Nationwide Austerity Protests Bring 100,000 Onto The Streets (But Is It In Vain?)
The nature of public protest is simple enough: gather together, walk down the street, wave signs, chant slogans, listen to inspirational speeches. It's a chance for us to interact as a community, to realise we're all in this together, and to voice loudly our common purpose.
This has been the method of social revolution since the first civilizations. The vicious nature of debt slavery (nexum) in Ancient Rome led to public outcry as citizens took to the streets in 313 BC(†) and the practice was abolished.
In 444 BC the ancient Athenians protested as Pericles seized control of the Delian treasury to spend money on pretty buildings.
From the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, to the Civil Rights marches of 1960s, it has remained the prerogative of 'the people' to express their dissatisfaction with the ruling class by clogging up the thoroughfares with their bodies.
Unfortunately, the very nature of street protesting has changed utterly in the last twenty years.
There are several reasons for this. The first is the erosion of public spaces(††). There was once a time when citizens dallied outside city shops and throngs of people rubbed elbows as street vendors wheeled along a town's (public) pavements.
Nowadays, the only places where people are likely to gather in large numbers are shopping malls, pubs, cinemas, or sports venues — all privately owned areas with their own security staff, and with restrictions on any form of protesting.
Secondly, suburban sprawl and the doughnut effect have left city centres empty and impotent. How do you get the (so-called) population of a city to protest downtown when the majority resides outside that very town? They won't shop or socialise in the city, why would they protest there?
Thirdly, they way we experience the world has changed dramatically since the dawn of the internet — but even more so since the advent of smartphones with cheap/fast data connections.
There was a time when you had to put on a hat and coat and walk out the front door if you wanted to know if something big was happening outside. Landlines have been around a long time but they are primarily a one-to-one communication device; if you called someone, it's likely they didn't know much more than you.
Then television arrived and was supposed to make us into passive consumers of information without our even leaving the house. Ironically, many of the images stirred us to action like never before, particularly in the United States. The horrors of Vietnam, the shootings at Kent State, the Rodney King riots.
But now the mobile internet allows us to actually interact with the world in real-time, without leaving the palm of our hand. What need do we have for riots when we can post our support for Kony 2012 on Twitter?
And lastly: ask yourself who exactly is inconvenienced by a street gathering nowadays? After all the relevant permits are granted, the protests are calmly corralled and co-ordinated by the gardaí. It's little more than a parade — but what more do I want, you ask?
While protest marches may be a social exercise in solidarity, they are really only the beginning of the beginning. These days real change only comes from direct action (witness the success of the recent HMV staff sit-ins versus the Bush-era anti-war rallies regarding Shannon Airport, which may as well not have happened).
Civil disobedience, disruptions, pickets, and strikes are now the only paths to effecting genuine change, short of riots and violent uprising.
I saw a lot of good people out there today. Let us hope that if today's protests are good for anything, it's to spur our citizens on to real actions. Ones that cannot be ignored by their targets.
From the upper floors of a 21st century glass and steel monstrosity, a bank executive and a politician peer down abstractedly through the Venetian blinds at angry red-faced protesters puffing along Dame Street in hats and scarves, thrusting their cardboard messages towards the indifferent skies.
'Another brandy, Tony?' asks the executive as he pulls the string on the blinds and walks away from the window.
'Sure we might as well finish it off, Bill,' answers the politician. 'I still have a case of single-malt from those London lads. Just a little thank you for recommending them for that ireland.com website job…'