I went to the Protest The Pope demo yesterday (& the Nope To Pope Party fundraiser on Friday night). Very nicely done, the best protest march/demo I’ve ever been to, and my hats off to the organisers.

I feel strangely compelled to mention my views on this, and political protests in general, so… here they are.

First, my reasons for protesting are the ones shared by a lot of people:

  • the Pope is the head of a very rich world organisation that places itself between God and humanity, and so above the law
  • charging the British taxpayer up to £100million to lecture us about how we are backward sinners who should do what we’re told
  • having a rather dodgy past on covering up organized child abuse
  • complicity with Nazism and the Holocaust
  • “we are doing God’s work, all else is gossip”
  • distortion of secular and progressive movementsas (for this visit)  third world aggressive secularists who want to ban Christmas
  • etc. etc. And that’s without getting into the religious/political aspects

Frankly, I suspect you’ll have either heard all this before (and may largely agree with me), or you haven’t, and I may sound like those people the Daily Mail warned you about.

I went by myself; I usually do, as no-one I know wants to go to them. It’s a bit lonely, but on the other hand I can move about freely. Pictures are on Flickr. Highlights (apart from all the amazing placards and speeches, of course) include me being given a pack of ‘Sin Condoms’ because I ‘looked evil’, being asked to pose with a family of Indonesian tourists on the grounds of my jacket and hat (& there I was just wearing something randomly suitable, already aware of being photographed a lot, imagine if I’d dressed up), and afterwards finding myself in a threeway of an Islamist megaphone squad, a set of raucous Catholic flag-wavers, and Teh Poep himself!!one! The Pope was mysteriously looking the other way the whole time. [1. I don't care how self-satisfied this sounds; how many people have taken a photo with fundamentalist Islam clerics AND THE POPE in the same shot?]

Right, so I’ve always had an interest in political demonstrations. Not necessarily the aims behind them, but the demos themselves; the act of a minority group expressing a political opinion (mostly by marching in Central London, with a long & distinguished history, which I am vaguely aware of). I’ve always had a “interested layman” approach to these, and for many years, just going along to them (& related ‘alternative sub-culture’ stuff) out of casual interest as a person who calls himself liberal & progressive.

Living in Portsmouth, I’d occasionally go to alternative fairs, politics meetings advertised on the Internet, and so on – usually a disappointment – I’d arrive to find no-one else had turned up, or it was just a bunch of stalls selling tat [2. anyone who's ever been to Camden will know the random piles of junk I mean.] or once an alarmly middle-class dreadlocked lady with a plummy accent urging us to go and slap apartheid stickers (in 2004) on bottles of milk in Tesco, which was apparently the giddy height of subversion.

Moving to London has increased my habit; from times I bothered with Flickr, here’s a Stop The War demo over the Israeli invasion of Lebanon but really about Blair’s invasion of Iraq, this is a Time To Go march over nuclear disarmament, but really about wanting Blair to resign. I went to the big anti-Iraq war demo in 2003, of course. In the last year or two alone, I’ve been to The Wave demo over climate change (really about everything from the Middle East, to protesting about Starbucks from people drinking from Starbucks cups, to wanting Gordon Brown to resign) , the G20 mass demo (the absolute motherlode of random crap – pick a topic!), a bunch of interchangeable Middle East demos…

Whilst writing this, I’m trying to remember one in the summer where all I can remember is in the middle of the demo march, about a hundred people ‘occupying’ a Tesco Metro for no apparent reason, a bunch of people singing opera at the top of their voices to draw people over, a bunch of security guards scared to even move because of all the cameras pointing at them, and the non-protesters caught inside trying not to panic. Lots of incoherent shouting, whistles, samba drums, etc. The guards refused to let any more people in (chants of “POLICE BRUTALITY!”), after a few minutes those inside got bored and left, the crowd moved on. Unbelievably puerile and counter-productive. No, I can’t remember what the demo was meant to be about.

So, you’ve gathered my theme here – I get disillusioned with how the majority of political demos are implemented, because they lack focus to the point of having no meaning, fail to think strategically, and generally appear to be an excuse for what appears to be a set or career protesters to turn up, shout about something random, and head off to Starbucks/Pret/McDonalds after – “see you at the next one!” This appears to be deliberate on the part of the organisers, to focus on generating noise rather than results.

And bear in mind this is from someone going to them (admittedly hanging around the outside); I can only imagine how it looks to the those in influence and/or the general public, who, remember, are the people they are supposedly trying to reach…

Which is why I was very pleased with the Protest The Pope demo – it had a clear stated aim, everyone knew what they were there for, and so forth. There’s a reason they were apparently expecting 2,000 people, but got over 12,000. Watch and learn, demo organisers, if you really want to raise conciousness. [3. Also, honourable mention to Million Women Rise, who focus on male violence, and solely that. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to stay focused on this one emotive subject, without going off on a tangent. Such respect for them]

And an aside, if someone is reading this going “you don’t understand demos!”: Yes, I think do, thankyou. I’m well aware of the nature of grassroots participation, anomie, self-organisation, the network effect, how the organisers have no real control over who turns up and what happens, etc. etc. I’ve seen how Obama got elected, how the Suffragettes won the vote, and the struggle for LGBT rights, taking three random examples. I’m all over open source software and Agile development; the domain knowledge is transferable. Are you aware of the value of incremental & adaptive work? Do you read Global Guerillas? Give it a try sometime. Right, passive-aggressive credentials inspection over.

OK, I’m rambling now, so I’ll wrap this up. At the Pope demo, there were a bunch of Socialist Worker’s Party activists, shouting ‘NO TORY CUTS – SIGN THE PETITION’. This is the crux of my problem. I’m far from the first to point this out, but without any focus, it is pointless, directionless noise. Do you think David Cameron is going to reverse plans to cut taxes for the rich, and raise them for the poor based on a petition signed by five hundred people at an event his voters have never heard of? Really? He wouldn’t do it if it was fifty million. (Hell, my knowledge of economics is limited, so I wouldn’t take much notice of any rambling petition I signed, and I am me.) If I go to a meeting about closing down public transport/surgeries/abuse refuges/other social infrastructure, only to be lectured that the first step is to leave Palestine, do you think that’s actually going to achieve anything?

This is the sort of kitchen-sink, monolithic approach that has gotten the Pope into this situation in the first place.

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