Yes, Protest Does Matter.

In the past week, we have seen peaceful protests around the world, in response to the actions taken by Donald Trump, as he has assumed the American Presidency.

Despite not having attended any of the demonstrations myself, I’ve been troubled by the fervent reaction against those who have done so, and the poor arguments that have been made against speaking out. So, without passing comment on the content of any of Trump’s policies or actions, I’ve decided to address the common criticisms publicly:

1. Protesting doesn’t make any difference.

I almost can’t believe that this statement is still being uttered in 2017, after all that has been written, and after we have seen and to-this-day celebrate the outcomes of peaceful protest in the past.

The ultimate goal of protest is obviously to bring about change, but few who take part in any single act of resistance are naive enough to believe that that one particular event will have devastating political ramifications on its own. Movements are built over time, and are successful by building the pressure on those in power.

In this particular situation, there is a real chance that sustained protest can have an impact on the policies of the Trump administration. The Republican party is not full of evil people, and many viscerally disagree with his approach to many issues, but at present feel unable to speak up against them. If all these people hear is silent indifference to what is going on, they are far less likely to have the courage to take the first steps themselves in opposition.

For many, even if there is absolutely zero chance of political change, demonstrations are still immensely important. First and foremost, they are about standing up and publicly stating that you refuse to quietly accept actions that you fundamentally disagree with, and may otherwise be powerless to stop. It’s about demonstrating to other people who facing the brunt of the effects that they are not alone. That’s why they are called ‘demonstrations’.

I won’t draw comparisons between Trump and Hitler at this point, but I do find it rather curious how one of the biggest questions people have when looking back at history is how the German population could possibly have let fascism take hold, seemingly without much protest. I wonder how many people were dismissing those who spoke up, with the same argument: ‘Protesting won’t make a difference’.

2. It’s a foreign country. It doesn’t have any impact on you or people you know. Focus on your own issues.

There are a few constitutent parts to this. Firstly, this kind of statement is often made in a blanket fashion, completely ignoring the personal relationships that the person on the receiving end may have. Where their wife may come from; where their friends may live; where the company their work for is based, for example.

Secondly, even if a person has zero personal ties to the US, the idea that we could close our eyes and ears to what happens outside of our country is a non-sequitur. In fact, it’s the worst kind of nationalism. Following the argument through logically, no Scottish person should ever speak about the evils of apartheid – because it was a South African issue. Neither should the UK have gotten involved in the Second World War. There are innumerable examples of why this doesn’t hold water.

There is a valid criticism to be made of people who only care and speak up about what they see on the news in a foreign country, whilst acting completely indifferent about what is happening in their own back garden. However, that sort of criticism can only be made with in depth knowledge of a person and their motives, and is certainly not something that should be applied with a broad brush to people whose background you have no idea about. Just because somebody is concerned about the actions of Trump, doesn’t mean that they aren’t equally as passionate about the right wing agenda of the UK Government, or that they volunteer at a local foodbank every night.

All of this aside, the reality is that what happens in America does impact what happens in the UK. The policies and rhetoric of the most powerful man on Earth, who leads the biggest military superpower in modern history, who happens to be our supposedly closest ally, definitely has repercussions around the globe. To pretend otherwise is simply foolish.

To bring it home, so to speak: the ‘solidarity’ word is one that comes with a lot of baggage, but it is exactly what protest is often about: making a statement about what kind of society you want and believe in, even in spite of everything that may be happening elsewhere. It’s about saying: ‘The most powerful nation on the planet may be targetting refugees, but we won’t accept those same actions here.’ If all the protests in Glasgow yesterday achieved was to make a single refugee feel more welcome and secure in their adopted city, then they were already a success.

3. The American people chose to vote for Trump. Get over it.

This is one of the most ridiculous assertions of the lot. The idea that once a political party or candidate wins an election that they are infallible, and should be immune from any sort of criticism is ludicrous. At best it is complete hypocrisy on the part of those uttering this nonsense, and at worst an extremely dangerous perspective, that results in human rights abuses in countries like Turkey and Russia.

4. Protesters are just idiots who are virtue signalling whilst contributing exactly zero to the cause they’re apparently so passionate about.

This is pretty much a word for word comment from someone who didn’t approve of the demonstrations held in Glasgow yesterday, but the language is similar to a lot of others.

Here’s how ‘virtue signalling’ is defined:

virtue signalling (US virtue signaling)

noun [mass noun]

the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue: it’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things | standing on the sidelines saying how awful the situation is does nothing except massage your ego by virtue signalling.

On its own, the phrase is seemingly innocuous, but more and more frequently it is now being used to dismiss people who are taking a position that others disagree with, without them having to actually intellectually engage with that position. It’s become one of the lazy phrases like ‘fake news’ that I can’t stand, as it doesn’t actually mean anything in practice.

Given that the phrase is based on intent, the only way ‘virtue signalling’ could accurately be ascribed to those who chose to demonstrate against Trump or his actions, would be if the person using it knew those intentions. In other words, they would need to know the specific motivating factors involved… something that is clearly impossible when applied to a group.

It’s probably worth being crystal clear on this: disagreeing with your position doesn’t mean that somebody is ‘virtue signalling’. It means they disagree with your position. Challenge them on their arguments, not with some spurious empty phrase that only serves to shut down discussions that you can’t handle.

Trump image by Gage Skidmore – used under CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

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6th December 2014 Athens Protests

Yesterday saw large protests in the Greek capital of Athens to commemorate the death of a 15 year old boy named Alexis Grigoropoulos at the hands of Greek police in 2008. This year has extra significance due to the hunger strike of Nikos Romanos, who was there when Griogoropoulos was killed.

