Those against – a few thoughts on protest by Trevor Plumbly

I’m musing. (I love that word! It makes me sound creative). I’m musing about protest.

Lots of folk don’t like protest, it makes them uncomfortable, they prefer the illusion of ‘seeing the big picture’, but others put their dignity and safety on the line in open displays of defiance. During my school years, protest of any sort was a punishable offence, but in my teens I did dabble with the anti-brigade, by joining the ‘Ban the Bomb’ movement and getting arrested for my trouble.

Other than that, it was fairly comfortable: the bomb was highly unlikely to land in Trafalgar Square, onlookers were more amused than angry and, as an extra, hippie girls were very approachable, with hair you could run your fingers through without the risk of breaking bits off. There was ‘pot’ too, which seemed to suck the fizz out of most kids, but after one go I decided that girls and draught Guinness were much more fun and I remained addicted to both for some years. I didn’t change the system or right great wrongs, but at least I took part and had a bloody good time in the process.

Politicos & potheads

In England in the 50s and 60s, the times were indeed ‘a-changing’, but Britishness still applied. Thus, Robin Hood and Emmeline Pankhurst were OK, but that Gandhi chap was a bit iffy and civil rights were pretty much an American problem. Protest was tolerated, as long as students were doing it.

That all changed with Vietnam: it wasn’t dreaming kids anymore; the system that had always presumed the right to condemn young people to a patriotic death was being questioned for the first time. The ugliness of that war cast doubt on the concept of soldier heroes and, regardless of rhetoric, lots preferred to avoid being shot at. Having to part with an inexhaustible supply of cannon fodder hit the system hard and the previously harmless hippies became a threat to the political order of things.

Those were the days

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

In the early 60s the American civil rights movement lifted protest to a fashionable level. Bob Dylan, who rarely, if ever, physically protested, became its figurehead, snarling accusations against authority from behind the safety of a microphone, leaving the messy front line stuff to Martin Luther King, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Co. But confrontation was inevitable, protesters weren’t getting quick results and the system wasn’t sure of how to deal with open defiance. Out of the deadlock came the activists, providing bloodied heroes, to replace non-violence with a harder approach that provoked near riots in universities such as Berkeley and the Sorbonne. The new aggressiveness didn’t solve much in the short term, but it lit fuses. The Watts riots in America were followed by unrest in Germany and France and the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. By the late 70s, the ideals of ‘I have a dream’ and ‘We shall overcome’ had all but disappeared from the protest manual.

Meanwhile down under

Robert Muldoon, prime minister of NZ 1975 to 1984

In New Zealand we don’t do confrontation much; we have protests of course, largely based on Maori rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, and our protests are generally non-violent. But in 1981 that changed: a pugnacious prime minister with a sycophantic cabinet decided that a few rugby games would help alleviate the appalling racial situation in South Africa. This piece of arrogant stupidity divided the country and bought with it violent protest. The moral ground belonged to the protesters and the problem for the system was that it wasn’t just long haired layabouts anymore; it was parents, academics and religious leaders in the front lines. Nevertheless Muldoon and Co decided that a tough stance was the way to go and authorised the formation of an elite front line police unit ‘The Red Squad’ to deal with the unrest. The ensuing violence literally divided the country and, of course, solved nothing.

Get real or get lost

Scott Morrison prime minister of Australia since August 2018

The Aussies don’t do protest much, though given their history with the Aborigines, there’s plenty of scope for it. Rather than go through the process of marching to show discontent they’ve developed more of a French revolutionary attitude to dealing with unwanted politicians. Their current leader displays more ‘little boy lost’ than political nous; his handling of the recent tragic bush fires was breathtakingly inept. But, as always, you can rely on an Aussie to say ‘Bugger you!’ when it’s needed and three of them did just that in a special way. Arriving in a fire ravaged town, the PM advanced towards a worn out firefighter, hand extended for a shake; the man simply looked at it and turned his back. The unwanted hand was then offered to a nearby woman, who refused to take it. To rub it in, another resident shouted, ‘You’re not welcome here.’ They were simple acts, using shame rather than anger to make the point, and they made it, worldwide! Protest doesn’t get any better than that!

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