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Polite protest – reading the riots and the occupations

Jay-Z’s clothing company Rocawear have launched a T-shirt which reads “Occupy All Streets” blazoned on the front. A press statement on the shirt from the company goes:

The ‘Occupy All Streets’ T shirt was created in support of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement. Rocawear strongly encourages all forms of constructive expression, whether it be artistic, political or social.

One leading occupier in the states, a chap called Grim, responded:

Jay-Z, as talented as he is, has the political sensibility of a hood rat and is a scrotum.

The thinking, perhaps, is that someone out there is attempting to squeeze a surplus on a real movement, with real aims, which aren’t to further a publicity campaign.

But to be sure, it is accepted that there is more to the protest than pure political expression.

I happened to be walking past St Paul’s one night last week when a guy at the microphone was announcing to the camp the intention of being recognised as a “work of art”.

Like with so many political statements, I always find myself wondering what Brendan O’Neill would think – and not because I respect him, you’ll understand, but quite the opposite.

He wrote a dreadful blogpost for the Telegraph regarding the occupation saying that “If Occupy London is such a radical revolt, why is it making the ruling classes smile rather than tremble?” The crux of the asserts that if this was a real protest, challenging the status quo, it wouldn’t be supported by, among others, Giles Fraser, Conservative Christian Democrat finance ministers in Germany and some leader writers of the Financial Times.

He, perhaps conveniently, forgets the avant-gardeist kookiness of the rich today. As Slavoj Zizek writes in every book he has written since 2008, even the Hollywood Aristocracy are anti-capitalist today, versed in Michael Moore documentaries and alternative, ethical consumerist lifestyles.

Indeed nobody wants competition less in their sector than the capitalists themselves.

The patronising smiles protesters receive in their consciousness-raising by the rich and well-off should be no reflection on the message and efforts of those camped out in St Paul’s. O’Neill is perhaps, once again, trying too hard to upset as many people as he can without submitting precisely what it is he thinks himself.

His point, however, about the very polite nature of the protest I did find interesting. This had especial resonance with me that night as I had just come back from a panel debate at the Frontline Club, discussing the riots, and in particular the Reading the Riots project – which my blogging colleague Paul Cotterill is involved with in Liverpool (scroll down here for his lovely picture).

I wondered if this was an example of a protest that would tick all the boxes for O’Neill; not polite, unceasing and bent on destruction.

As the conversation at the Frontline Club went, after devoted study, it looks as though there was something more to the riots than what David Cameron called “sheer criminality”. Something that, though not avowedly political in expression, was an expression of what Kenan Malik called “the atomization and “moral poverty” of the society” – something that is profoundly political.

The problem seems to me that, though the efforts of protesters are sympathised with, the establishment are able to ignore them and carry on as usual. The establishment, in fact, are often able to sympathise with it themselves – Vince Cable being one case in point – but safe in the knowledge that those issues will be largely avoided.

It is harder to ignore such actions as the riots – but should we really have to wait until this happens again? We might say that the “artistic” expression of protest is the peaceful and polite reminder before the violent storm. For reasons such as the riots, at a time when the measures of austerity are only just being felt, it would be most unwise for our politicians to ignore societal atomisation, or excuse its expressions as sheer criminality – something which I’m sure the Reading the riots project will provide a challenge to.

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