Where have all those (real) protesters gone?

Fay Weldon on why the voice of true demonstration is never heard
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The Independent Online

Pity the poor protester. His name is mud. Once he or she was respected, educated, politically aware, prepared to sacrifice comfort for principle. Would be vilified in the Press, naturally, for making a nuisance, and holding up the traffic with marches, banners, songs and rallies, but would be assumed to be a necessary part of a democratic society. Protest was society's safety valve, a way of reminding a government mid-term that it was accountable to the people, that their opinion mattered.

Pity the poor protester. His name is mud. Once he or she was respected, educated, politically aware, prepared to sacrifice comfort for principle. Would be vilified in the Press, naturally, for making a nuisance, and holding up the traffic with marches, banners, songs and rallies, but would be assumed to be a necessary part of a democratic society. Protest was society's safety valve, a way of reminding a government mid-term that it was accountable to the people, that their opinion mattered.

Last week's news footage showed a riotous, nasty, dirty mob, frenzied and with torn trousers, daubed and grimy faces, shaved heads: a mad-eyed, body-pierced, destructive horde, the rejects and alienated of society.

Are these to be the protesters of the 21st century? If so, we can do without them.

I have presented petitions enough in my time: stood in a snowstorm at the closed door of the Iranian Embassy with Michael Foot, Mark Fisher, then shadow Minister for the Arts, and other respectable citizens, by appointment, to deliver a letter of protest about the Rushdie fatwa, and had the door closed in our faces. Our country, their embassy: they could be as rude as they liked. This is the rule of law. We respected it and limped away, humiliated. And yet, up to a point, protest worked, could change the mindset of a nation. Salman Rushdie still thrives, veal calves get exported dead not alive, bypasses are stopped, trees get saved, the Poll Tax went.

I held hands round the steel gates of the US Cruise Missile base at Greenham and chanted "Take the toys from the boys" with the rest of the women, and presently the boys dropped them of their own accord.

We are a far cry now, 25 years after the end of the Vietnam War, from that round of protests, demos, and flower power. What went wrong? Perhaps the days of the specific cause are over. The "capitalism" of the current protest is not going to take much notice of this lot, other than to see them as yet another niche market, and obligingly provide them with face paint, grease for their hair, big boots, and rings for piercing their private parts.

Yet pity the poor protester, of the old-fashioned kind. It's to the extremists that the cameras turn. The respectable young also turn out, and in their tens of thousands, not just because it's something to do on a bank-holiday Monday, but because they feel alienated and helpless, perhaps sensing the increasingly heavy hand of state control. They see their futures mapped out in front of them, a lifetime of dutiful, tax-paying citizenship, and want to live in some other way. An "anti-capitalist march" sounds just about right to them, a catch-all. And what happens? They are brought into disrepute not by the company they keep, but by the company that these days insists on turning up too, this rabble army of aggressive misfits. They have no chance. Their voices are not heard. Democracy fails.

Perhaps the problem faced by today's protester is that the enemy is so hard to locate. It's no longer just the boss, grinding the faces of the poor. What price now the Jarrow March? The boss hides somewhere behind your manager, and your manager can be seen to be working even longer and harder than you do, and the wage differential is not so great. There is no trade union to explain injustice to you, even organise the demo.

Nor is your enemy the military-industrial complex. Today, wars are called "conflicts": they are resolved, not won or lost: they are waged on politically correct grounds; the army becomes a peace-keeping force, and are not protesters traditionally on the side of love and peace? The enemy has taken over language itself, and can be seen by the conspiracy theorist to use it as a shield to subvert change: Marcuse's "repressive tolerance" - a tool of control.

What's more, says the conspiracy theorist, the internet is meant to be the people's friend, but is it? It is so easily infiltrated by agents provocateurs. If demonstrators end up being seen as "antisocial elements", how did this come about? Why, relying on the net, do they end up piled into Whitehall, surrounded by police dressed up as aliens, presented with the unprotected Cenotaph and Churchill's statue? A minority can be relied upon to turn violent.

Let the Sun run the photo of Winston Churchill's daubed statue next to one of Ken Livingstone, the better to taint him by juxtaposition. Let the Conservatives be goaded into attacking Livingstone as the Protester's Friend, put it about that the asylum-seekers, those scroungers and ingrates, were the worst culprits, that it was a cell of Turkish Leninists who daubed Churchill with apparently washable graffiti.

Let them play into the unseen enemy's hands. Let the police be as inconsistent as ever. Let them crack Tibetan protesters' skulls when the Chinese head of state pays a visit: let them go easy on the anti-capitalist march, take the credit for letting it go ahead, and wait for the demonstrators to discredit their own cause.

We are way beyond the Swampy stage. He would at least have known that there isn't much soil down Whitehall in which to scatter virtuous non-GM seed, and thought up some other ploy: it's pretty stony ground down there.

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