Updated | April 5 The following blog post about the tactics of the protesters at the G-20 summit in London last week has been modified in response to some confusion among readers of the original version. The post’s original headline, intended to parody news reports that focused mainly on the outlandish costumes worn by some protesters — “Protesters Fail to Bring Down Global Capitalism With Costumes, Puppets” — led some readers to take it as a serious attack on the protesters, rather than as an Onionesque joke about the media’s reporting on the protesters. The headline was revised to clarify that the author was trying to ask if the tactics of the demonstrators, who used costumes and acts of street theater to attract cameras, might have had the unintended effect of distracting the media from the substance of their objections to the economic policies of the world leaders gathered for the summit. Thanks to readers for their feedback on the first version of the post.
A look through the photographs in the slide show above, all shot during the protests in London against the G-20 summit — showing protesters who carried an effigy of a giant dead canary, and others who dressed like The Joker from “Batman,” a Storm Trooper from “Star Wars,” Jesus in a police helmet, a nightmare version of Mickey Mouse, a horse with a flower in his nose, a gorilla in a bathing suit — raises this question: Is it possible that by going to such great lengths to draw the attention of the world’s photographers and camera crews, these protesters managed to get photographed but also undermined the seriousness of their protest against the world’s current economic system?
Whatever the lasting economic impact of the $1.1 trillion deal among world leaders at the Group of 20 summit, the fact that the world’s news media and a diverse array of anti-globalization protesters converged in England did lead to thousands of new images of outlandishly dressed demonstrators, many of whom would not have seemed out of place at a rave, on news Web sites around the world. But did these images of the protesters — with their costumes and puppets and burning effigies — help or hurt the cause of antiglobalization?
From a distance, trying to make sense of what the protests were all about was difficult, and it seems fair to ask if the protesters made a tactical error by playing so much to the cameras that they failed to use the media to communicate a coherent message. Looking at those images above, most of which moved across the world’s new wires, you get the sense that the protesters seized the word’s attention but communicated little more than if they had decided to stage an Ionesco play in, say, Old English.
Given the well-known propensity for the visual media to be drawn to visual spectacle, it might of course be that some of the protesters were trying to use these costumes and acts of street theater to find their way on to television, and hence get a few minutes, or seconds, to explain their unhappiness with the globalized financial system. But the silliness of many of these displays made it easy for many observers to dismiss the protests entirely. That can’t be a good tactic.
The Guardian in London provided near-saturation coverage of the G-20 summit — including a live blog and text, Twitter and video reports on Wednesday’s protests (during which one man died of what was suspected to have been a heart attack).
The newspaper’s green-technology correspondent, Alok Jha, filed an audio report on Thursday morning in which he tried to get to the bottom of what the protesters were thinking. Mr. Jha’s report included interviews with two protesters — one dressed as the grim reaper, and another who helped carry a huge puppet of a dead canary through the streets — and he asked them what their acts of street theater were all about.
A man named Harry explained that he was dressed as Death to represent “the death of the economy” and “the death of the English pound.” He was also concerned with the micro-economic problem that he was in danger of losing the deposit he’d left on the grim reaper costume he’d rented, since the police had confiscated the mask that went with it, arguing that people with covered faces were trouble.
One of the people carrying the canary (see the slide show above) said that he had brought the huge bird effigy to the demonstration “to symbolize the death of Canary Wharf,” a former dockyard area that was redeveloped to become a center of London’s financial industry, and also the death of “the current financial system.”
After giving an articulate analysis of the problems with the current global economic system, the canary-bearer told Mr. Jha that the demonstrators were all gathered “in the service of finding a new system that puts people before profit.” While he had thus succeeded in getting his message out by way of The Guardian — and perhaps validated the strategy of using an outlandish visual as catnip for the media — he then acknowledged that the rest of his day would consist largely of carrying the bird around, getting it photographed, and then storing it away until another economic summit meeting later this year.
The singer and political activist Billy Bragg — who made an appearance at the protest outside the Bank of England yesterday, as he tweeted he would — once sang that just pinning on peace buttons was not going to get the job done. As Mr. Bragg noted, “wearing badges is not enough” to effect political change. After this latest round of anti-globalization protests, it seems fair to ask if marches that draw attention mainly to men bearing symbolic canaries, or dressed like pink storm troopers, are really helping to advance the cause of those who want to fundamentally change the world’s economic system.
What do readers think, is the media to blame for focusing so much on what is most visually arresting, or are the protesters at fault for spending too much energy attracting attention and not enough articulating practical steps that might actually change the system?
Update | April 3 | 11:33 a.m. A friend who is a photographer in London writes in to share some observations on shooting the protests, and has something very interesting to say about the violence that broke out on Wednesday night.
Since he needs to maintain a good working relationship with the police, he asked not to be named, but I’d like to share some of what he, and another photographer he was with for part of Wednesday observed while working.
He writes that it appeared to at least these two photographers that most of the much-photographed violence on Wednesday evening was caused by people who looked like “agent provocateurs,” who “were going from police line to police line baiting the police — and they were the ones who instigated the push against police lines that kicked off the evening violence.” This photographer adds that “There was another guy baiting the police and whipping up the crowd to rush the police, he got a hundred or so protesters to follow him and then sneaked off as they reached police lines.” He also writes that the second photographer, who is a reliable reporter, “saw a bunch of protesters trying to stop a guy in black throwing bottles at the police, the protesters had an argument him and then accused him of being a policeman, whereupon he ran to the police cordon, showed some I.D. and was let through!”
Finally, my friend says: “I should point out that the only reason that we were able to spot these guys so easily was because the protest at that point was so peaceful, they really stuck out, so we followed them from one police line to another as they tried to start trouble.”