The Power of the Protest

Artwork By Angharad Neal-Williams

The weekend of protests against President Donald Trump’s inauguration were the largest mobilisation in the history of the United States. Four million people turned out across the United States and globally, the five million people that turned out in over 60 cities from Berlin to Manila, from London to here in Melbourne—where we had about 6,000 show up to the State Library against Trump—were only surpassed in number by the anti–Iraq War protests of February 2003, which brought out 15 million people. Since then, there have been protests to push back anti-choice bigots at Planned Parenthood clinics, airport occupations against Trump’s Muslim travel ban, marches outside the historic Stonewall Inn where Gay Liberation was born. This wave of protest against a newly elected president is unprecedented.

Yet in my research for this article, I couldn’t help but notice a smaller but by no means insignificant protest that took place in the little city of Norwich in Norfolk County, England. At one point, Norwich was the second-largest city in England; however, that point was sometime during the eleventh century. These days, Norwich has a population of about 213,000, making it a quiet city favoured by Londoners wanting a weekend away from the big smoke.

“Huge crowds gather in Norwich”, screamed the headline of the Eastern Daily Press to describe the February 1 Norwich protest against Trump’s Muslim travel ban, a now-defunct executive order that aimed to restrict the right of entry into the U.S. to the nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries. In all, about a thousand Norvicians showed up to the protest. Not much by our standards but considering the city has a population the size of Hobart, it would have been like 21,000 people showing up to our Melbourne anti-Trump protest.

“Not my president” has become one of the well-known slogans of the anti-Trump movement, but that is literally the case for the thousand or so Norvicians who protested Donald Trump. But as Lottie Clare, one of the student organisers of the protest says: “It’s easy for us to criticise Trump in the UK and be focussing on the racism that’s happening in the States but it’s also happening here. The solidarity with people in the US really does matter and it’s about rejecting these ideas.”

Protesting Trump can seem fruitless: he’s already been elected and besides, here in Australia, what he does doesn’t affect us and even if we wanted to stop it, we couldn’t. But the activists in sleepy Norwich saw the point in protesting Trump. So did the millions of others across the world who came out and continue to come out against Trump’s agenda. Protest is effective not only when it achieves an immediate outcome—as in the case of the airport protests that led to the repeal of Trump’s Muslim ban—but even when it doesn’t. The ordinary functioning of society begins to melt away in a mass protest, as participants are united by a set of demands or a common goal. A protest has the potential to expose the role of the police, the profoundly undemocratic nature of society, the collective power of those assembled: the point of protesting is not to appeal to the democratic nature of the powers that be but to change the ideas of those who take part, allowing them to imagine that another world is possible.

For the late John Berger, a Marxist art critic, novelist and activist, to those who protest, the demonstration becomes a “metaphor for their total collective strength”. He wrote in his essay ‘The Nature of Mass Demonstrations’:

“The demonstrators interrupt the regular life of the streets they march through or of the open spaces they fill. They cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatise the power they still lack…

By demonstrating, they manifest a greater freedom and independence – a greater creativity, even although the product is only symbolic – than they can ever achieve individually or collectively when pursuing their regular lives. In their regular pursuits they only modify circumstances; by demonstrating they symbolically oppose their very existence to circumstances.”

The idea that protest changes consciousness is important in understanding how a seemingly spontaneous movement against the newly elected Trump could have taken shape. Just as the seeds of Trump’s ascent can be found in the failure of the Obama years to live up to its promises of “change we can believe in”, so too can the origins of today’s anti-Trump movement be found in the protest movements that took place under Obama: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic Party nomination.

Occupy Wall Street was a short-lived but militant occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street in Manhattan, as a delayed response to the failures of government to respond adequately to the global financial crisis of 2008–9. This was a crisis that plunged millions into homelessness, unemployment and misery and yet the Wall Street bankers who caused the crisis on the whole got off scot-free. Black Lives Matter came to the world’s attention in 2014, after 18-year-old black man Mike Brown was gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri and that neighbourhood erupted in protest and riot against a racist state that continues to incarcerate and murder African Americans with total impunity. And Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont who until 2015 was unknown to the world, overnight became a 74-year-old rockstar with his campaign to become the Democratic nominee for U.S. president on a platform of free college tuition, single-payer healthcare, an end to U.S. imperial wars and to institute a $15 minimum wage.

None of these movements achieved their stated aims: Wall Street still makes decisions with impunity, African Americans continue to be killed by racist cops and Bernie Sanders is evidently not president. But all of these movements got scores of young people involved with activism, many for the first time. These movements raised the political consciousness of those people, challenging hegemonic ideas of what American society actually looks like, what the role of the American state is, the possibilities for running society outside the neoliberal orthodoxy. Without Occupy, Black Lives Matter or the Bernie Sanders campaign, we might not have seen the airport occupations, the anti-inauguration protests or the Women’s Marches.

But of course, people don’t go to protests to have their consciousness raised. We go because we want to win. We go because want to see a less racist, less barbarous, more humane society. In order to achieve that, we need to move beyond just protest. The election of Trump, the march of the far-right across Europe, the election of Pauline Hanson to the Senate in Australia, as well as the general rightward shift of mainstream politics show us that the right is organised. This means that left-wing people need to get together to impose on society our vision of what society should look like: free public transport, free education and healthcare, an end to wars for resources and profit, and end to multinationals exploiting the earth while our planet burns. This means that our side needs to get organised.

As Berger wrote, that moment can be pivotal in changing that person’s worldview, for demonstrations are “protests of innocence”:

“There is an innocence to be defended and an innocence which must finally be lost: an innocence which derives from justice, and an innocence which is the consequence of a lack of experience.”

Attending a single protest, for all the layers of new activists getting involved in the movement against Trump today, can be the first step in losing that innocence.

Chris di Pasquale is a member of the Monash Socialists and the LGBTI Officer for the National Union of Students.

Chris Di Pasquale

The author Chris Di Pasquale

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