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4 November 2011updated 26 Sep 2015 9:46pm

The perils of ignoring popular protest

Protests like Occupy London need to be heard and acted upon or riots may ensue.

By Paul Donovan

The protest of the Occupy London activists camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral for the past view weeks has focused attention on a central demand for economic justice in the world. Much of the media attention was drawn initially by the ongoing discourse between church and protesters. The cathedral authorities seemed to do a complete 360 degree turn when it came to the occupation.

To date, the failure to protest has seen governments everywhere simply shovelling tax payers’ money into the coffers of the banks with very little in return. Indeed, for the most part the bankers have said “thanks very much” and continued paying themselves huge bonuses. The wider question, though, is: do these type of protests work? Visiting the St Paul’s site there are the usual suspects; seen at road, anti war and environmental protests over the years.

There is a bohemian atmosphere around, with signs reflecting a national and global outlook. So there are “Greetings for the landless of India and Ektu Parishad”, alongside “Sex Workers denied decriminalisation and safety rights” and “Giving to the poor is not enough – restructure so there is no poverty.”

The site is well organised with a clear programme of events, listed at what is called the “tent university.” On a day I visited there were campaigners Global Witness on “the dictator and offshore paper trails, monetary justice and the need for effective protest” and a session on the history of St Paul’s with cathedral guide Ernest Woolmer. In the evening the film Battlefield, on the Bolivian revolt at La Paz, was shown. The group run a paper with a 2,000 print run called the Occupied Times.

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Those who question whether protest works often quote the march of more than one million people against the Iraq war in 2003. This huge turnout, they argue, was ignored. At face value this was true, but that march and a succession of others around the time did have a lasting impact together with other factors on the political system. There have been other protests since, such as in favour of combating climate change, for the living wage and regulation of undocumented workers, against the government’s public spending cuts and the policy of privatising the forests.

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What the elected politicians need to remember is that over the years, all of these protests have been bringing in people from different races, classes and backgrounds. Overall, there must be a growing mass of people dissatisfied with how society is being run today.

Failure to respond to legitmate protest will in the long run result in violence. While the political class did its best to blame the riots in August on individual criminality, they were in reality another form of protest. What started as a peaceful protest about the death in police custody of another black man grew into something far bigger and more dangerous. Mob rule took over. What politicians should have looked at is why the riots took hold so easily. Whilst much of the rioting was straight mob violence, it was also a response to a polarised society that preaches consumerism and greed as virtues. The rioters had seen bankers, politicians, the police and the media with their noses in the trough, so thought: why not the rest of us?

There have been other instances over the years where failure to respond to popular protest has resulted in it taking on other forms and ultimately led to violence. The war in the north of Ireland is one of the best examples, with peaceful protest in the form of the civil rights marches repelled in violent fashion. This in turn led to violence over many years becoming the only way of expressing dissent. In the end, talks began and the peace process is now underway in earnest, but there were many lives lost as a result of a totally unnecessary conflict.

It will be interesting to see how those in power in this country respond to the growing protests from groups like Occupy London and climate change activists, to students and trade unions striking over cuts to pensions. It is simply not good enough to bleat out platitudes like “we’re all in it together”; there needs to be a rebalancing of society in favour of the common good. Until this happens the protests will continue to come thick and fast, with violence more commonplace if those in power continue to cock a deaf ear to their pleas.

Paul Donovan writes a column for the Catholic weekly newspaper, the Universe.