Protesters, don’t just follow the crowd

Pardon me for being somewhat sceptical about the motives of students jumping on the ‘burn the bankers’ bandwagon. Perhaps those who, having ‘found themselves’ during a spiritual gap year in the Amazon, become a vegan, and decided that religion is “all relative man”, don’t feel they’ve done enough to conform to the student stereotype. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (one of those that hasn’t been hurled through Sir Fred Goodwin’s house window) you’ll be aware that our University campus has been quite ‘political’ of late. The student activism box on our stereotype checklist has been ticked with a large red pen. Whether it’s our open deploring of Israel and general letting off of Hamas, or our disgust at the University’s investment in our arms companies, we seem to have shown that we’re able to shout pretty loudly.

There is one problem with these large, loud protests: they aren’t really suited to those expressing more moderate views. The rallying cry of “Burn the bankers!” that we’ve heard in London today has a bit more of a ring to it than “conduct an independent inquiry into actions of executives and revise regulatory frameworks for our institutions!” The latter has problem with the word count – it’s too long, not punchy enough… perhaps its best just to burn the bankers and avoid being long-winded.

We’ve all heard about protests on campus which are normally over genuinely controversial issues. Given all the rhetoric, the excitement, and the chance to talk to the cute dreadlocked protester that you’ve been ogling at in seminars, it’s easy to get sucked in and join whichever camp happens to be protesting. Choosing between going to a vector calculus lecture or joining the nearest excited throng to further your credentials as a ‘politically active student’ seems like a no-brainer – whether you actually care or know anything about the cause might sometimes be a secondary consideration.

The temptation is also there, perhaps even more so, in London. I wonder about how seriously these protests should be taken – do they reflect the attitudes of those with genuine, well informed political opinions? I don’t doubt that some people are genuine. I do, however, think we should avoid underestimating the ease with which people can get seduced by these demonstrations. In a big crowd no one is going to cross question you about the details of the issue, you’re at the centre of the action, you get a great story to tell to your friends, and you might even get a chance to pretend that you’re humping a fellow protester as a BBC reporter broadcasts live beside you. You can’t lose.

Will these protests make any difference to G20 decisions? Probably not. Maybe there’ll be a slight compromise – perhaps the singeing of Adam Applegarth’s toes. But, on a serious note, I remain sceptical about how happy these people would be if their demands were actually met – especially those who call themselves ‘anarchists’. Being an anarchist is probably a bit of laugh but I’m sure that living in an anarchist society is much less fun than being an anarchist in a capitalist society. Still, as the anarchist movement has no real chance of having its demands met I guess it’s all good from their perspective – they may as well enjoy all the perks of a good old protest.

What’s the figure now? 4000 protesters? Let’s take this statistic with a pinch of salt. We shouldn’t kid ourselves about how people just came along for the ride.

12 comments

  1. Peter,

    If you believe that demonstrations are not a particularly effective means of popular protest, then do suggest a better alternative and let us have a constructive discussion about it.

    Otherwise, what you are doing is just trying to discourage people from exercising their right to have a democratic input on a particular issue. Which is, quite frankly, very depressing to say the least.

    Forgive me, but I do believe that the anti-protest brainwashing in this university is becoming a bit tiresome. I think that the campus right has become far more stereotypical than the campus left.

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  2. 3 Apr ’09 at 9:13 am

    Simon Whitten

    Ofcourse we shouldn’t listen to the people, they’re too easily duped, they need people like you to think for them!

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  3. What a superbly articulated and factually correct article.

    Bravo, that man.

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  4. Let us all thank Dan Taylor for supporting this article, and hence revealing it for what it really is: right wing blabbing from within a predominantly white middle-class university.

    It gets quite boring really.

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  5. And so does your constant habit of bringing all articles down to a rant about me.

    Comment on the article. Or have you, as ever, very little to offer aside from breaking windows at RBS, screaming “drop beats not bombs” down a megaphone and slandering Israel?

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  6. Dan, you accuse others of slander when the UN have criticised them? Get over yourself.

    On the note of this article: it contains absolutely nothing. It’s not a comment piece – it’s a “no comment” piece. Why is this even here? It’s a waste of sapce. Yes, there are people on the bandwagon. Yes, some people are actually annoyed. Yes, people aren’t really up for burning bankers and it’s just a good phrase. Yes, there are plenty of people who aren’t students that are protesting.

    And in case you didn’t notice, the people and planet students were protesting what they have done before – they weren’t jumping on anybody else’s bandwagon.

    Geez, what’s wrong with people? And why was this article published? It’s all just pathetic.

    Edited by a moderator

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  7. Simon, what about the ‘others’ aside from the 35,000 demonstartrs (max.) who didn’t attend these demonstrations? Just because they don’t shout them off like one particularly small group of like-minded individuals seem to do, doesn’t mean they don’t hold views as well, maybe agreeing with yours, maybe disagreeing.

