A different kind of protest

The UK student rallies in response to tuition fees have captured the public imagination and have been the subject of many of my conversations with friends. Over the last thirty years, students have been viewed as an apathetic class of people, where the only radical behaviour expected of them was likely to centre on how many beverages were consumed during happy hour in the student union bar.

My conversations have focused in particular on whether street demonstrations effectively achieve the aim of highlighting the issue at hand. My argument is that street demonstrations – while effective in projecting the message of collective dissent, can lose its effect, when the method is a means of deploying the last resort, first. In addition, it is an admission of individual impotence in the face of state-made decisions: for in attaching myself to a group of people, I run the risk of the personal reasons for my presence there being absorbed and at worst, being associated, or even carried along with the actions of the most extreme components of that group.

This was the main issue which detracted from the students’ message of collective dissent against tuition fees and cuts in further and higher educational funding. The media coverage predictably obsessed over the actions of the destructive minority and the resultant damage to property and injuries to the police. This rendered the reason for dissent to secondary billing to the more lurid angle of ‘public disorder’, in the form of attacks on inexplicably abandoned police vans and unsuspecting royal personages.

This is not to say that street demonstrations are never appropriate. Sometimes it is the necessary and in some instances – the only means, particularly when the ‘legitimate’ avenues of communicating dissent to the state, such as the right to vote or a free press, are closed off to a class of individuals. Such cases include the Civil Rights struggle in the United States, apartheid South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tunisia and Egypt, where this particular mode of action was required to shame disgraceful systems which deprived basic rights and actively suppressed any form of dissent.

In societies which have the luxury of the right to vote and a relatively free press, more imaginative forms of protest are desirable. One considerable benefit of more creative approaches is to deprive media coverage of the option to lazily pore over the elements of public disorder. Instead the focus is shifted towards the reasons which have compelled otherwise law abiding individuals to take a stand against state-made decisions which adversely affect their interests, in practice or in principle. Of course, it is easier said than done to find alternative means to a commonly used method of demonstrating dissent. However, the beauty of imagination is that it gives individuals the permission to ask the questions, and once set in motion to free rein, the answers will eventually come.

When the Liberal Democrat local authority in Stony Stratton, Milton Keynes announced their decision to close the local library, the residents could easily have set about designing placards, in order to take to the streets on a designated day, to make their dissent heard. Instead, they chose another, more interesting strategy. Their protest took the form of collectively withdrawing all 16,000 books from their library, with each individual using their maximum borrowing allowance to achieve this aim.

This action, having gained the support of the affected community made the point beautifully – of the library being a valuable resource and clearly sent the message to the local authority to think again before aiming at ‘low hanging fruit’ to achieve ‘budget savings’. The most appealing aspect of this method of protest is that the underlying reason is not obscured under news of arrests and the dissemination of grainy images of individuals whom the police would like to bring in for questioning. Since then, the method has inspired the residents of Newport on the Isle of Wight to replicate the action and the residents of Moreton in the Cotswolds to stage a library ‘read-in’ when their local authorities decided to close their local libraries.

In directly connecting the reason for the protest with the mode of action, the residents of these communities have presented a means of demonstrating their potency as individuals, as opposed to their impotence as part of a disaffected crowd. With this simple but creative idea, the residents of a hitherto little known community have found a way to protest, where the point remains intact, regardless of the outcome.


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