I have attended more than one meeting where abolitionist protesters take over from the floor, grabbing the roving microphone or shouting down speakers whose ideas they find objectionable. Before my talk at the Vancouver Public Library last year I was warned that people from the Vancouver Rape Relief and Aboriginal Women’s Action Network might come and protest.
Saying I would handle any questions they chose to ask, if they waited until the end to ask them, I proposed we have a plan for disarming any more disruptive protest. All I wanted was a couple of people willing to go to the protesters and escort them out of the room. One of the organisers was upset at my suggestion, saying If they really want to protest then there’s nothing we can do, we’ll just have to close the event down. I was startled by that, and privately asked a couple of people if they would do this for me. One of them hesitated but acquiesced and the other didn’t reply.
The protesters that came, who were known to the organisers, left quietly after listening to about 40 minutes of my talk. The reasoning afterwards was The way you talk it’s not easy for them to find a place to launch an attack. One of my ways to disarm such attacks is to mention myself early on the upsetting issues and keywords that protesters are ready to say are omitted; in this case imperialism, genocide, indigenous rights, rape, the horrendous situation in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, police negligence, racism.
France’s new Minister for Women, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, was disarmed for several minutes the other day by protesters from ACT-UP and STRASS as she began to talk about her proposal to abolish prostitution. When this proposal was first presented in the Guardian, I wondered whether she might actually be unaware of the very long tradition her ‘idea’ belongs to, but it is being linked to some sort of new leaf turning over in France since all the DSK brouhaha.
My point is about something else here – how easy it was to disrupt an event dependent on middle-class norms of politeness that expect everyone to accept hierarchy and the authority of the speaker, the person with governmental power, no matter how banal her ideas are. Those in charge act completely unable to deal with the protest, send for security officers and wait passively until they arrive. To me this seems emblematic of how members of the Rescue Industry shamefully rely on the police to enforce their values.
The same norms of politeness say that disruptive protest is destructive to democratic debate, but in a situation where no debate is possible and authority figures continually disappear and dismiss the opinions of the people actually being talked about, disruption makes a different sort of point.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist