Angels or Demons? For Protestors, Location is Everything

Roslyn Fuller
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is the author of Ireland’s leading textbook on International Law ‘Biehler on International Law: An Irish Perspective’ (Round Hall, 2013). In addition to her academic work, she has also writes for the Irish Times, The Irish Independent and The Journal on topics of law, politics and education. Roslyn has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Way” (October 2015, Zed Books). She tweets at @roslynfuller and can be reached at fullerr@tcd.ie.
Angels or Demons? For Protestors, Location is Everything
In the world of protest, from feminism to austerity measures to police brutality, it’s not what you do, it’s where you are that counts.

When news of Pussy Riot’s arrest for performing ‘Punk Prayer’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior broke, it was greeted as the final proof that Russia had returned to the evil days of show trials and gulags, and that any comrade who spoke out about anything, anywhere would be sent to Siberia forthwith. And as a jurist, this annoyed me greatly, because I knew that protest à la Punk Prayer is also illegal in most Western countries.

Just ask Josephine Witt, a 21 year-old Femen member who jumped onto the altar of a cathedral in Cologne, Germany late last year with “I am God” painted across her unclothed torso. Despite the fact that Germans take their religion (and their nudity) pretty casually, Ms. Witt was immediately removed from the church, convicted of disturbing the exercise of religion (which can be punished with up to three years in jail) and fined 1200 Euros after promising to never engage in such an action again. While Ms. Witt was merely expressing her political convictions regarding the patriarchy of the church, there has, oddly, not been a press outcry over her conviction. In fact, the only murmurs of hypocrisy come from Germany’s national tabloid The Bild, which noted that Femen explicitly related the protest to Pussy Riot’s actions in Moscow, but that this was not carrying much weight with the German authorities.

It’s emblematic of Western society, which likens protesting anything at all to the exercise of freedom and democracy, provided said protest is happening somewhere far, far away. When it’s closer to home, protest tends to be more heavily scrutinized with a view to detecting anything – anything at all – that someone, somewhere, somehow “associated” with said protest might have done something that was a teeny, weeny bit illegal, immoral, or even just eccentric. Because apparently if that happens, it’s a free pass to ignore the issue completely. Indeed, we often spend far more time debating the merits and demerits of the protestors themselves than whatever it is that they are protesting about.

Take the current protests against the introduction of water charges in Ireland.

Since 1997 water has been provided to the people of Ireland free of charge, one of the few real perks in a nation where taxes are sky-high and what you get for them remains a matter of conjecture. However, as part of the austerity programme pushed onto the nation by the IMF and EU, all Irish people will shortly be paying for their water twice over – once through the taxes that have paid for it up to now and once through explicit fees. Introducing mandatory payment for water is quite standard fare on the IMF austerity menu – it frees up budget to tackle the more important problems like paying off debts accumulated by others – in the case of Ireland mainly by large banks engaged in speculative lending practices. Irish people are pretty well aware of where their money is going – if there were any doubt, Finance Minister Michael Noonan recently indicated that a previously disputed payout to the tune of 280 million Euro to Anglo-Irish Bank bondholders was likely to go ahead at the same time that the first water bills will arrive in Irish households. It’s no surprise then that 100 000 people are expected to take to the streets Wednesday to protest once again at having to shoulder the burdens of others.

Were these protests happening in Caracas or Beijing, we would doubtless be witnessing a principled stand for human dignity against a corrupt establishment bent on impoverishing its own citizens. Our empathy would go out to these brave souls, who want only what is best for their country and their children. Celebratory gunfire or Molotov cocktails would be chalked up as cute foreign exuberance and dedication to the cause.

But back home, one foot wrong and you’re toast. In fact, the past two weeks of Irish discussion on water charge protests have circulated around one event – a group or protestors barricaded Joan Burton, the Tanaiste (i.e. deputy prime minister) in her car for two, some say, maybe even nearly three, hours.

Yes.

This really happened.

Screenshot from Ruptly video

In Ireland

During the protest, Joan Burton may also have been hit by a water balloon, which, speaking as the veteran of many youthful water balloon fights, I will say can sting a little. Not as much as say, a water canon, but definitely more than a Super Soaker.

