Since the student protests that kicked off last Wednesday, Fairfax Media in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have run three comment pieces on how the students needed to drop the traditional mass street protest of the 1960s/1970s and employ ‘new’ tactics in the fight against higher education cuts. First there was Annabel Crabb, who wrote:
I’m just wondering why university students – who should be the most connected, educated, cutting-edge communicators in our country – are still protesting like it’s 1969… But in this magical new era of communication, there must be better ways of telling a story than “What Do We Want? No Fees! When Do We Want It? Now!”.
Protests are, in my view, a good thing. They are a sign of the freedom we all enjoy. But what some protesters fail to understand is everyone else’s right to go about their business undisturbed. Sadly, the right to protest has become for all too many the right to ruin anyone else’s day just because they want to be on telly.
And then today, PR firm Hootville got some free publicity from The Age by releasing ‘advice’ they gave to the National Tertiary Education Union about how to combat the cuts. Number one piece of advice from this PR lot was:
1. 1968 is over – forget the violence
Intimidation, harassment and bullying is not going to help you persuade people to your cause. You’ve already donated Minister Pyne hours of free, easy media coverage.
There are really three things that really annoy me about these pieces, comparing the student protests now with those of the 1960s and 1970s.
1) This is a really reductionist idea of what forms of protests were employed during the 1960s and 1970s, instead relying on this popular stereotype of sixties’ protests involving marching, chanting and sitting down. A read of Sean Scalmer or Iain McIntyre (see his How to Make Trouble and Influence People website) shows that the history of protest in Australia has seen a diverse range of tactics used, with marching and chanting only one of many options.
2) The mainstream media has had a well-worn narrative that Generation Y is self-centred, individualistic and apolitical. The protests last week saw young people showing initiative and deep political concern – enough to mobilise several thousand onto the streets around Australia. While it is only one tactic in a broad spectrum of activism in the 21st century, congregating in public together demonstrates to those involved that they are not alone and proves the old adage, ‘in unity is strength’. Street demonstrations can give a critical mass to a movement much more than a bunch of disparate individuals getting involved in online campaigning – but it should be kept in mind that activism is not a zero sum game. It should’t be street marches or clicktivism, but street marches plus clicktivism.
3) Vanstone’s complaint that protests disrupt the business of other people, alongside Hootville’s call for student protestors to conform to the rules of conventional politics, overlook the purpose of protest. Protest is about breaking out of the boundaries of the conventional political sphere and challenging the status quo. If protests aren’t causing disruption, then they are not an effective political strategy. As Kurt Iveson wrote here, conforming to the mainstream political idea of ‘legitimate protest’ will push protest activity from the realm of direct action to the symbolic. For Iveson, the concept of ‘legitimate protest… rests on the liberal assumption that if protestors are given the opportunity to speak, this will be enough for them to be heard if they have a legitimate point to make.’
Of course, protest should be peaceful, but as history has shown, even when protestors are peaceful, the authorities can construe any form of protest as ‘potentially violent’, believing those who protest to be ‘thugs’. The real lesson that students should be taking from the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s is how the government, the police and the mainstream media have reacted to protest in Australia over the last forty years.