Protest, with Manners

Why does nobody in Ireland protest? Why is there no-one on the streets?

This truism, of the passive Irish who complain and complain and let shit happen anyway, has been around since 2008 heralded the Definite End Of The World As Global Finance Knew It. Sometimes it was quoted approvingly, usually by those looking in from the outside, as a way of congratulating the Irish for their maturity gosh no this isn’t patronising at all. More often, it was a frustrated cry against passivity, a part of those “the problem in this country…” rants. We just lie down an’ take it, fucksake what’s the matter with us, yah I’ll have another Guinness cheers.

This notion of passivity is… strange. There have been protests – in fact, there have been plenty. Tens of thousands of people marched against water charges recently, to name but one. The Spectacle of Defiance and Hope provides me with some of my fondest memories of Dublin. Occupy Dame Street was in place for some time, before it was cleared out for being terribly scruffy what with Paddy’s Day coming up and all. 40,000 students marched in Dublin in 2010, a fairly remarkable figure; 100,000 students marching in London received saturation coverage as a huge turnout, in a country that’s got almost twenty times Ireland’s population. Also in 2010, about 100,000 people went out in the snow and marched to the GPO. These are just off the top of my head, and I can think of many other marches I saw happening but can’t specifically identify. This “Irish people don’t get on these streets” chat doesn’t stack up at all, does it? So why have all these events been quietly forgotten? Could it be because, ultimately, they achieved nothing?

Years ago, an Eirigí protestor threw red paint at Mary Harney. This sticks in the mind because it gave rise to a fairly stunning image – Mary Harney, blood on her hands. There was much handwringing over this at the time, along with some fairly dense commentary along the lines of “Criminal assault – and what if the paint had been toxic?” The paint was water-based and non-toxic, so the latter’s a bit like being served some cold tea in a café and yelling “what if this had been cyanide?”

Yesterday, it seems that Joan Burton was – shall we say – detained in her car by protestors that Paul Murphy describes as, ahem, peaceful. Thanks to photos and video footage (probably taken with those iPhones that Burton believes the protestors shouldn’t have, ironically) it’s possible to say some things for certain. She was surrounded and given some pretty unpleasant barracking. She was hit by what appears to be a water balloon. People threw eggs at her car. She was lead away by Gardaí, in the end. Burton claims that people banged on and rocked her car, and I’ve got no reason to disbelieve her. There’s photo of a kid throwing a brick at a Garda car (not of it hitting, it should be said), although this doesn’t appear to be during the protest.

Now. None of the above is edifying. Some of it makes for ugly viewing. People shouldn’t yell abuse at an elected representative, or try to her intimidate her. I don’t like crowds, so it goes without saying that I really don’t like it when they threaten to become mobs. I don’t like the thought of people banging on car windows. I really, really don’t like people throwing bricks as that kind of shit can kill people (not that this was vaguely likely in this instance).

Conversely; all the above needs to be contextualised to be properly understood. And I’ve got absolutely no problem with people sitting in front of Burton’s car and preventing her from leaving. I really can’t bring myself to give a fig about the throwing of eggs and water balloons, and it’s simply ludicrous to describe such events as “assault” (or maybe I’m just unaware of the long string of egg- and water-balloon-related injuries that clog up A&E). Readers may remember the pictures of students with busted lips and bleeding heads after the protests mentioned above; on the news, it was reported that they held a sit-in at the Department of Finance and “threw missiles at the Gardaí,” hence implying there was some form of moral equivalence between the Gardaí and the student’s actions. Those missiles were eggs, and throwing eggs is no justification for having your head cracked open. The solemn pronouncements about a water balloon are similarly obfuscatory, as stupid as Bill Gates looked when he seemed so affronted by having a custard pie thrown at him. That could have had his eye out, or something.

Yeah, but can we not have the marches, the banners, the solemnly joyful movements where everyone conducts themselves perfectly? Surely we should not be satisfied with anything less than a peaceful protest?