For the political elite of this country, such drastic action can only mean one thing – our democracy is in crisis. Yes, our democracy is in crisis, because people are protesting instead of just sitting tight and engaging in some therapeutic prayer. Politicians lined up to deride the protest as: fundamentally undemocratic; kidnapping; a sinister developments; and behaviour of the worst kind; while one backbencher in the ruling party compared the protestors to ISIS. Ms Burton herself condemned Paul Murphy, another member of parliament, for his part in the protest which consisted of: “standing at the back with a loudhailer leading the chanting. If that’s his idea of a peaceful process, I would not like to see that norm being set for Ireland by him as the way people in Ireland protest.” She then described those who committed the ‘controversial’ parts of the protest as “ultra-factions”. We can only assume she meant for the Mysterious Brigade of Ultra Water Balloonists who seem to be resident here and here.

But the coup de grâce surely belongs to Stephen O’Byrnes, one of Ireland’s most prominent political lobbyists, who has long-standing ties with the kind of politicians associated with privatization and profit-before-people policies. Byrnes’ clients include a range of private utility companies (Energia, Eirgrid and Convanta), as well as the American Chamber of Commerce, but despite this compromising history, he was permitted to write an opinion piece in The Irish Times with an inadequate byline identifying him as nothing more than a “communications and political consultant”. According to this article, penned in what passes for the nation’s leading ‘intellectual’ newspaper, the water charge protests are:

“an anarchic campaign being fomented by extreme left-wing factions across the country to undermine democratic politics”

and

“extreme left-wing TDs [national representatives – ie people that other people in a fit of undemocraticness voted for at some point] and trade union leaders”, are engaging in a “militant campaign” of “blocking roads and footpaths”.

If blocking footpaths already requires a militant campaign, one can only conclude that a punk song in a Russian church must have been the Tet Offensive in Byrnes’ book. Femen, I’m guessing, is tantamount to going nuclear.

Despite having already caused me to involuntarily snort coffee through my nose at this point, Mr. Byrnes proved himself a gift that keeps on giving, demanding that,

“It is also time that some broadcasters moved beyond their ping-pong presentation of these events, and stopped according a moral and political equivalence to both sides in this national confrontation.”

Apparently, in Brynes’ world everyone knows that it’s moral to charge people for the basic necessities of life that they are already paying for with their taxes and immoral to complain about it, and giving people the ability to air their grievances is anarchy.

Demonstrators protest outside of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) headquarters during their annual 'National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality', in Los Angeles, California on October 22, 2014.(AFP Photo / Mark Ralston)

Note that all of this hysteria is drowning out any real conversation about the protestors’ demands or debate about whether or not charging struggling families for basic necessities while continuing to pay off investors is an adequate or even sustainable policy. Instead, we are discussing whether or not one person threw a water balloon and whether an elected representative ‘led chanting’ in the hopes of discrediting an entire movement of people who are simply fed up with making all the payments while someone else reaps all the profits.

The scenario is the same in the USA, where we seem to have somehow moved backwards from the days of Rodney King, mind-boggling as that is to contemplate. The lackadaisical investigations into the deaths of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager shot dead by an overzealous neighbourhood watch member; Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager shot dead by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri; and Eric Garner, an unarmed man suspected of selling contraband cigarettes who died after being placed in a chokehold by police, have provoked anger across the United States. That these deaths are not subject to adequate investigation, is a matter of serious public concern, yet public conversation has been disrupted by constant analysis of whether or not protests are violent and whether or not the victim somehow deserved to die, with everything as spurious as ‘wearing a hoodie’ (Trayvon Martin), being obese (Eric Garner) and sort-of-robbing a kiosk (Michael Brown) being thrown into the melee. The idea is clearly to see how long protestors will keep their cool, although the motivation for doing so, in a nation where anyone of them could be killed out of the blue, is a little unclear. There’s not much to lose, yes? And sitting quietly doesn’t seem to have worked.

The same could be said in Ireland – if Irish people sit quietly they will simply have to pay through their noses for the mistakes of others for the rest of our lives, as will their children and their children. People aren’t taking direct action because they are “troublemakers” or “disrespectful’ or even “anarchists” – they are taking direct action because they are stuck between a rock and a hard place and at least a jail cell comes with functioning utilities.

I therefore, humbly submit, that these protestors relocate to Russia, where their governments are more open to respecting their right to protest anywhere and under any circumstances. Criminal laws in Russia are, after all, mere details that should not stand in the way of freedom, much less anarchy. Or they might consider Syria, where even heavy weaponry is considered acceptable in the pursuit of freedom. In fact, so I hear, you can even get it paid for. Cuba, Venezuela and Hong Kong are also hotspots for any protestor wishing to instantly transform themselves from scruffy loser to noble hero. Because you do have a right to protest any way you like – anywhere really far away.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.