Sites of Protest

Ruth Sanz Sabido lectures in Media and Journalism at De Montfort University. She chairs the new MeCCSA Social Movements Network and is conducting research on the Spanish indignados movement. This week, Ruth in her guest post for RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM addresses the different sites of protest.

As citizens surround the European Central Bank in Frankfurt and occupy Gezi Park in Istanbul, images of demonstrations and crowded streets become, once again, the centre of media attention, particularly in social media, given the limited coverage that these actions receive on television and the press. As I write these lines, the main squares in Europe are being taken by citizens mobilising against the Troika, which is the tripartite committee comprised by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

The Troika has become in recent times the target of protesters in numerous demonstrations and social media sites, as they approve bailouts and promote austerity measures as the solution to the economic problems in the EU. In other words, they are held responsible, together with individual national governments, for the socio-economic conditions that citizens are enduring, especially in southern European countries.

On 15 February 2013, the Portuguese group Que se lixe a Troika entered the Parliament and sang “Grándola Vila Morena”, a symbol of the Carnation Revolution in Portugal and the end of the dictatorship in 1974. The phrase ‘que se lixe a Troika’, and its translation into various languages (f*** the troika), has become a usual motto in demonstrations and social media sites which share a similar stance towards austerity measures, not only in Portugal but also in other countries.

During a recent trip to Lisbon, I found a call to join a demonstration in one of the main squares in the city. The call had merged a line from “Grándola Vila Morena” (‘O povo é quem mais ordena’, it is the people who lead) with this more contemporary motto against the Troika. This appeal for social mobilisation, which also included the time and place where citizens should gather, had been written on a toilet door. This method of calling for action raises questions about the different sites of protest available today. These questions have been discussed by various authors and activists who reflect upon the ways in which contemporary social movements are organised and how they develop and maintain momentum.

While Castells (2009) points out that technological changes have allowed for new actors to enter what he calls the global network society, creating a new form of social organization, other authors argue that we need to pay attention to the physical and emotional aspects of social movements. Collins (2001), for instance, points out that the level of critical mass involved in social movements depends on emotional dynamics, and the physical assembly of people is where a sense of collective awareness develops.

Undoubtedly, the role of social media in the development of contemporary social movements, such as the Arab spring or the indignados, has been decisive. It is also a useful instrument to coordinate national and international actions, and it has become essential to keep up with the latest news about the development of the protests. Nevertheless, seeing that the toilet door technology is still in use despite the many great opportunities that Twitter, Facebook and other online tools have come to offer, perhaps we need to take a step back from the focus on the use of social media and think about it precisely as another available tool. After all, the digital divide is still a reality and, as activists involved in the 15M actions in 2011 point out, the initial web-based operation turned into a vast street-based campaign which included the use of posters, debates and word of mouth (Gerbaudo, 2012: 89). The necessity to become visible in the streets came from the fact that millions are in fact cut off from the online campaign carried out on social media.

Despite the effectiveness of social media, and because of its limitations, traditional methods of spreading information and calling to action are still used just as they were before online technologies became available. Placards in demonstrations are, perhaps, one of the most recognizable ways of spreading messages. There are a variety of other sites of protest which are becoming increasingly more visible in towns and cities on any normal day. In Portugal, the motto ‘que se lixe a Troika’ not only has flooded Facebook pages, but also street posters and, as mentioned above, even toilet doors. In Spain, Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future), one of the groups that initiated the 15M indignados movement, print their ‘No nos vamos, nos echan’ (We’re not leaving, they’re kicking us out) message on t-shirts, and the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform of People Affected by Mortgages) leave their ‘Stop Desahucios’ (Stop evictions) stickers on politicians’ front doors during their escraches (a method of public pressure by which mini-demonstrations are held against individual politicians, usually outside their homes or workplaces).

While not attracting hundreds or thousands of ‘likes’ or followers, these are all forms of visibility which communicate messages and manage to mobilise people who share a common aim. The focus is, then, on how to build a collective identity which is determined by common feelings and goals, so that the physical assembly takes place regardless of the offline or online tools that are used to communicate with the people. Ultimately, the objective is to mobilise participants and take to the streets. These are precisely the images that eventually become symbols of these movements, like the emblematic images of Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol or Syntagma Square.

Together with the common goals that motivate the movement, taking the public (or semi-public) space constitutes the core characteristic of social protests. During a recent trip to participate in a demonstration in Barcelona, the process of travelling from the UK to our destination highlights the physicality involved in the constitution of this gathering. Leaving home, getting on the train, checking in at the airport, queuing up to go through security, and finding your way around the city. In the course of the journey, we progressively get closer to the place where the protests will play out. That is, physically closer, in a process which is replicated, at a smaller scale, for every local participant in the demonstrations. Had we chosen to follow the protest from home, rather than joining it, none of our actions before and during the demonstration would have been part of the overall assembly that constituted the protest. The movement happens, ultimately, in the streets.

Indeed, on the second anniversary of the 15M movement, the more conservative Spanish press represented the demonstration as a failure, arguing that there were fewer participants than in previous years and pointing out the gaps in the streets during the protests. In the absence of violent clashes, for these publications, always eager to delegitimise the movement, those gaps constituted a convenient measure of the relative success or failure of the movement. Even for them, it is whether the streets are taken what counts.

 References

Castells, M. (2009) Communication Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Collins, R. (2001) “Social Movements and the Focus of Emotional Attention”. In: Goodwin, J., Jasper, J.M., and Polletta, F. (eds.) Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (pp. 27-44).

Gerbaudo, P. (2012) Tweets and the Streets. Social Media and Contemporary Activism. London: Pluto Press.

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