21st century protest: new methods, new words

by Liz Walter

What would Gandhi have made of glitterbombing? This form of protest – a curious mixture of the high-spirited and the serious, the comic and the aggressive – consists of throwing handfuls of glitter at whoever has caused the protester’s anger. Glitterbombing has been aimed mostly at those accused of homophobia, and most of the recent US Republican presidential candidates have now been glitterbombed at one time or another. The tactic has also been used by Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Another, rather more benign, form of bombing is yarn bombing, a protest not against bankers or politicians, but against drabness and dreariness. Also known as knit graffiti, it involves leaving knitted objects such as toy animals in public places, or wrapping anything from road signs to cars to telephone kiosks in brightly coloured knitted covers. Started in Texas, the craze was brought to London by a woman called Lauren O’Farrell, who re-christened it yarnstorming, not liking the connotations of the term ‘bombing’. O’Farrell took up knitting as a means of distraction while undergoing cancer treatment, and celebrated her all-clear by tying an enormous scarf around the lions of Trafalgar Square.

More serious, though not much less colourful, was the wave of SlutWalks that were the outraged response to a Canadian police constable’s suggestion that women would be safer if they dressed more demurely. SlutWalkers all over the world organized marches to protest against this idea, many of them in provocative, scanty clothing.

With the continual development of social media and other forms of communication, this century has seen the rise and rise of citizen journalism, where ordinary people have produced written and filmed testimony about world events. There have been many dramatic examples of this, for example when IT consultant Sohaib Athar found himself live-tweeting the demise of Osama bin Laden. This kind of information is often a powerful tool of protest, alerting the world to events that governments would like to hide.

New technology has led to other forms of protest too. Hacktivism (activism by computer hackers) takes many forms, for instance breaking into the websites of companies or other organizations and either changing their contents, or making them unavailable for use (so-called denial of service attacks). A less technical form of hacktivist protest is where a large group of people overwhelm a site with so much traffic that it is unable to cope. This form of attack is known as a web sit-in.

At the milder end of the scale, clicktivists make their protests via online e-petitions. For instance, the UK government made a promise to debate in parliament any petition that collected over 100,000 names. The first petition to reach this level called for people involved in last summer’s riots in the UK to have their state benefits removed. Although this form of protest has proved rather effective in some cases (forcing the government to backtrack on selling off Britain’s forests, for example), some people feel that it lacks an appropriate amount of effort, and refer disparagingly to people who engage in it as slacktivists or keyboard warriors.

The increased focus on industry and banking brought about by the economic meltdown has seen the emergence of the activist investor, someone who buys shares in a company in order to have the right to protest about the way that company operates, for example by speaking at its AGM.

But if none of these forms of protest appeal to you, what could be more satisfying than joining a complaints choir, and singing your complaints to the world? This is what a group of people in Birmingham did. Their songs bemoan, amongst other things, lack of recycling facilities, unfriendly bus drivers and expensive beer, and sparked a trend that spread to Helsinki and Hamburg, then all over the world. It may not be the most effective form of protest, but it is at least guaranteed to bring a smile to the face.

2 thoughts on “21st century protest: new methods, new words

  1. Harry

    Many and various are the ways of protest! It’s worth noting that all these activities are formally protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. It’s common to hear demonstrators invoking their “First Amendment rights.”

    When you turn to the cyberworld, I get confused. A “Denial of Service Attack” (or more commonly DDOS or “Distributed Denial of Service” attack) sounds to me no different from you call a “web sit-in.” In both cases, attackers flood a web site with so many queries that it cannot respond. A DDOS attack is a concerted effort involving many computers whose users may not know that they have been hi-jacked for the project. I assume you are using “sit-in” to describe a less malevolent (and therefore less effective) protest.

    And as for “clicktivists,” many books on political theory explain the problems of direct democracy. I went to university in a rural New England town where all significant decisions about local land use, taxation, and other local issues were decided in an annual meeting of all local voters. In practice, only people with direct issues in issues up to a vote came to the meeting. A major highway took traffic through the center of town, and several plans were offered to construct a by-pass, which most residents thought would be a good idea. Each year a by-pass plan was offered, however, all the property owners who would feel its impact showed up to vote it down; residents with no personal stake in the issue stayed home. This process was repeated with many, many plans. Surprise, surprise! 60 years after the first by-pass plan was offered, the main highway still runs through the center of town.

    Just to say there is no Magic Button.

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