There was meant to be a gathering from 12 noon outside the University of Athens, so we headed in to see what would happen. The police had already banned demonstrations in a large portion of the city centre for the visit of the Turkish Prime minister; something that was set to end at 3pm.

When we turned up, nothing was really happening. Lots of people were gathered around the University, but there was no chanting or people grouped together; nobody addressing the crowd or anything like that. There were a few banners here and there, but it was a sunny day, and largely people were just sitting around drinking coffee.

We hung around for a while and decided to go and get something to eat and drink and come back a bit later when there was due to be a march from the University to the neighbourhood of Exarcheia, via Syntagma Square.

Despite there reportedly being around 8000 police deployed in the city, their presence was far lower key than it has been on previous occasions. For a day where they expected a lot more trouble, there didn’t seem to be as many on them about as usual – especially considering that there was roughly one member of the police for every protestor.

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There were a few on street corners, but mainly to close off particular areas and re-direct traffic. That wasn’t always successful as the Greeks don’t like to be told what to do – including not to drive down a particular road.

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It wasn’t clear exactly what they were trying to achieve, as they closed one road off first, and then moved it to the next one. It also wasn’t clear whether the tape they were using to mark the streets was tied to a car they owned, or just one that happened to be parked there at the time.

We headed back up towards the University after 6pm, and things seemed like they were amping up to get ready to move off. We ducked into a nearby bar to get a drink and use their bathroom. Pretty soon after, we head the chanting a street over as people marched past, with fully clad riot police running alongside the side streets. Then came the sound of smashes, and bangs – with the owner of the bar telling us: “They’re smashing up the old Parliament. What’s the point? If they go down the street they’ll find the real enemies.”

We headed back out to see for ourselves for what was going on, and found the street in a sad state of disrepair, with bus shelters and shop windows smashed up, and bins on fire. The police (or fire brigade – it’s hard to tell) weren’t far behind with miniature extinguishers.

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We tagged onto the tail end of the march, but didn’t get too far before both the police and some of the protestors told us to stop taking pictures. This isn’t something I would usually ever comply with, but given the intense atmosphere, and us as foreigners, we thought it wise to do so. All around us there were people with masks smashing up the fronts of windows, or dragging away large plant plots to break into pieces. They were definitely in the minority though, with plenty of both older and younger people simply marching peacefully along, or watching from the sidelines.

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A few seconds later we heard a few huge bangs come from just behind us, and saw people start to run. The police had thrown flashbang grenades and tear gas in retaliation to what looked like water bottles or small stones that had been thrown at them. This quickly escalated, and you can see exactly where we were in the opening scenes of the video below. Watch out for the police punching an already handcuffed man in the face.

We took our leave at this point, with the march heading onwards to Exarcheia. Reports are that the use of the force by the police continued, predictably – with both water cannon, and the liberal use of both tear gas and flashbangs. I’m not sure how any police force can ever justify using chemicals or military tactics so brazenly in a residential area.

As we walked back to Syntagma, we passed more destruction, with steps and shops all smashed up.

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I’m really not sure what destroying shops or steps is supposed to achieve, and whilst I completely support direct action, I’m completely against the destruction of the city that you live in to make a political point. Many activists online have decried these actions, circulating videos that apparently show a few hundred masked, undercover police emerging from the crowd and going behind police lines. It wouldn’t be the first time that the police have infiltrated marches and provoked violence to discredit, or give an excuse to move in with force, so it’s hard to know exactly what the truth is.

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Athens once again lies smashed up, in a country where finances are already beyond strained. Today, the Greek Government are set to vote on a controversial new austerity budget in an attempt to appease the European Union, with further demonstrations planned. We can only hope that things won’t go like they did yesterday.

This is What’s Happening in Greece Right Now

You might not have heard, but thousands of people have been taking to the streets of Greece over the past few weeks.

Despite the impact of the economic crash on the country initially garnering significant media attention, the longer lasting effects have not seen the same level of interest.

Passionate demonstrations are not out of the ordinary in Greece, but this year they have been particularly heated. The cooler weather in November has also brought with it a series of events that have heightened the tension in an already troubled corner of the European Union.

Students in Athens have already faced a number of conflicts with the authorities, one of which was over attempts to mark the anniversary of the 1973 uprising against the military dictatorship. (Some pictures available here) Already fraught relationships with the police have deteriorated even further, through aggression and the liberal use of force. Protesters have been met with tear gas, stun grenades, and claims of ‘thuggish’ behaviour against dissenters.

This weekend sees the culmination of a number of factors which could result in a terrible perfect storm.

  • Friday 5th December sees a State visit by the Turkish Prime Minister, in amongst political controversy over Turkish actions in the Aegean.
  • Greek police have reportedly imposed a ban on ‘outdoor gatherings and demonstrations’ from 3pm on Friday to the same time the following day.
  • Saturday 6th December marks the six year anniversary of the fatal shooting of 15 year old student Alexis Grigoropoulos, which sparked huge riots across the country in 2008.
  • A friend of Grigoropoulos who was with him at the time – Nikos Romanos – is currently imprisoned and has been on hunger strike for around 25 days. Thousands of people have already taken to the streets just days ago to show solidarity, with violence erupting afterwards.
  • Syrian refugees have been camped outside of the Greek Parliament in Syntagma Square for over a week, engaged in a hunger strike to gain political recognition from the Government.
  • The Greek Parliament is set to decide on a contentious new budget for 2015 on Sunday

Greece is already sitting on a social powder-keg, with increasing pressure from the EU to implement further austerity measures despite sky high unemployment rates. It could be that the aggregation will spill over into violence, despite the thousands of police set to be deployed. Hopefully this won’t be the case.

Edit: You should be sure to read this thoughtful comment from Maria, below.