The first significant protests I can remember were in the late 1960s against the Vietnam War and Apartheid. I was a student at the time and supported the causes and played a very small part in the events. They were anti-establishment though not, I think, anarchic nor, crucially, were the protests illegal.
The right to protest is an inalienable right of a democratic society. I was in West Berlin at Easter 1968 – it was a time of protest and I got trenched by a police water cannon. This was a bit heavy-handed but comical rather than anything terrible sinister. I was more an observer than a participant in part because I wasn’t entirely sure what the protests were about! The other side of the wall there were no protests about anything – totalitarian regimes of Right and Left ban protest gatherings of course.
To protest, or support protest, is often an act of display for the individual. A show of solidarity with a cause. But allowing protest is a measure of society’s freedoms. Do they work ? Sometimes they do. Those back in 1968 helped the anti-war and the anti-Apartheid causes but it was to be a long haul. Nelson Mandela didn’t complete his long march to freedom until 1990.
Acts of display take place on both sides of the argument but there are some commonalities. Defenders of the Vietnam War and apologists for Apartheid overlapped strongly – they were on the Right of politics whereas the protestors were mainly on the Left.
Today the Left/Right political meme works less obviously, though some commentators still use it frequently. Lefties v Fascists is not a very illuminating debate. There are other binary polarities around that are more useful. Nationalist versus Internationalist is one as is Black Lives Matter and support for women’s rights.
My parents, not liberals, used to ask me what sort of society I really wanted when I expressed support for what they saw as “Left Wing” causes. They broadly wanted the status quo whilst I wanted change, especially social change. When my political hero Roy Jenkins worked his socially liberalising magic in the late 1960s my parent’s generation mostly objected – at least in the Home Counties they did.
Today there are many rebels in search of a cause. One off events can spur them into instant protest action but some of these causes are short-lived. In binary times there is a certainty about rapidly taken positions that is not always underpinned by solid intellectual reasoning. Maybe this always was the case to some extent even for issues that superficially seemed black and white – like Apartheid of course.
Protest is at its best when it is not just “I object” but when it is bolstered by “…and here’s what most be done”. It can be counter-productive if it becomes like “ I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!” the immortal refrain yelled from the window by anchorman Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network. “I’m as mad as hell, and here’s what you should do about it.” would be better today. But there’s not much of that around.