May Day and the difficulty with protests

03.05.2011

This week, Daniel Winter looks at demonstration and how it’s not always a sensible way of effecting a change.

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May Day demonstration in Berlin. / Foto: wikipedia.de

I have a big problem with some kinds of protest. Sometimes protesting is necessary to show that popular support exists (and the size of such support) for a particular issue, to make politicians aware that action needs to be taken. But more often than not, protests turn into a badly-disguised excuse for a hooligan riot, especially where ‘counter demonstrations’ are involved.

Many people I have spoken to about demonstrations in my area which took place on May Day, seemed to have an idea of the cause they were for, but they didn’t have a clue about who they were demonstrating against. A counter demonstration against ‘Nazis’ was often spoken about, but very few people I asked who intended to go to the protest actually knew who the groups were on the other side or what indeed they were protesting for.

Anti-Nazism has become a kind of fetishised club among left-wing campaigners.

While right-wing extremism is rightly unwelcome in Germany, people seem to be discussing protests as the best way of showing derision for their cause. Unfortunately, these people are naive in their approach.

Perhaps if many right-wingers are saying there should be more jobs for Germans, doesn’t that mean there could be an underlying problem which needs to be addressed? Perhaps there is a segment in society which has a tendency towards being right-wing and perhaps this group has the most problem getting jobs. Political action needs to be taken to support this people in getting educated and finding the right path to work for them. Therefore – address the cause, not the symptom.

It would be silly as a sociologically-minded British liberal working in Germany such as myself to leave this topic on that point. Of course, anyone who expresses a hatred for foreigners is an idiot (‘they took our jobs’ is again not a helpful solution to any societal problem, rather an oversimplification, or often an entirely wrong, interpretation of an issue affecting the demonstrator’s social group).

This ‘us vs. them’ demonstration tactic employed on one day in the year does not bring about change, does not help your cause and does not make the country a better place to live in.

In fact, fighting fire with fire, as the German left-wing resistance group the RAF clearly showed, can make you as bad as the people you’re fighting. Violent demonstrations just make both sides look misguided.

Don’t take this as a call not to demonstrate. Demonstrate with sense. Here’s a demo checklist:

  • Who are you demonstrating against? Just because you saw a poster recruiting you to demonstrate against the evil other side doesn’t mean the poster group has pure intentions.
  • What is the other side’s cause and why are you against it? Just because you feel emotional about something doesn’t mean shouting about it without listening is the best way.
  • Is demonstration actually going to help get your point across, or just incite participants to riot? Rioting makes both sides look like hooligans.
  • Who are the people (politicians, officials etc.) who can make a change in favour of your cause? Contact them and tell them your views.

And finally, to those who invoke the Nazi rise to power and how important it is to get your opinion across today: just remember to do the most effective, sensible, non-violent thing. Perhaps a protest, but perhaps also something else.

 


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