Friday, 23 January 2015

Protest is a process, not a product


Last spring, I had a dream that there was a new craze sweeping Berlin: people would dress up like trees and stand in a field near the Bundestag every month, holding a vigil for all the natural spaces being destroyed by mankind.  I went down to check it out so I could write about it for this blog (yes: even in my dreams, I write a blog). And of course I wanted to take part... but not the same way that everyone else was doing.

Everybody at the vigil was dressed as evergreen trees. To save time, a lot of them had cut down actual pine trees to wear.  I thought that was a bit wasteful... but then I saw the sincere looks on their faces and thought, “Well, at least they’re using the trees to say something that they care about… that’s more than you can say for a lot of the waste that people create.” 
I held back my criticism, tried to appreciate the fact that they were spreading a message that I believed in, and watched from the sidelines.   

A few weeks ago, this dream popped into my mind again as I was stepping around another  massive pile of discarded Christmas trees in Berlin.  An entire forest of baby evergreens seems to get cut down each year to supply the people in my kiez with the right mood for their holy nights.  But this year there seem to be so many more.  People were casting away symbols of eternity to make space for their manmade presents.  How paradoxical is that?  It almost seemed like a symbolic sacrifice of the idea of permanence and regeneration - a bizarre leap of faith into a mechanized, manmade future.

My annoyance about the annual tree cull primed me to go to the ‘Wir Haben Es Satt’ demo a few days later, a protest against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (or TTIP) and for sustainable agricultural practices in Germany.  The pine trees had been cleared from most of the kerbs by then, but at the demo, I saw people dressed up like trees standing outside the Bundestag, wearing branches and leaves, just like they had been in my dream.  The difference was that the branches they were wearing looked like they’d fallen off a tree during a recent windstorm.  The people wearing them didn’t seem the type to go and wantonly hack down pine forests, either, so the similarity to my dream ended there… so I thought.

My friends and I delved into the crowd of people wearing fun-fur onesies, rabbit suits, bee costumes, beekeeping suits - there were even a few caricatured farmers with big straw hats.  It was a bit like being at a Fasching party, except with lots of angry signs about battery farming and dystopian Monsanto products penned in red, slashing ink.  Drums were playing here and there, smoke was rising from the beekeepers’ metal censers, pink and green, mass-produced banners fluttered along with a few handmade ones.  Bright, industrial swathes of fabric in manmade colours flapped at us from every angle.  The message of the event had been painted in synthetic hues, mocking the plastic appeal of a TV advertisement.  Either that, or they were mimicking it, in hope of having a similar, mass-market appeal. 

With so many prefab options at the demo, all we had to do was look around, ask ourselves, ‘agree or disagree?’  and if we agreed, we could just grab a banner or a pin and become another carrier for the message.  For the cause - the brand - ‘Stop the TTIP’.  I was tempted...

... but then I pictured the people wearing those outfits going home, hanging up their rabbit suits, laughing about them.  Putting their banners out on the balcony and not talking about Monsanto or TTIP again until the next protest came around. But maybe that's the point.  After all, dressing up as a furry animal isn’t about representing what you really are, is it?  it’s about putting a playful façade between you and the world, feigning naive simplicity.  Maybe the point of these outfits is to try and impart some of that simplicity into the environmentalist message, making a daunting prospect seem accessible. 

In the commercial world, animal costumes are used to draw shoppers into computer stores and car dealerships but never into grocery stores or bars... maybe that's the same reason why they're used to draw people to demonstrations about the environment. 

Plus, it is easier to jump in to a demonstration when there are ready-made banners and placards waiting there, ready-made, in the hands of your furry environmental mascot. But buying into one protest on the basis of a costume or a banner does not rope you into continuing with it. It’s not like buying a pair of shoes.  With activism, that commitment comes from seeing the issue as part of an ongoing theme in your life.  It's got to be personal.
Successful movements are able to engage with people on an every day level, to make them return for every action.  That may be why the three-ring circus known as the International Socialists (or whatever they’re called now) has thousands of dedicated members.  They have an answer for everything... literally.  If you belch in the middle of one of their meetings, they can provide you with a Socialist Perspective as to why you did it. 

