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Talk to your neighbours


Klein

The

idea of turning London into a life-sized Monopoly board on May Day sounded like

a great idea.

The

most familiar criticism lobbed at modern protesters is that they lack focus and

clear goals such as "Save the trees" or "Drop the debt." And yet these protests

are a response to the limitations of single-issue politics. Tired of treating

the symptoms of an economic model — underfunded hospitals, homelessness,

widening disparity, exploding prisons, climate change — there is now a clear

attempt to "out" the system behind the symptoms. But how do you hold a protest

against abstract economic ideas without sounding hideously strident or all over

the map?

How

about using the board game that has taught generations of kids about land

ownership? The organizers of yesterday’s May Day Monopoly protest issued

annotated maps of London featuring such familiar sites as Regent Street, Pall

Mall, and Trafalgar Square, encouraging participants to situate their May Day

actions on the Monopoly board. Want to protest against privatization? Go to a

rail station. Industrial agriculture? McDonald’s at King’s Cross. Fossil fuels?

The electric company. And always carry your "get out of jail free" card.

The

problem was that, by yesterday afternoon, London didn’t look like an ingenious

mix of popular education and street theatre. It looked pretty much like every

other mass protest these days: demonstrators penned in by riot police, smashed

windows, boarded-up shops, running fights with police. And in the pre-protest

media wars, there was more déjà vu. Were protesters planning violence? Would the

presence of 6,000 police officers itself provoke violence? Why won’t all the

protesters condemn violence? Why does everybody always talk about violence?

This,

it seems, is what protests look like today. Let’s call it McProtest, because

it’s becoming the same all over.

And,

of course, this is becoming a kind of McColumn, because I’ve written about all

this before. In fact, almost all of my recent columns have been about the right

to assembly, security fences, tear gas, and dodgy arrests. Or else they’ve tried

to dispel willful misrepresentations of the protesters — for instance, that

they are "anti-trade," or long for a pre-agrarian utopia.

It is

an article of faith in most activist circles that mass demonstrations are always

positive: They build morale, display strength, attract media attention. But what

seems to be getting lost is that demonstrations aren’t themselves a movement.

They are only the flashy displays of everyday movements, grounded in schools,

workplaces and neighbourhoods. Or at least they should be.

I

keep thinking about the historic day, on March 11, when the Zapatista commanders

entered Mexico City. This was an army that led a successful uprising against the

state. And yet the residents of Mexico City didn’t quake in fear — 200,000 of

them came out to greet the Zapatistas. Streets were closed to traffic, yet no

one seemed concerned about the inconvenience to commuters. And shopkeepers

didn’t board up their windows; they held "revolution" sidewalk sales.

Is

this because the Zapatistas are less dangerous than a few urban anarchists in

white overalls? Hardly. It was because the march on Mexico City was seven years

in the making (some would say 500 years, but that’s another story). Years of

building coalitions with other indigenous groups, with workers in the

maquiladoras,with students, with intellectuals and journalists; years of mass

consultations, of open encuentros (meetings) of 6,000 people. The event in

Mexico City wasn’t the movement; it was only a very public demonstration of all

that invisible, daily work.

The

most powerful resistance movements are always deeply rooted in community — and

are accountable to those communities. But one of the greatest challenges of

living in the high consumer culture that was being protested in London yesterday

is the reality of rootlessness. Few of us know our neighbours, talk about much

more than shopping at work, or have time for community politics. How can a

movement be accountable when communities are fraying?

Within a context of urban rootlessness, there are clearly moments to

demonstrate, but, perhaps more important, there are moments to build the

connections that make demonstration something more than theatre. There are times

when radicalism means standing up to the police, but there are many more times

when it means talking to your neighbour.

The

issues behind yesterday’s May Day demonstrations are no longer marginal. Food

scares, genetic engineering, climate change, income inequality, failed

privatization schemes — these are all front-page news. Yet something is gravely

wrong when the protests still seem deracinated, cut off from urgent daily

concerns. It means that the spectacle of displaying a movement is getting

confused with the less glamorous business of building one.

 

 

 

 

 

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