Well no, we shouldn’t. But the great myth surrounding “peaceful protest” is that it is, by necessity, a decorous protest. This is a version of history that has the US Civil Rights movement begin with a nice lady not giving up her seat on the bus, a few marches lead by Martin Luther King, some impressive speeches and then finally the white chaps at the top doing the decent thing (Malcolm X doesn’t fit this narrative, so we’re not taught about him in school). This is, frankly, nonsense. Take that movement or anything similar and you will find reports of violence breaking out (frequently not instigated by the protestors – and it’s interesting that footage of a young woman being thrown against a bollard by Gardaí was more violent than anything seen on camera at the Burton incident); nor is it any great stretch of the imagination to visualise people – ordinary, decent, not-at-all-authoritarian people – who found such campaigns intimidating, worrying, and dangerous.

Peaceful, come-out-for-a-few-hours-then-go-home marches are – and again, I want to be absolutely clear about this – good things. They are expressions of that easy-to-ridicule word, solidarity; they are environments where, just for a short period, people can go and not feel powerless. In so doing, you express support for hardier souls who are doing that shit every single day. All that’s great and it matters. The problem is when they become seen as the final and only way of conducting street protest – the “right” way to protest, something at which authority can nod its head and then get on with the grown-up business of governance.

When hundreds of thousands of people in Ireland and the UK marched against the Iraq War, many pontificating politicos pronounced it a great expression of democracy – then they ignored everyone and went to war anyway. The decorous protest comes with politicians’ approval because it’s safely ignorable – they nod, they say they understand, and they don’t change a damn thing. If you subscribe to this view – that polite protesting is the only way – then all these protests become is a guilt-bath, an event in which you can partake to register your disapproval, then go home satisfied that the unchanged political course is not your fault.

Let’s come back to that word; “ugly.” This is the nub of the criticism of the entire campaign of people stopping men who come to fit their water-meters, surrounding them and their Garda escort, and barracking them. It is, in a sense, ugly. This doesn’t mean it isn’t, in the main, entirely peaceful. The water charges will place many of the people present in a situation where they can no longer feed their families; the legislation also provides a clear route to privatisation, essentially a legalised theft of something that is not Fine Gael’s or Labour’s to sell. People shouting insults is an uglier image than the abstract notion of state-sponsored primitive accumulation of a natural resource, but let’s not make moral pronouncements based on what looks more violent.

To be more pointed; it’s far from nice to sit in a car and have people bang on the windows for two hours. The fact remains that if you take the people in that crowd, Joan Burton (or at least, the government of which she is a senior part) has inflicted far more hardship, fear and poverty on many of those people than they did on her in that short period. In discussing protest and societal justice, we aren’t supposed to judge based on the aesthetics of the imagery – if we did, then most mass-participation movements would never, ever have happened.

What we’re seeing today includes some spectacular hyperbole (the Sindo declaring that “the republic has been shaken to its core” is a particular highlight), with grim apocalyptic prognostications on the rule of law. This is so far beyond parody, it’s probably somewhere between Neptune and Pluto. A Minister was detained for a couple of hours, had people bang on her car, and then someone threw a water balloon at her. I wouldn’t want this to happen to anyone I know, but I find it hard to condemn a wounded society for acting angrily, and I still don’t think it’s in the same league of reprehensibility as the many actions of the FG/Lab government. It’s authoritarian claptrap to dress this up as appalling or dangerous, and the heavy focus on it is overtly a form of propaganda. The point of mass-participation campaigns is that they let pretty much everybody in, and not all those people will be polite – nor should anyone expect them to be. I don’t mind bad behaviour being described as such, what I do object to is the suggestion that this is morally inferior to decrying the actions of government and, every five years, expressing a preference for a continuation of the norm.

In other words, if you want to see “anger” and “resistance” and all those other buzzwords, then that’s what it looks like. There’s a weird deference involved in the outrage here, the notion that Joan Burton shouldn’t experience this because she’s elected and important. However, Burton does not get to control how discourse happens, or eliminate voices that don’t address her in the preapproved ways. Nor does her position being give her the right not to be confronted by what her policies do – so no, I wouldn’t want my family to be in a car for a few hours, but no-one in my family is running the country and making pronouncements or decisions that affect the lives of millions of people. The rest of us are not immune from being worried and uncertain, we don’t get to set the terms of our engagement with government. Nor should Joan Burton. Nor should anyone.

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