Getting back to the TTIP demo in Berlin, though: my friends and I really should have come there more prepared.  We should have come with our own props... or dressed up... or organized a little direct action to do while we were there... but a few of us had hangovers (well, all of us did).  Which may be why I started trying to find some way of blaming the demo for our lack of enthusiasm. ;-)

It was hard to fault the organization of the protest though.  They did an amazing job of bringing a huge number of people together.   Nothing was done wrong, compared to any of the other mass demos I've been to.  But, like almost all of the mass protests that I've been to, I felt like I had to be prepared to give any input.  It couldn't be a spontaneous thing.  If I was just jumping on board at the last minute, my options were limited to something prefab - a banner, a chant - all arranged by the organizers.  This format can certainly attract a certain type of protester - the consumerist type, or those in NGOs - but it leaves out the passers-by who may expect more out of their activism than a souvenir or a photo op.   Creating a free space for people to express their personal reaction to the issues at hand would probably give them a stronger impression to take away, anyway... a sense of input, which is what protest is all about. That's just an observation from someone who has been to dozens of similar one-off events.  A friendly suggestion for next time, if any of those organizers happen to read this.

A phrase from 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' by Neil Postman came to mind: "The medium excludes the content."  And I thought about how a new medium of protest was needed to take activism to the level where it changed people's lives, and not just the way they looked, or the headlines, for a few hours...


 Monsanto is a tad more evil than this installation suggests
Dazzled by bright colours, smoke from beekeepers’ torches and drumming, we walked and walked.  People were staring up ahead, not left or right or behind. Where were we going?  I asked. My friends shrugged.  But being coaxed along like this, it gave the impression of some sort of a big finale up ahead.  No one was stopping and, the few times we tried to, we were nudged along by the slow-motion tide of people.  Toward the end we were herded past a ‘slow food’ stall.  Then we looked around and realized that we had been siphoned in an open space in front of a stage.  This was the critical role we’d been given: playing the part of an audience.

On the other side of the stage, a tide of people was now moving out, over the footbridge towards the Hauptbahnhof.  To join them and go home seemed like a cop-out after all this build-up so we stuck it out there, in the cold.  Just stopping for the sake of stopping, the same way that we had been moving for the sake of moving during
the rest of the demo.  Where else to go until someone listens, but around and around in circles?

No choppers were wheeling overhead but a sense of having our movements coordinated from above was strong.  Being channeled through a pre-arranged pattern laid out on the ground.  The pattern of the city; the pattern of a route; the pattern of activism that is inactive in its execution; all we need to do is turn up and fill in blanks designated to us, a paint-by-numbers march.  All that we can do is turn up and fill in the blanks, if that's how it's designed. 


It’s not as if social change is a point that we can reach by walking towards it, anyway. Even if we ran, it would still elude us.  In a time of constant, robotic movement toward ‘growth’, ‘profit’ and ‘progress’ it seems the most powerful thing anyone could do would be to stand still, rethink everything from scratch instead of flowing along the same old lines. Stop confusing motion with production and size with progress.  Those lines once led outward, but now they have joined up and  lead back in on themselves, an endless loop that gets a little more ground down with each cycle around the planet, searching for another source of untapped potential. But the last, real untapped source of potential exists in our minds.  And, as long as we keep moving forward without stopping, finding bigger and bigger outlines to fill with more and more identical, oversimplified goals, then we’ll never figure out how to exploit the power of the individual.

In the end, I couldn’t silence the inner voice that kept insisting that this protest had left the flawed behaviours that got us here, untouched. 
Like in that dream that I had, about activists cutting down trees in order to save nature - it was just harnessing the wrong impulse for the right purpose. 

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