Protests widen the rift between public and police

William Hosie challenges conventional notions about protests' effectiveness

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The only protest I’ve ever been caught up in happened three summers ago, one Saturday in August, when pro-Palestine rioters took over Edgware Road. My confused and slightly worried 15-year-old self tried making his way through the crowd and in the process, ended up contributing five pounds to the Palestinian cause and receiving a free bracelet. I didn’t really know what I’d contributed five pounds to, but it felt like I’d done something good – until the protest turned violent, with a group of men choosing to boycott the local MacDonald’s. I’m still not really sure how that was effective.

Although the vast majority of the people protesting in August 2014 were of Arab ethnicity and thus directly linked to the cause they were defending, it seems a lot has changed in the past three years. What was previously a political statement has become a wider cultural trend. Protests have become a mainstream part of our day-to-day lives. Protesting is hip, it’s edgy, it’s fashionable. You post your photo on Instagram to show the world you went to an anti-Trump rally, holding up a banner with a message about combatting fake news or something.

Last summer’s women’s marches are probably the most legitimate of recent protests. Yet at most protests nowadays, people don’t protest because they support the political cause being defended, but rather because protests are thrilling experiences. If people want to make a political statement, all they have to do is go online and launch a petition on change.org. If they’re joining protests, disruptive marches, and riots, it’s because these have become exhilarating spectacles. Who can design the best poster? Which brilliant mind has come up with the best slogan? Riots are euphoric events, disguised as political activism.

One can explain this unsettling new trend by the change in the political climate over the past few years. Not only have politics and showbiz never been as intertwined as they are today (the Glastonbury chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” epitomise this), but political discourse in the past years has also turned nasty. The debate of measured arguments has become a sour exchange of insults. The reawakening of the hard-left through Corbyn, and the intensified voices of the hard-right in post-Brexit Britain, has created a populist and volatile backdrop where opinions are more extreme.

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The gap between the right and left extremities of the spectrum continues to widen, causing riots. The increase in protests is only one symptom of the anger that typifies our current political landscape. Journalist Cosmo Landesman argues that protests, particularly in America, are no longer about the battle of ideas, but about the battle against the police. That the police behave in a discriminatory way towards minorities is a fact. And yet the current level of confidence and trust in the police is higher in metropolitan areas than it has been for a while.

Landesman deplores the systematic targeting of the police in the States, explaining that this tendency only overshadows other, arguably more pressing problems, like gang culture and black-on-black crime, both of which cause more deaths than the rarer (though non-negligible) shooting of black youths by policemen.

Gang crime is not just an issue which anti-police and anti-establishment protests unwittingly overshadow: it’s something they make more easily possible. Tom Gash, author of Criminal: The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things, analyses the ways in which legitimate protests are being used as a cover for a very small minority of people, out to cause trouble.

Rather than being a particularly vocal expression of democracy and free speech, riots mark the end of democracy. Rather than helping protestors achieve legitimate responses to their grievances, protests widen the rift between the public and police, representatives of an establishment keen to close ranks and cancel public enquiries.

So don’t indulge in protests. They have become a young adult fad with little, if no, effect. If you want to let your hair down in public with a mob of cool youths, just wait for Notting Hill Carnival.