Brendan O'Neill
Brendan O'Neill

A tale of two protests

Over the past seven days there have been two major demonstrations in London: the anti-capitalist, banker-baiting protests outside the Bank of England that coincided with the G20 summit last week, and a pro-Tamil Tigers demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday that called on Gordon Brown and the United Nations to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to “stop its genocide” against Tamils. Both demos were loud, colourful, well-attended and led to scuffles between protesters and the police. There was a minor riot of sorts at the G20 protest and the police dragged Tamils off the roads outside Parliament yesterday when they blockaded traffic.

But that’s where the similarities end. It was the differences between the two demonstrations that was most striking and which sheds some light on the chasm between old forms of protest (as represented by the Tamils and their demands for a ceasefire and national self-determination) and new forms of protest (as personified by the anti-capitalists complaining about the “coming apocalypse” and demanding the punishment of “greedy bankers”). The demos, separated by a mere week, spoke to a sweeping historic divide between the dignified but fast-fading radical politics of the past and the shrill, self-pitying radical politics of the future.

The instantly striking thing about the Tamil protest yesterday, where about 2 000 Tamil men, women and children protested against the Sri Lankan authorities’ heightened war effort in northern and eastern Sri Lanka and their attempt to wipe out the Tamil Tigers, was the clothes the protesters were wearing. At the G20 protests last week, the largely middle-class anti-capitalists were, for want of a better phrase, “dressed down”. They wore tattered jeans, slogan T-shirts, fairy costumes, drag outfits, clown gear and, of course, the fashion item that no contemporary radical can be seen without: the Palestinian keffiyeh. (Donning one of those is the radicals’ equivalent of “blacking up” and becoming “one of them”: one of the victims.)

The Tamils, by contrast, were smartly dressed. They seemed to be wearing what we in Britain call our “Sunday best”. Some of the men wore ties, or at least ironed shirts with collars and cuffs, and many of the women wore trousers, blouses, new jackets. The younger, British-born Tamils were sharply dressed, too, with a little bit of bling. Where the garb of the G20 anti-capitalists seemed to signal their alienation from mainstream society, their wilful rejection of “rat race Britain” in favour of off-the-peg fairy, clown or anarchist gear, the Tamils’ outfits spoke to individuals who very much want to be treated seriously — who consider themselves part of the social fabric, of everyday human interaction, but who want a more equal footing and to have their grievances resolved and their national rights recognised. Where the G20 protests looked like fancy-dress radicalism — with protesters making an elaborate, costumed performance of their rejection of what they referred to as “zombie” society — the Tamil protests had a serious, well-dressed feel to them.

The other striking difference was the slogans. Ironically, while the Tamil protesters have a great deal more to be worried about than the G20 protesters (one Tamil told me that she has not heard from her brother and his wife, who are in Sri Lanka’s so-called “Safe Zone”, for more than 10 days), their chants and demands were more measured than those of the G20 anti-capitalists. The Tamils chanted “Don’t kill Tamil people!” and “Ceasefire, ceasefire, ceasefire!” Some also demanded the establishment of Tamil Eelam, an independent homeland for Tamils in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. The G20 protesters, by contrast, sounded shrill and hysterical and were almost consumed by visions of banker-induced Armageddon. They marched behind the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” (Climate Chaos, War, Financial Crimes and Land Enclosures) and predicted the destruction of the Earth by “climate zombies” (that’s you and me) and “evil bankers”.

Where the Tamils’ protest was grounded by some kind of political vision — of a future homeland, of an end to war, of winning international respect for Tamils’ rights and equality — the G20 protest was a mish-mash of various out-of-control visions of future doom and destruction, driven not by a clear political agenda but by a left-wing version of the politics of fear. Hence the Tamils, despite facing a far more terrifying predicament than anything experienced by the middle-class, messy-haired boys and girls outside the Bank of England last week, made demands that were rooted and measured, while the anti-capitalist protesters wailed about the End of Days. This made the Tamils’ anger — and there was a lot of it — more convincing than the shrill cries of last week’s anti-banker lobby.

Perhaps the key difference between the Tamil and the G20 protesters, and the one that revealed most about the degraded nature of contemporary, so-called radical politics was that the Tamils were protesting on behalf of themselves and their families and friends, a collective group of people with shared interests and ambitions, while the G20 protesters were speaking “on behalf of others”: the poor, the disillusioned, even “the planet”, which they claimed to represent against polluting, carbon-emitting mainstream society. Indeed, the G20 protests were a largely white affair, with Third World people only appearing as pet victims who might be used (and abused) as a way of forcing through the protesters’ narrow, environmentalist agenda. For example, some green-leaning protesters outside the Bank of England demanded carbon cuts in order to “save the vulnerable of Bangladesh”.

By contrast, the Tamil protests, a largely brown affair (there was surprisingly little solidarity from anti-war or anti-capitalist campaigners), represented “Third World people” speaking for themselves — and they demanded, not economic restraint or carbon cuts, but liberty and equality. The gap between these old-style, nationalist protesters representing themselves and the new-fangled anti-capitalists representing others speaks to an important shift over the past 10 years from an interest-driven politics based on goals and solidarity to a disinterested, aloof politics of pity that imagines the world is dying and the poor and the pathetic must be “saved”. The venues chosen by the two sets of protesters — with the anti-capitalists focusing on the “greedy” financial district and the Tamils setting up camp in the political heart of Britain — was also revealing. The anti-capitalists were effectively moaning about bankers’ warped moral values, whereas the Tamils were more interested in effecting political change.

Finally, the different temperaments were revealing. The police behaved terribly on both demonstrations, penning the anti-capitalists into a square at last week’s demo and forcibly removing Tamils from the streets of Westminster yesterday. However, where these rough scuffles remained marginal to the Tamil protest — with the protesters dusting themselves down and quickly getting back to the political chanting — they became the central focus of the G20 protests. Clashes with police and attacks on banks intensified as the day progressed. That is because the anti-capitalists, unlike the Tamils, had no higher motivation beyond smashing things up.

The anti-capitalist protesters were what Leon Trotsky might have described as “impatient revolutionaries” (though they weren’t very revolutionary) in the sense that they were continually itching for action, for confrontation with the cops; some wore their truncheon-caused bruises as a badge of pride. It was precisely their lack of political grounding, of a shared vision, of coherent aspirations that made the anti-capitalists lust for action, action, action. Their street run-ins with the police were not a continuation of politics by other means, but a substitute for politics. The mini-riot last week was nothing positive, but rather a fairly pathetic battle between misanthropic, philistine protesters and tooled-up police. The Tamils, by contrast, stood up to police heavy-handedness, not for fun or for the sake of it, but in order to continue their political protest. It is telling that there was far less media presence at the Tamil protest: where the G20 demonstration seemed to be executed for the cameras, the Tamil protest had an internal logic of its own.

This isn’t to say that the Tamil cause has remained utterly unchanged over the past 25 years. The Tamil protesters’ description of Sri Lanka’s actions as a “genocide”, and their call on Gordon Brown effectively to save the Tamil people, suggests that their one-time politics of independence has become withered, giving way to a victim-oriented demand for outside protection. Their protest in London seemed driven by desperation, as the Tamil Tigers face final defeat. However, in expressing old, rarely seen political ideals on the streets of London, they threw into relief just how shallow and narcissistic the newer strand of political radicalism is.