Virtual issue – 'The protester'

The Lone Protester (photograph by Jesse Goldstein)

George W. Bush, like Stalin (1939 and 1942) and Reagan (1980 and 1983) got it twice (2000 and 2004). Bush snr (1990) and Hitler (1938) were one-time winners. Good guys get it sometimes, too: Martin Luther King (1963) and Gandhi (1930) are recipients both. It’s gone to Popes and Ayatollahs; Generals and GIs; scientists and business people. ‘Young people’ got it in 1966, and ‘The computer’ in 1982. And we – that is, us; you and I; all of us – got it in 2006. (Did you know? Nobody told me…) Queen Elizabeth II (1952) made the cut, but for her lovely granddaughter-in-law, Kate Middleton, it was not to be: she was beaten to Time magazine’s ‘Person of the year’ award in 2011 by…

The protester’.

That’s right, 2011 was the year of the protester. ‘Everywhere, it seems, people said they’d had enough. They dissented; they demanded; they did not despair, even when the answers came back in a cloud of tear gas or a hail of bullets.’ No person or people, Time insists, had as much influence and impact (for better or worse) in 2011 as those multitudes who took to – or, better, who took – the streets, declaring their objections and affirming the need for change. ‘For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century…’

A cynic might disregard this as so much hyperbole. They’d be wrong, though. 2011 was an extraordinary year (as if you need reminding, see here). Nonetheless, Walter Benjamin’s eighth thesis on the philosophy of history bears repeating here: ‘The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule’. Radical geographers, it seems, know this very well. A look through recent volumes of Antipode reveals a number of papers anatomising activism, dissecting dissent, researching resistance, and together they hold out invaluable insights for any student of contemporary protest…

Take Joel Wainwright and Sook-Jin Kim’s paper from 2008 for example. They explore what they call ‘the labour of articulation…[the] linking of subjects and discourses, signs and bodies in and through particular spaces. Every such articulation entails spacing, a space within which to assemble contingently’ (Antipode 40[4]: 528). They argue that it’s too easy for overly sanguine commentators to miss ‘the micro-geographies of resistance’ (521) within an “occupied” place (their case is Seattle, but ours might be Zuccotti Park or St Paul’s, etc.) and in doing so seriously distort the nature of protest. The labour of articulation is indeterminate to say the least, and the spaces of protest are highly complex and uneven. Wainwright and Kim turn the geographer’s eye for specificity on abstractions like “Seattle”, rendering them more concrete.

Continuing the theme of “complexification/concretisation”, Juanita Sundberg – writing with the Canadian chapter of the transnational social movement [email protected] in 2007 – explores ‘what solidarity looks and feels like from the insiders’ perspective’ (Antipode 39[1]:145). Reflecting on a struggle to close the notorious School of the Americas, they demonstrate vividly that there’s no clear and uncontested line between domination and resistance; protest is not “the other” of power but, rather, is saturated with it. Oftentimes participation in “North-South” solidarity movements is edifying and strengthening. Sometimes, though, it’s disempowering. Who plays what role and with what (unintended) consequences? Who speaks? For whom? From what subject position? Members of a movement like [email protected] may well share meanings and values and a common goal, yet the movement itself may be far from heterarchical.

Polly Pallister-Wilkins makes a similar point in her 2011 paper on joint Israeli and Palestinian activism in response to the building of what she calls the ‘Separation Wall’ (a permanent, Israeli-built barrier inside the West Bank). Scholars need to take care, she argues, to avoid reproducing ‘somewhat romantic and utopian notions of heroic resistance movements, within which power relations are absent’ (Antipode 43[5]:1854). Indeed, not only scholars but also activists themselves: the groups she worked with employ ‘pre-figurative direct action…it aims not to reproduce that which it is resisting, in its own struggle’ (1870).

WTO protests in Seattle November 30 1999In the context of what we might call all this “agency-talk”, Andrew Cumbers, Gesa Helms and Kate Swanson argued in 2010 for the careful unpacking of concepts such as “resistance”. What is resistance, exactly? The category could cover everything from dissimulation and false compliance, through reworking rules and redistributing resources, to directly challenging existing social relations. Plainly it means different things at different times in different places: ‘agency and resistance of the more everyday sort continue even in the most coercive and regressive economic environments…[and] past processes of activism and class consciousness remain as latent reserves that can be drawn upon for present and future collective struggles’ (Antipode 42[1]: 68).

As Cumbers et al. urge us to rethink agency, so Don Mitchell – in his 2009 Antipode RGS-IBG lecture (published 2011) – urges us to carefully consider the conditions under which agency is exercised. People make their own history and geography, not under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances given and inherited. The significance of these ‘directly confronted’ conditions, as Marx called them, is the focus of Mitchell’s rich analysis of the struggles over agribusiness in post-World War II California. Working men and women did struggle, Mitchell tells us, they did challenge corporate agriculture, but the landscape in which they found themselves was simply too hostile to their strategies; it was not something they could shape meaningfully. Sometimes the world presents too many constraints, too few opportunities, and thus ‘[w]e need to depict, analyse and understand the world as it really is, if we are ever going to understand the means by which it might become the world we would like it to be’ (Antipode 43[2]:567).

Finally, let’s end by thinking about one of the most talked about features of contemporary protest: its “networked” nature. Whether being lauded (Twitter and Facebook during the Arabic Spring) or denounced (BlackBerry Messenger during England’s riots), the use of social media has been much commented on recently. An excellent analysis of its potential can be found in Mark de Socio’s 2010 account of academics as activists mobilising to secure the freedom of one of their colleagues, Ghazi-Walid Falah, who has unlawfully arrested and held incommunicado, uncharged by Israeli police in 2006. His paper (in Antipode 42[2]) presents a fine-grained analysis of the geography of the campaign, explaining how a more or less loosely-defined network of individuals pulled together, making use of modern communications technologies, to form something causally efficacious – a community properly so-called – in the face of state power.