Whitewashed placard wavers?

By Hannah Kowszun
31 Mar 2009

The Put People First [(http://www.putpeoplefirst.org.uk/)] demonstration in London on 28 March, ahead of the G20 meeting was a showcase of political, environmental and economic idealism. Political activists rubbed shoulders with abolitionists; eternal hippies walked with the next generation; job seekers marched alongside union employees.

From the outside looking in, this was a small group of excitable activists who were not using their Saturday morning to “kick-start recovery from recession” with a shopping binge on Oxford Street. From the inside looking out, however, it was a hodgepodge of messages and motivations desperate to be heard as one but none-too-sure where it was heading. Apart from Hyde Park.

The slogan for the Put People First coalition was “Jobs. Justice. Climate.” And it was in that order that the marchers remained focussed and on-message. Beyond the call for jobs by a majority of people who had them, the two remaining aspirations seemed to have been subsumed by the very demons they were against.

Global warming is becoming a frighteningly real phenomenon for people across the world who are living on the edge. Their plight has been brought regularly into our living rooms and into our awareness by television and the net. Even the climate change sceptics cannot dispute the fact that our world is running down its resources. At some point, if we “carry on as normal” cars will stall, planes will not take off and fossil-fuelled power stations will cease to light our streets and homes.

At 11 am, a small crowd gathered at Methodist Central Hall for a “joint church action” service linked into the march. According to the publicity the service "will bring together Christians of all denominations united in our desire for global justice for the world’s poorest people.”

In a large airy room with fantastic acoustics there were several plasma screens and projectors keeping the congregation abreast of the latest in campaign photography. The huge windows were curtained off and every electric light was blazing. Microphones relayed the words of speakers on the stage, which was no more than 30 metres away from the furthest listener.

Once the service ended, people were furnished with their placards. They were, ironically, specific to this day and this march and thus not to be reused. At the end of the event there were sad little piles of discarded marchers’ standards, like scattered funeral pyres waiting to be lit for Earth Hour at 8.30pm.

Meanwhile, Hyde Park was kitted out with a stage, a state-of-the-art PA system and an enormous plasma screen on which main stage and multi-media were projected throughout the afternoon.

Equal pay, action by government and justice for all were the rallying cries and the subject of several powerful and well-produced film shorts. Yet the personalities who fronted these three-minute shorts, rather than being role models for a new world order, are people whose main functions are predicated upon the belief that we can aspire to be paid far in excess of any reasonable entitlement. They may have done this campaign film for free, but they probably received millions for their last feature.

I stood alongside these placard wavers in my organic cotton jeans with a growing sense of unease. The words of Jesus, originally directed at self-regarding pillars of the religious establishment, but certainly not restricted to them, were ringing in my ears:

"Woe to you… hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead... In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Likewise, it could be argued that the very fabric of our protest march on Saturday continued the cycle of consumerism and disregard for the discomfort of what really tackling climate change and challenging injustice could look like. The march may have been peaceful but it demonstrated very little in the way of protest.

When Gandhi led an anti-racism campaign in South Africa in 1907, 3,000 Indians burned their registration cards. This was done in clear defiance of the edicts of the state. In 1930, when he and his followers marched from Ahmedabad to Dandi, they broke the law by making salt from the seawater there. These were protests that subverted authority and which made a powerful and relevant point, both to the people taking part and to those witnessing it.

In preparation for the G20, a crowd of people took to streets that had already been cleared, watched by police officers who had little reason to make arrests. Onlookers saw yet another march, one of a host of rallies London has seen in the last decade: events that sceptics would say have had little lasting effect on either public policy or public opinion.

Perhaps it is time to recognise that real protest is not falling in line with the strategies of corporate advertising firms and uncritically utilising the glare of media to bask in our own righteous image. The big issue-led campaign brands compete with the consumerist campaign brands for the hearts and minds of the populace. But if it is the same packaging, how are we to know that what is inside is any more worthy?

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(c) Hannah Kowszun works in communications for the voluntary sector. She studied theology at the University of Cambridge and edits the 'Faith in Practice' section of Third Way, the Christian social and cultural comment magazine.

Editorial note: Ekklesia is a co-sponsor of the Put People First march and coalition (http://www.putpeoplefirst.org.uk/). We back its aims and shared approach to change, but welcome constructive, critical conversation about how to move the agenda forward.

Also on Ekklesia: 'Marching to a different drum' (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/9122). How protesting can make a difference.

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