What to say when people say ‘Your protest is in my way – I have to…’

Democratic constraints

It is an interesting fact of taking part in almost any kind of direct or protest action that at some point someone will point out, often quite forcefully and using swearwords, that you are in their way. You have, they think, no right to impose on them with your political expression.

Recently I was involved in one of the strongest forms of blocking action: a picket line. Although many people turned back from the line the responses of those who didn’t was interesting. The silliest was ‘I support you but…I’m going in anyway’.

In that situation there was only one way to support the picket: not crossing it. The very point of a picket line is that it makes people make a decision and take an action based on that decision. It defines physical space in a new way and it doesn’t want your good opinion, it wants your support in maximising the effect of the strike.

Another great response given by many people was ‘I have to go in.’ To which the only answer was ‘You really don’t.’ What did it mean, this phrase ‘I have to’? Clearly it was not objectively true – they were not going into the building to feed their baby or to save the world. Some of the mostly immigrant staff doing poorly paid service jobs without any job security had to go in to keep their jobs it is true. But it wasn’t them saying ‘I have to’, it was people who would have suffered nothing except a missed lecture or meeting.

I tried to explain it to people as a priorities issue. ‘I know going in there was your priority for right now, but we’re asking you to re-prioritise for something bigger than yourself.’ I sympathise with the people who were taken aback. You rush around London doing your stuff for the day and it is a bit shocking to abruptly have people in your face asking you to do something different. But it was disappointing when people couldn’t reconsider the course of their day. It felt like what ‘I have to’ meant was the ‘I’ – they couldn’t really conceive of re-prioritising for a collectivity.

As an aside, some people on the picket line shouted ‘scab’ or other insults after those who crossed the picket line. I didn’t think this helpful, not because I thought the individual freedom of those people was the most important thing at that moment, but because politics is about ongoing relationships and shouting insults closes down future discussion.

Meanwhile some people took our very presence personally – were resentful that we were there at all. They could get through into the building but not without talking to us. This they saw as an imposition. In truth our attitudes were far worse than that: we would have closed the building if not for the police keeping the line open. This would be perceived by some as a gross infringement on their liberties.

My experience of doing other protest activities is that people can view even some minor inconvenience as an imposition. They think you have a right to political expression, just as long as you don’t get in their way. As for if you deliberately constrain their actions – as a closed picket line would – that is an outrageous breach of personal liberty.

But let’s look at this in a broader context. Our behaviour is constrained all the time; to be human is to be constrained. And while we take some constraints volutarily to help us live together with people, we are often constrained not-so-voluntarily by the people who pay us and rule us. If our boss says something we do it. Sure, we can walk out. We are free to live in poverty. Thanks. The state creates rules about who can strike and when, and this constraint is what…’necessary’? Or is it a rule that deliberately pits one part of the population against another?

So what is it about certain people and institutions that they are allowed to constrain us while others are forbidden? Because certain institutions have ‘legitimacy’? I never gave consent. Because they have a certain ‘official’ role? Because they have certain power over us (the ability to withdraw our pay) this makes it okay for them to order us around?

Isn’t it at least as legitimate to constrain other people as a group of people fighting for a better way of living? Why is that such a terrible infringement of personal liberty while the word of your boss is not? Part of the reason to engage in direct actions is to expose the ideology of everyday life that creates unexamined ideas like this.

I could go further and say there is a better basis for constraining others during protest than the usual hierarchies have: that is, you are engaging with actual people in a two way exchange. Our constraints are not absolute and fixed, they consist of what is negotiated between people who have equally little power. While the point of the negotiation is not to end all conflict, the conflict that remains has a real basis: the constraint occurs because we have a different vision of the world and this has to be created in physical space.

So here’s something to say to people who are inconvenienced by a protest:

It may inconvenience you. But you have been living in the world created by other people with infinitely more power than us. If you notice our constraints more, it’s not because you live without constraints, it’s because those other constraints have become ‘normal’ to you. Perhaps you’re happy with that, but why expect everyone to accept them? Are you sure you’re such a champion of liberty? We’re not sorry you’ve noticed us. We’re not sorry we inconvenienced you. We are constraining you. But ask yourself, do we leave the ‘right to constrain’ to a few people with power over us or do we attempt to create another way of being between ourselves?

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7 Responses to What to say when people say ‘Your protest is in my way – I have to…’

  1. Mike says:

    On the picket line aren’t you saying “we’re constraining you to help us get more”? You have the choice of getting another job or voting in another state without having to resort to a blockade.

  2. contact says:

    Well, wages/conditions across the economy are obviously linked to each other. It is interesting that the right – who usually accuse the left of trying to bring everyone down to the same level – has decided that public sector pensions should be brought down to private sector levels. Sadly this will make it harder for the private sector to improve their pensions, and so lead to much higher pensioner poverty overall in the future. It is very convenient to always depict union action as ‘selfish’ but it is rarely true when considered in the broader political/economic context.

    As for the choice of getting another job – if there is a deliberate political program to lower pension levels then there won’t be many places left to run to will there? Besides, there are many constraints that prevent people just hopping between jobs, as I’m sure you know.

    As for voting, I won’t repeat myself here but do a search for voting on this blog.

  3. Mike says:

    So in a parallel argument to your pensions argument, higher wages in the Financial Services sector will pull up wages in the Public Sector – so pay bankers more.

    Your argument that picket lines can tell people what to do because bosses and the state can is very weak.

  4. contact says:

    Those with high wages in the financial sector pretty much set their own wages (invoking a mythic ‘market’ that magically forces their wages upwards) while people on low wages have their wages set by other people and this same market somehow pulls their wages downward – unless there is concerted effort to oppose that trend. So no, there is no ‘upward pull’ from the top of the financial sector, because the people at the top decide there won’t be.

    My argument was not just about what people ‘can’ do but about examining what is behind the normal constraints on us. If you’re not interested in questioning that then I’m surprised you’re interested in the post at all.

  5. Mike says:

    I saw your tweet on #OccupyLSX. You may dress it up in 650 words, but I think it’s just a trite argument to say we should be able to constrain people at will just because we are constrained by others. What you’re really saying is that you don’t buy in to a hierarchical society. I think #OccupyLSX has been a great example of how nothing’s achieved when there’s no leadership.

  6. Tim says:

    Seems to me that picketing of that kind is the use of force to try to achieve a political objective. Not all uses of force are equivalent. For example, self defense in a pub brawl and the organized violence of the tax collection system (police, courts, prisons, etc) are quite different in means and affect.

    However, I think that the dichotomy of “violent” and “peaceful” is quite imaginary. For example I think it is not really sensible to try to claim that violence is not involved in someone going to work. From the system of violently implemented private property ownership (police, prisons, courts) that provides the space for the business; to the military acquisition and protection of oil reserves and oil transport mechanisms that provide power for the transport system; to the cops that prevent all the copper cable being stolen from the railways.

    Talking in these kind of abstractions is very time consuming – maybe the question is; was that particular use of force justifiable to you? Looking for generalities could leave us chatting here for a very long time.

  7. Pierre says:

    I was on a picket line on the 30th which operated a policy of asking everyone who crossed the picket line for donations to the strike fund under the pretense that striking workers lose a day’s wage to benefit themselves and rest of the workforce who break the strike. Those who break the strike for whatever reason but support it can still donate a fiver.

    Anyway, good post :)

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