The idea of turning London into a life-sized Monopoly board on May Day sounded like a great idea.
The most familiar criticism lobbed at modern protesters is that they lack focus and clear goals such as "Save the trees" or "Drop the debt." And yet these protests are a response to the limitations of single-issue politics. Tired of treating the symptoms of an economic model—underfunded hospitals, homelessness, widening disparity, exploding prisons, climate change—there is now a clear attempt to "out" the system behind the symptoms. But how do you hold a protest against abstract economic ideas without sounding hideously strident or all over the map?
How about using the board game that has taught generations of kids about land ownership? The organizers of yesterday's May Day Monopoly protest issued annotated maps of London featuring such familiar sites as Regent Street, Pall Mall, and Trafalgar Square, encouraging participants to situate their May Day actions on the Monopoly board. Want to protest against privatization? Go to a rail station. Industrial agriculture? McDonald's at King's Cross. Fossil fuels? The electric company. And always carry your "get out of jail free" card.
The problem was that, by yesterday afternoon, London didn't look like an ingenious mix of popular education and street theatre. It looked pretty much like every other mass protest these days: demonstrators penned in by riot police, smashed windows, boarded-up shops, running fights with police. And in the pre-protest media wars, there was more déjà vu. Were protesters planning violence? Would the presence of 6,000 police officers itself provoke violence? Why won't all the protesters condemn violence? Why does everybody always talk about violence?
This, it seems, is what protests look like today. Let's call it McProtest, because it's becoming the same all over.
And, of course, this is becoming a kind of McColumn, because I've written about all this before. In fact, almost all of my recent columns have been about the right to assembly, security fences, tear gas, and dodgy arrests. Or else they've tried to dispel willful misrepresentations of the protesters—for instance, that they are "anti-trade," or long for a pre-agrarian utopia.
It is an article of faith in most activist circles that mass demonstrations are always positive: They build morale, display strength, attract media attention. But what seems to be getting lost is that demonstrations aren't themselves a movement. They are only the flashy displays of everyday movements, grounded in schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods. Or at least they should be.
I keep thinking about the historic day, on March 11, when the Zapatista commanders entered Mexico City. This was an army that led a successful uprising against the state. And yet the residents of Mexico City didn't quake in fear—200,000 of them came out to greet the Zapatistas. Streets were closed to traffic, yet no one seemed concerned about the inconvenience to commuters. And shopkeepers didn't board up their windows; they held "revolution" sidewalk sales.
Is this because the Zapatistas are less dangerous than a few urban anarchists in white overalls? Hardly. It was because the march on Mexico City was seven years in the making (some would say 500 years, but that's another story). Years of building coalitions with other indigenous groups, with workers in the maquiladoras,with students, with intellectuals and journalists; years of mass consultations, of open encuentros (meetings) of 6,000 people. The event in Mexico City wasn't the movement; it was only a very public demonstration of all that invisible, daily work.
The most powerful resistance movements are always deeply rooted in community—and are accountable to those communities. But one of the greatest challenges of living in the high consumer culture that was being protested in London yesterday is the reality of rootlessness. Few of us know our neighbours, talk about much more than shopping at work, or have time for community politics. How can a movement be accountable when communities are fraying?
Within a context of urban rootlessness, there are clearly moments to demonstrate, but, perhaps more important, there are moments to build the connections that make demonstration something more than theatre. There are times when radicalism means standing up to the police, but there are many more times when it means talking to your neighbour.
The issues behind yesterday's May Day demonstrations are no longer marginal. Food scares, genetic engineering, climate change, income inequality, failed privatization schemes—these are all front-page news. Yet something is gravely wrong when the protests still seem deracinated, cut off from urgent daily concerns. It means that the spectacle of displaying a movement is getting confused with the less glamorous business of building one.