Protest is Dead! Long Live Protest!

Written by: Sophie Taylor

We all have our own ways of dealing with life when things get shitty. Having a big cry and getting it all out can be incredibly therapeutic, and even more so when we find ourselves repeating the same line over and over through the tears. “He’s a dick!” or “I’m not a bad person!”

These little lines of reinforcement help us push through the crappy feeling. Sometimes we might even revert to a hearty little stamp on the floor / kick of some unsuspecting object.

It feels surprisingly satisfying when the rage sets in and we feel helpless.

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One night, after feeling particularly upset and annoyed with a boy, my friend took my arm in hers  and marched me down the street repeating the words “it will be okay, it will be okay, it will be okay.” It was a pretty good ploy to get me to shut up as I stared at her bemused. That was until I joined in, laughing and stomping in rhythm, and feeling a hell of a lot better.

After a few hours the words started to lose all meaning.

A few months later we found ourselves side by side again at a protest rally outside 10 Downing Street, driven there by our shared disappointment this time. Angry with the Prime Minister and the President and their special relationship / basic disregard for human rights, we marched slowly down the road chanting and repeating shared lines over and over.

But after a few hours, the words started to lose meaning.

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Seeing Donald Trump’s face plastered over boards and raised up into the air while we repeated his name over and over I suddenly started to wonder if it mattered what we were saying.

Does it matter to a megalomaniac what we’re trying to say with our witty little chants, or does he just see his face pushed into BBC cameras and hear his name repeated by large crowds? Regardless, this was a substantial crowd of people who were pissed off and who wanted change.

“It will be okay. It will be okay.”

But it made me think. I started to wonder about what makes change and what is basically just therapy when we feel helpless and upset.

‘A street demonstration is only one form of protest,’ says Jack DuVall, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, ‘and protest is only one tactic that can be used in a campaign. If it’s not a part of a dedicated strategy to change policy, or to change power, protest is only a form of political exhibitionism.’

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We are all inherently tribal creatures, apparently.

During the student protests in 2011, I couldn’t help but see a group of people enjoying a good foot stomp while hearing lines like “this is well anarchic!” As a student myself I wished there was a more effective way to get the message across; that the financial cuts to education were a load of bullshit, but without throwing bricks off the cenotaph / toys out of the pram and generally being a bit of an entitled tit about it.

The education cuts went ahead despite mass protests, that if nothing else sparked a lust for change and a renewed strength in numbers. Seeing your friends amongst strangers in a crowd, chanting the same chant, is reassuring for us as humans. We are all inherently tribal creatures apparently. Which is sometimes part of the problem in itself.

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So what’s the alternative for the entitled millennial?

To see something change, a change is needed. So they say. Was it time to shift the approach, instead of just creating a big mess to be cleaned up by someone else in Trafalgar Square?

Speaking to The Guardian during the aftermath of the London riots in 2011, Robert Smith of The Cure explained how he saw this more raw, chaotic form of protest we saw explode across the streets of London.

“You can sort of understand, because a million people go on a march to try to stop a war and nobody takes any notice. But you don’t respond to it by stealing trainers and burning down fucking doughnut shops.”

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So what’s the alternative for the disenchanted youth? For the ‘entitled millennials’? Back in 1999, The Chemical Brothers released a video for Out Of Control featuring a perfectly made up anarchist opening a bottle of Viva Cola to bring an end to ‘the revolution’.

The key point sees the camera draw back to reveal it’s simply a TV ad, enraging the real protestors even more. Fast forward 18 years and it all gets a little meta, as reality star Kendall Jenner shoots a Pepsi ad with the exact same premise.

During the ad, the model interrupts her make up session as she spots protesters outside and decides to join them. Giving a can of Viva Cola (sorry, Pepsi) to a member of the riot police, the tension miraculously eases and the whole notion of racial injustice is immediately trivialised and whitewashed into dead, thin airtime.

