The term “populism” has been much in vogue recently amid the surge of discontent, the political upheavals which gave us Brexit, Donald Trump and a future of uncertainty. But there is another, noble, tradition of popular protest, of people standing up against repressive regimes, often against overwhelming odds, often with great sacrifice, to strive for freedom and the right to dissent.
The drive for change, for reform and justice, can take different forms. For Ai Weiwei, creative art is the way to escape the straitjacket of totalitarianism. “It is like ice meeting fire. Authoritarian rule is serious and incapable of humour, it exercises strict control over thoughts, to prevent the rise of ideas other than its own” he says. “There is no room for communication or negotiation, because otherwise it would lose ground.”
But Ai Weiwei, the artist who became a champion of people wronged by a brutalised system, wants to stress that “Change is not a matter of belief. It is as inevitable as evolution. The question is not whether changes will happen or not. Change can happen at any time, anywhere, it is happening now.”
But the struggle for change comes at a cost. Ai Weiwei was severely beaten and hospitalised after daring to expose the construction scandal which contributed to the thousands of deaths in the Sichuan earthquakes. Those opposing state suppression face the threat of being assaulted, jailed, even killed. The rulers subvert the rule of law, shut down the schools and colleges, persecute trades union and the media.
Ai Weiwei was writing in the foreword to a new book, Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief, which charts the voices of protests in the many forms they take. They range from marching for black civil rights in the American south to the Arab Spring and Maidan protests in Ukraine to insubordination through eating sandwiches in Thailand, and the breaking of women’s driving bans in Saudi Arabia.
Street Spirit is a wonderfully crafted work, written lucidly and sympathetically — but never cloyingly — about the activism which is shaping our world. It benefits greatly from having as author Steve Crawshaw, an acclaimed former foreign correspondent who is now a senior official at Amnesty International. It is lavishly filled with photographs, some of them well-known, capturing the passion of protest. There are reminders in the pictures of how the struggle needs to continue. The image of Leshia Evans standing in front of riot police during a Black Lives Matter rally in Baton Rouge mirrors 17-year-old Jan Rose Kassmir standing with a flower in her hand in front of a soldiers with bayonets 39 years earlier.
Working for The Independent, Crawshaw covered the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Balkan wars which followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. He brings the hard-earned experience of observing history and putting matters in perspective in confusing scenarios.
Crawshaw points out how governments and officials and, indeed, the media, often failed to gauge the mood of society in transition. The US ambassador to Egypt, for instance, advised her colleagues in Washington in December 2008 that there was no chance of Hosni Mubarak being removed from power by non-violent protests. Margaret Scobey was wrong: that is precisely what happened two years later.
While Crawshaw was reporting on the strikes in Poland — which would eventually lead to the country breaking free from Moscow —- there were journalists sitting back in London pouring cold water on the prospect of anything much changing. The dockyard workers had demanded the creation of a free trade union: The Times declared that the authorities “clearly” would not accept this as “ the Russians would not agree”. It concluded floridly and patronisingly that the “ romantic and volatile Pole of tradition” was now “ less in evidence”.
As eastern Europe transformed, and the Berlin Wall fell, Crawshaw noticed the sense of surprise among politicians. He came to believe that “they were startled because it never occurred to them that citizens could achieve so much by themselves. That reluctance to take individual courage seriously remains relevant today.”
There is, however, another aspect to this. Western politicians, having failed to see what was coming, compensated by encouraging people to rise up, by calling for regime change —- but then did nothing when regimes lashed back with brutal violence. Or, when regime change did take place, did nothing to stabilise the volatile situation.
Fellow journalists and I witnessed this when covering the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Nato intervention in Libya, after David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy demanded that “Gaddafi must go”, led to the downfall and death of the dictator. But Britain and France, along with other Western countries, then abandoned Libya as it disintegrated between warring militias and Isis arrived and set up bases in the security vacuum.
In Syria the cry was “Assad must go”, with Cameron yet again among the chorus leaders. When the Assad regime reacted with ferocious repression there was next to no help from the West. In the following years going into Syria with rebels I saw what was left of the moderate opposition getting killed or driven out, by both Assad’s forces and Isis and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. There is no end to this war, one of the most pitiless and destructive in recent history, in sight.
But, away from the missteps of geopolitics, Street Spirit reminds us of the extraordinary resilience of people, men and women, young and old, who have shown extraordinary determination, a refusal to be cowed by intimidation and violence.
The most effective answer to force at times, the book points out, is humour — the “ Power of Mischief”. The photographs of protestors dressed as clowns lined up beside the riot police during a G-8 summit in Rostov; of a police officer taking down the particulars of subversive fluffy toys in Putin’s Russia; the activist dressed as a donkey giving a press conference in Azerbaijan (he was jailed as a result); giant plastic ducks used to represent the tanks being faced by the lone protestor in Tiananmen Square show the absurdity of brute force.
There are plenty of reminders of the continuing threat to the values of decency and tolerance, to civil liberties, some of this due to the rise of “populism”. The book is dedicated to the MP Jo Cox, murdered during the Brexit campaign. But Street Protest is about hope, not despair, a tonic for our times. There are, it points out, many ways to fight back – marches, debates, petitions, giant plastic ducks, and, of course, social media. In the words of Ai Weiwei: “Never retreat. Retweet''.
‘Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief’ by Steve Crawshaw, forword by Ai Weiei (Michael O'Mara/ LOM Art, £16.99)
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