THERE ARE DEMOS … and then there are DEMOS by Max Ogden
A history of disruption
Having taken part in dozens of marches over the last 60 years, and been arrested for some of them, I question the effectiveness of protests that deliberately disrupt traffic and confront police, as seen by the recent small demos of Extinction Rebellion. I admire the demonstrators’ commitment and support their cause, but question their objectives. A demonstration is not just about showing support for a cause but primarily about winning new supporters.
This objective was achieved recently when more than 150,000 people brought Melbourne to a standstill, demonstrating how support for climate change action is growing. We also did this during the anti-Vietnam war campaign, beginning with small, imaginative, and sometimes militant demonstrations that did not disrupt traffic, but still got our message across. In one case a small group of us briefly disrupted the Moomba march. Although we did not interfere with the public, we still got good press coverage. Numerous small actions like this later culminated in more than 100,000 demonstrators closing down Melbourne, with many public bystanders joining in, and eventually influenced government to bringing the Australian troops home.
If you say Yes I am sure to say No…
There is a concept known as “cognitive dissonance”, which suggests that if you confront a person with the absolute opposite of what they believe, instead of changing their mind, you reinforce their original view. With that in mind, recent demonstrations that had the objective of confronting police, stopping traffic and interrupting the daily lives of people, probably turned off potential supporters. An example of this is the stupid demonstration led by Bob Brown at the Adani mine, which was held against the advice of local activists and resulted in a loss of votes to the coal lobby. There is no substitute for the daily grind of publicity, debate, leaflets, and social media to change minds. This is then reflected in the huge demonstrations which do make a difference.
This is not to suggest that there isn’t room for small, imaginative and militant actions, as long at the objective is not to alienate people but to lift the whole movement, and some of the Extinction Rebellion’s actions have done this well.
Change can happen
In 1969 the people of Bougainville did not want a large copper mine that was proposed by Rio Tinto after vast copper deposits were found in the Crown Prince Ranges. So each evening, someone took out the company’s survey pegs. At home in Australia, in support of the protest, I took out a Miner’s Right and, with some colleagues, hammered colourfully painted stakes into the small lawn outside Rio Tinto’s headquarters at 101 Collins Street, Melbourne. I was arrested – a Miner’s Right does not apply in built-up areas – but the story went around the country and New Guinea immediately via TV and newspapers, and we got many calls of public support.
I admire the courage and commitment of the Extinction Rebellion demonstrators, and support their cause. All I suggest is that they always keep in mind that the main objective of any protest is to increase public support, and there are many innovative and imaginative ways in which to do that, other than being confrontational or disruptive for the sake of it.
Max Ogden is the author of A Long View From the Left