesters endorse the government’s authority and call on it to act as a government. Protests are an internal element of the system.

The second interpretation is that protests are the embryos of a different society. What is a society, after all, but a group of people interacting? What is the right to protest, then, but the right for groups of people to assemble for a common purpose, and in doing so take the first step towards forming a different, rival society, a rival centre of power and authority. In this case, a hundred thousand people or so observe that the society which exists here is one which, through its leaders, tolerates and enables the assault on Gaza, which appears to these people to be a colossal crime – note, even if people appeal to ‘international law’ to define it as a crime, it seems clear to me that what they really mean is ‘a violation of rational, moral law’, i.e. rational moral law as defined by them – a violation of their law. Motivated by this, they assemble into a group where they can project and bounce off each other the idea, the aura, of a society that would not tolerate or enable such actions, but would deploy its collective weight to stop them.

Of course, the embryo of such a society is not itself a society, so this doesn’t get all that far off the ground. The point is that on this interpretation, a protest is emphatically not an internal element of the system, not one of the rights ‘guaranteed’ by our laws, not a ‘legitimate’ activity, but rather the establishment of a new centre, a new sovereignty, that will decide for its damn self what is a right, what is legitimate, what is a crime and what is not.

Obviously the government, any government, won’t be very keen on this. Hence they must simultaneously suppress actual protest, while persuading people that protest never was a rival sovereignty, but simply a very loud form of petition – a legitimate activity that they fully support. Any rival order must be presented as disorder. “We obviously support the right to peaceful, law-abiding legitimate protest, but some people, a hard-core, a minority, a group of weirdos and freaks, have subverted that, which we love, into disorder, chaos, law-breaking, all the things that we AND all peace-loving citizens should hate”.

The reason why these protests resulted in violence is that they were the embryos of a rival order, and it is the nature of an order to express itself in violence when confronted with violence – certainly to ‘break laws’ because laws are its creations, not constraints on it. The police wanted the hundred thousand people to respect such laws as ‘do not enter the Israeli embassy’, and were willing (are ALWAYS willing) to enforce that with measured violence. What would ‘the UK government’ do if some bunch of uniformed thugs decided that it should respect certain laws that seemed ridiculous to it, and threatened to back them up with violence? It would offer its own violence, as a token, an indication, of its status as sovereign.

Similarly, this minor fringe of violence at protests reflects the protest-sovereignty asserting itself against state-sovereignty. It is, I believe, natural and healthy. Whether it acheives or aims at any object is in a sense beside the point: it is symbolic, but in the same way that a child learning to speak is doing something ‘symbolic’, i.e. uttering and thus mastering symbols. Even if a baby doesn’t successfully mean anything with its burblings, it progresses towards becoming a full speaker, a meaner, a symbolic being. Similarly, regardless of whether a protest acheives anything with its scuffles, thrown sticks, and punched police, it is taking the first step towards becoming a full sovereignty, a rival order, an alternative society.

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