Saturday, 10 March 2012

On Professional Protesters

The term "professional protester" seems to be applied by the opponents of almost every demonstration or protest I get involved in or hear about. When referred to as such at Occupy Bath, I decided to treat it like a badge of honour - my thought was "we're THAT good that people think we're professional!"

For the purpose of this blog, I sought out a definition of "professional protester" to use as a starting point. Unfortunately, despite finding numerous blog posts and comments on news articles using the term, the only definition I was able to find was from that treasure trove that should sit along the Oxford English Dictionary in terms of impact on the modern internet user's vocabulary - The Urban Dictionary. Here, the term is defined as:

"Any unemployed, fanatically Liberal protester, who spends an inordinate amount of time protesting the Republican wing. Often protests so frequently, they lose track of what they are actually protesting. Usually falls within the age range of 18-35. Descriptions include bad dye jobs, nasty facial piercings, and copious amounts of tacky tattoos. While adopting a "hippy-ish" style dresscode, and associated hygiene practices."

The author of this definition (who goes by the name of D. Gould) is obviously biased, but is probably not too far off the mark considering the context in which the term is usually applied.

Let's take a long look at the definition of professional. The Oxford English Dictionary (online version) has several definitions, those appropriate are listed below (the numbering is my own):

1. "In humorous or derogatory use. Of a person: habitually making a feature of a particular activity or attribute, esp. one that is generally regarded with disfavour; inveterate."

2. "Of an event, activity, occupation, etc. (now esp. a sport): undertaken or engaged in for money; engaged in by professionals (as distinct from non-professionals or amateurs)"

3. "A person who engages in a specified activity, especially a sport, as a paid occupation. Freq. opposed to amateur."

4. "Engaged in a profession, esp. one requiring special skill or training; belonging to the professional classes"

5. "That has or displays the skill, knowledge, experience, standards, or expertise of a professional; competent, efficient."

The first definition I give is the one usually applied to people who spend a lot of time protesting. It's a put-down. However, definitions 2-5 are much more positive.

Many of the people I have met on protests have been involved in other protest activities. At Occupy Bath and Bristol I met people who had been involved in the 2003 war march, Greenham Common, Stop the War Coalition, Newbury Bypass, G20, the recent tuition fees protest and many others. It is very common that you will find a lot of people at a protest who have previously been involved in other protests, and some have been involved in a lot. At a recent demonstration outside Bath City College, when Vince Cable was opening a new building, there were more than a few familiar faces. But I don't meet a lot of people who don't know what they're protesting about - more often those that attend a lot of protests know too much, and care so much, that they feel they need to make a habit of making a stand on a regular basis. I won't deny having met a few individuals who were doing it because it was cool, part of a scene or didn't quite understand what was going on, but even then I think they often learn something from others there, so I wouldn't tell them to sod off.

In America there is a popular conspiracy theory amongst some Republicans that Occupy protesters are being paid by the Democrats. See this article for an example (note the comments below), and this article for a reasoned criticism of this claim (Occupy in America have protested against Obama and the Democrats on several occasions - see here and here, and also Obama has signed the "anti-Occupy law"). As most protesters aren't being given a wage to protest, we can discount definitions 2 and 3. Long term protest camps such as Occupy, Newbury Bypass and Democracy Village did get given donations of money, food and equipment from members of the public, but this is not a wage. At Occupy Bath and Occupy Bristol we regularly received donations, with the people donating often commenting that they would be camping out if they didn't have work/kids/partner etc.

Definitions 4 and 5, on the other hand, are more relevant. They separate the newbie and the amateur from the seasoned banner-waver, the person who knows how to put up a tent and cook on a fire, the person who knows what to say to the cops and how to talk down aggressive opponents, the one with all the knowledge of the issues and the experience of many years of protesting.

Many people who support causes or who are opposed to an activity do not have the time to attend every demo or set up camp somewhere in protest against the issue at hand. Even of those that do, there is also often the fear of arrest, or being looked down upon by certain sections of society – which may include friends, family and workmates. These are the people who send in their messages of support, or drop by with some food and few quid for the collection box every now and then, and perhaps even write a letter to a newspaper. They rely on the actions and abilities of others to protest. Then there are the part-timers and the occasional protesters – those that have other commitments, but do it when they can. They rely on the professionals to organise things and keep things running while they are not around.

Professional protesters are not always hippies, and are not always left-wing and/or liberals. Back before hunting was banned in the UK, there were many people who didn't fit this description marching and demonstrating against the proposed ban on a regular basis. I never had Fathers 4 Justice down as hippies. However, as this country has long been governed by centre-right and moderately authoritarian parties, one would expect the majority of modern protestors to be mostly the liberal-left. If the Green Party ever got into power, could we expect to have Conservative voters camped outside St Paul's Cathedral or Parliament Square demanding a return to corporatism and a relaxing of green legislation? Perhaps even people chaining themselves to the cooling towers of gas and nuclear power stations about to be de-activated? Maybe calling for an increased tax on the poor?

So, after careful consideration, and in another of case of reclaiming a formerly insulting term, I’m going to redefine it:

Professional ProtesterA person with considerable experience in protesting who is often willing and able to put themselves in sometimes compromising positions in which others are not. Usually highly knowledgeable of the issues surrounding the protest and dedicated to the cause. Often a veteran of many protests and demonstrations and usually well-equipped to ensure that things run according to plan. 

Update July 2012 - The Urban Dictionary has now accepted this definition!

Standing Stone's Blog would like to express solidarity with the protesters (professional or otherwise) currently surrounding Hinkley Point nuclear power station, and it is with regret that I am not there with you.

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