idea of turning London into a life-sized Monopoly board on May Day sounded like
a great idea.
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
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.
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?
it seems, is what protests look like today. Let’s call it McProtest, because
it’s becoming the same all over.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.