    You seem to draw a link with how much noise and disruption you can cause with how many people ‘support you’. The fact is that unlike Iraq, where an alleged 1m demonstrators took part in marches against the war, this was a very, very small group of people with particular niche interests.

    I’m sorry, but the numbers alone don’t support your assertion that this demonstration was for “the people”. The people demonstrating couldn’t be further away from represeting “the people” of this country.

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  8. I normally try to avoid commenting on my own articles but I feel that there are a couple of points of clarification that need to be made.

    1) I have no objection to the peaceful protest in principle. My argument, by and large, is aimed at those who join in for the fun of it. I’m sure we all agree that the sorts of judgements and allegations that have been made in protests about governments, individuals and companies are very serious ones indeed. These allegations may well be true but, due to their seriousness, one should not vehemently support a side without very careful consideration.

    2) I find Simon Whitten’s response particularly bizarre seeing as the very point I am making is that people ought not to blindly agree with “people like me” or people like him. I am writing specifically about the dangers of blind belief and to imply that I want to “think for” other people is to completely misunderstand the purpose of the article.

    3) I believe that democracy is fundamentally the best system of government. It is, however, far from perfect. For it to work perfectly we have to assume that voters will vote for what is fundamentally in their interest. There are several reasons why this might not be the case. One candidate might be a better debater and perform better in public than another but that does not necessarily mean that the former candidate will be a better leader and governor than the latter. The more we take the time to research the candidates the more likely they are to pick the candidate that best suits their desires and who will do the best job. One can easily see how the first candidate might well get into power where the second would actually be a better leader. It would be wrong (and logistically impossible) to legislate on such matters but, given that another perk of democracy is free speech, we can at least try to stress the seriousness with which we take our voting. I think there is a fairly obvious parallel here with protesting. Yes, feel free to protest, but don’t take the decision lightly when such serious allegations are being made.

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  9. “very small group of people with particular niche interests”

    I’m fairly sure that the banking crisis is more than a niche interest!

    And Peter Young’s response is good, as was the article, but I do sort-of think that the comment doesn’t really have much point.

    Though with both Young and Taylor it could be agreed that the number of protesters is really a futile measurement as many people going along are joining their friends and have little opinion and many people who feel strongly aren’t there for a number of reasons. Not to mention that there were plenty counted who weren’t involved in the process but simply got caught in the police trap!

    But still, it’s good to voice your opinion and I don’t really know why London police are so anti-protesting. I can’t remember the last time that a protest got violent of its own accord; even the poll tax riots were partly caused by police – if the police had stayed inside for the last week there might have been less harm done. As one of the people caught up in the violence said, “I don’t know who they’re protecting” and whereas violent protests are most definitely uncivilised and backward, peaceful protests are not.

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  10. I must say this is probably only article I have read in Nouse that has actually made me think, infact the first i’ve ever bothered to comment on….
    I, for one am always keen to jump on a protest bandwaggon, enjoying nothing better than the buzz of marching around, demanding “what we’re owed,” and fighting for “justice” whatever that may be, rather than concentrating on my degree! However in future I am going to give a lot more thought to what i’m protesting about and whether i really agree with the extreme slogans of various groups and organisations or if they are streching reasonable demands just a little too far to make healines.

    I would consider my political views to be distinctly liberal and still maintain the importance of every individual’s right to protest however I think the article emphasises the importance of not being a sheep and not joining any protest which comes our way as a means of expressing ones general discontent with current affairs be this on a university, national or global level.

    I’m sure I will take part in many future protests but I will think hard about whether I really agree with everything I am demainding and if requests for workable changes to policy are not a more effective solution than an embracement of anarchy.

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  11. 3 Apr ’09 at 5:28 pm

    George Papadofragakis

    Just to clarify, the real ideology behind anarchy has nothing to do with the self-styled ‘anarchist’ brutes that barged into RBS and wrecked Athens in December.

    If anyone would like to know what the real anarchist theory is about (nothing to do with ‘abolishing all authority’ and voluntarily going back to the stone age), I suggest reading some Kropotkin, Bakunin and Chomsky. You won’t necessarily agree with the alternative libertarian socialist model that they propose, but you will certainly find arguments that no delusional hooligan would hope to understand.

    As for the article, I largely agree with it – people should of course be thinking what they are supporting. However, I find the criticism of the university protesters rather unjust.

    Peter, I believe you will find that the majority of the York protesters are in fact much more well informed and much less stereotypical than what you assumed. And certainly much more well informed and much less stereotypical than their opposition.

    Undoubtedly, some people are just jumping on the bandwagon, often giving everyone else a bad name – but at the end of the day, this has always been and will always be the case.

    In the context of a representative democracy, a protest is the most visible and effective way to get a message across to your leaders. Unless we believe that we have democracy for only one day every four years, then we should be encouraging people to participate more. And, of course, to be thinking more – of what they choose to support, of what kind of world they want to be living in, and finally, of what they are going to do about it.

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