Having grown up in France, I have always been skeptical of social movements. It must be said that, in my home country, demonstrating is as much a means to express political grievances as it is a folkloric tradition. Almost every year, outraged citizens pour into the streets of Paris to protest the government’s latest plan to scam everyone out of their hard-earned social privileges and break a few things. And every year, things are pretty much the same.
First, the protest gains momentum. As students and workers join hands and media coverage expands, the movement often takes the shape of a seemingly unstoppable mass, a bulldozer cruising at full speed towards the wall it intends to tear down.
Then, the government sends in the police, and things start to get ugly. When you spend the whole day surrounded by cops in rioting gear, you usually end up feeling like you are supposed to riot. Like they are waiting for you to riot. I mean, come on, do you know how long it takes for a police officer to prep up for a demonstration? That’s a lot of pressure.
This is where it gets interesting. As clashes between protesters and the police intensify, most social movements end up turning into full-blown riots. While having hooded young men throw bricks and molotov cocktails at police cars makes for great publicity, the message has a tendency to get lost in all this violence. Media coverage increases, but all that people seem concerned about now is police brutality and overthrowing the system.
It usually ends one of two ways. Feeling the growing pressure and social discontent, the government decides to give in to the protesters’ demands (yeah right.) Either that, or the movement dies out. People start growing tired of getting beaten up and pepper sprayed on a daily basis. All this rioting has demolished their credibility anyways. So they go home. And when the blood stops flowing, the media lose interest. Finally, crushed by the weight of the omnipotent French pragmatism, the remaining activists give up, and their struggle fades away.
This violent, passionate and ultimately useless type of protest is of course not the intellectual property of the French. In the past few years, we have seen that the British and the Greek are equally adept (if not more talented) at rioting, while achieving very little politically. However, I must say that I was surprised when, last year, a protest erupted on the other side of the Atlantic ocean. I am of course referring to the birth of the Occupy movement.
At first, I found it hard to overlook my French cynicism. There was this tiny voice in my head that kept whispering “You’ll see, they’re pissed off now, then they’ll get even more pissed off, but soon they’ll get tired, go home and watch some TV.” I was giving OWS a couple of weeks, maybe a month, before it collapsed. You can imagine my astonishment as the movement unfolded before my eyes, spreading to the rest of the world in a matter of weeks. They had no coherence, very little organization, no real demands, no over-arching ideology, just the common belief that wealth could and should be better distributed by the powers in place. And yet, “they” were slowly becoming one of the biggest social movements in history.
I was impressed, but I was still skeptical. I knew that it was almost time. Time for the police to step in, time for the rioters to start burning things. Time for YouTube to pass those images around, time for more widespread indignation and outrage. And finally, time for lassitude, time for “we’ll get ‘em next time”, time for “it’s raining bro, screw this, lets go see Avengers.”
I have to say, Occupy lasted longer than I expected. Much, much longer. And, although on the decline, it isn’t dead yet. But there is one of my predictions that came true. A prediction based on years of seeing social movements try and fail, years of observing social activists in their natural habitat. My prediction was this: During protests, media coverage and general interest always peaks when skulls get cracked.
OWS was no exception. The movement reached the height of its popularity in October and November 2011, as images of peaceful protesters being dragged and sprayed by unwarrantably aggressive cops were buzzing all over the internet. However, since the forced evacuation of Zuccotti Park in mid-November, media coverage has been dwindling, and public interest is on the decline. Occupy Wall Street? That is so 2011.
Recent student movements in Canada to protest an increase in university tuition have experienced similar patterns. Like Paris, Montreal has a tradition of protesting stuff. It is as if, as the first flowers of Spring start blooming, Canadian students get together and sing songs and find something to be mad about. In fact, you have to admire the resolve of UQAM (Universite du Quebec a Montreal) students for having such short summer breaks, seeing as they often need to catch up on their fall semester, which was spent demonstrating.
This year, Canadian students definitely had something to be mad about, as the government announced it would raise academic tuition fee by 75% over the next five years. But what turned a relatively unnoticed social movement into a full-blown “Maple Spring” was, again, the police. As a measure to contain the protests, the Canadian government enacted an emergency law (“Bill 78”) that heavily restricts individual rights to protest, leading to hundred of arrests and heavy fines. As you can imagine, this only led to more protests. It is now the outrage directed at this deemed unconstitutional law that seems to drive the movement forward and generate an increasing global sympathy.
Once again, it seems that the original message is getting lost and taken over by a more general and angry anti-establishment sentiment. I can’t say that I frown upon the cause, since police brutality and restrictions on freedom of speech are issues that directly threaten the democratic process, and that should therefore be taken very seriously. But there is something not quite right with this picture.
What bothers me here is not that the police scare people out of demonstrating (even though they do.) What bothers me is to see that almost any government can silence its citizens. To see that police brutality has the ability to effectively divert the media, and hence the public’s attention, from almost any issue. What worries me is the government’s willingness to use force in order to avoid dialogue, as if negotiating with its citizens was a sign of weakness.
It is hard to say whether the Global Occupy movement will die out completely, but it is certainly showing signs that it is on the decline. In the meantime, we might want to keep a close eye on what happens in Canada, and make sure that the protesters’ outrage does not once again turn into lassitude.
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