Unfortunately the camera doesn’t pan out and we’re stuck inside this ad world, left to simultaneously cringe and mock whoever let this pile of misguided drivel go ahead.

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However the protest ad did serve some purpose. For a brief, albeit awkward, moment Pepsi wasn’t ‘the other one’. Enjoying a small step outside of Coke’s shadow, Pepsi went to take a bow downstage, seconds before the next PR constructed Kardashian act snowballed and elbowed those little blue cans flying into the wings.

But people were still outraged. Because their target audience, a bunch of ‘easily offended snowflakes’, are the very ones out there protesting. For real.

“It will be okay. It will be okay.”

The message spread all over the world like goosebumps
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The Women’s March in January had sharper elbows this year, taking place the day after after a known sexist and ‘pussy grabber’ (amongst other delightful attributes) was inaugurated as President of the United States.

The march was non violent, and attended by record numbers of people. It was a mature and witty response to the otherwise depressing and disappointing, Trump-shaped news.

The message spread all over the world like goosebumps, that this was are a formidable bunch with a load of celebrity mates and supporters of varying genders. The Women’s March was about projecting a state of mind and a body of strength, not just about gender, celebrating democracy and diversity.

But why did so many Americans vote him in? What were we missing? There were similar questions being asked across Europe amidst Brexit. During the EU leave/remain campaigns, the outcome seemed like a no brainer. 

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I was sure that we’d all vote to remain because, besides my list of seemingly obvious reasons why, all I could see in front of my own nose were Remain posters, EU flags flying and friends’ Bremain meme posts online. Staying awake to the surprising poll results, I realised I’d been lulled into a false sense of security by the comforting sounds of my own echo chamber.

Switching off political preferences and filters on social media accounts and following users with polar opinions to my own, I started to understand why the majority of the Country voted to leave the EU. I hadn’t been listening, I hadn’t even thought to. I didn’t know how to anymore since I’d managed to shield myself from any other opinion by my own algorithms. I hadn’t tried to talk to anyone about what the outcome of Brexit would mean for the UK, because I’d assumed everyone knew and felt the same. But not only that, I’d assumed no-one would listen.

On American social channels for example, I read of the injustice felt by women banned from joining an Anti Trump protest rally because they supported pro life and were strictly anti abortion. The right to march, the right to have a say, jarring with a woman’s right to decisions about her own body.

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The outcome of the snap General Election in June 2017 highlighted the fact that every single voice matters. In some constituencies the gap between Labour and Tory majorities was so small that the phrase “my little vote doesn’t matter” gave you a kick up the arse and a reason to speak up and explain why it does. Regardless of which party you supported or felt apathy for.

Love trumps hate in every day small acts

Between Theresa May calling for the election on April 18th and the voting registration deadline a month later, 1.05 million 18-24 year olds registered to vote. The youth vote during the snap election was at an all time high and managed to create a shift, increasing Labour’s share of the vote by 42% and delivering a 10 point rise in Labour’s vote. One exit poll suggested turnout among under 35s rose by 12 points compared with 2015, to 56% with a 72% turnout for 18 – 25 year olds.

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“It will be okay. It will be okay.”

There is strength in big numbers. But there is also strength in small acts.

In April, Dutch men all over the world publicly held hands to show solidarity for married couple Jasper Vernes-Sewratan and Ronnie Sewratan-Vernes who were brutally beaten in Arnhem as an act of homophobic hate crime. The idea spread after journalist Barbara Berend tweeted asking for men, regardless of sexuality, to walk hand in hand. This form of small protest, can be just as moving as a ‘million people on a march’, spreading online, garnering attention and showing love trumps hate in every day small acts.

“It will be okay, it will be okay, it will be okay”: repeat it as you march down to the polling booth.

“It will be okay, it will be okay”: chant it as you start an inspirational soft protest.

“It will be okay, it will be okay”: say it while you switch off your echo chambers and listen.

Original illustrations bu Julia Potocnik

Photos by Mike Barry

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