It is a clever idea to use the board game Monopoly as the basis for
what is fast becoming the annual May Day protest in London. By its acquisitive
nature, the universally popular game represents all that the anti-capitalist
protestors are decrying. Why then are they defiling their credibility
and also that of the great tradition of public protestation, through
meaningless acts of random violence and destruction? Is this just a
further manifestation of the theory that the anger and indignant rage
upon which all protest is founded, morphs all too easily into the sort
of looting and anarchic glee which marked the infamous riots in Los
Angeles? Or does it signify some deeper ambushing of legitimate social
protest by extreme anarchistic factions, whose sole aim is the creation
of a degree of mayhem which will incite a riot amongst those foolish
enough to get themselves caught up in the moment?
It is amusing to think of a scruffily attired anarchist paying for his
or her expensive stay at one of Mayfair's salubrious hotels with little
more than an insulting gesture and if the stay was especially enjoyable,
perhaps a broken window or two. However, there is little long-term gain
to be had through the pursuit of tactics that ultimately alienate the
very people whose support they most crave - the general public. Last
year's "Crusade Against Capitalism" had a perfectly legitimate
target - the cruel exploitation of poor third world workers by greedy
western corporations. Yet the power of the message behind the protest
was swamped by the gratuitous outbreak of violence which swept the capital
and has placed protestors squarely in the public's collective eye as
the bad guys.
In order to be effective, protest has always required the unflinching
support of the public at large. Images such as that of a young man terrifying
workers in a central London McDonald's in last year's disturbances,
do nothing to endear a cause to the public's heart, no matter how important.
It could, therefore, be easy to dismiss those leading the violent protests
as idiots - yet the people behind the proposed activities on 1 May,
such as Womble(!) and Urban Alliance, are a well-organised bunch. For
evidence of this one need only visit their website www.maydaymonopoly.net.
This is a slickly engineered piece of propaganda which oozes technological
competence, whilst issuing a strictly legal call-to-arms to their supporters.
The protestors in the Luddite marches would turn in their graves at
the notion of technology playing such an enabling role.
their manipulation of the media, the protestors could well teach
Alistair Campbell a thing or two. Their mantra is obviously less
is more, as they have steadfastly refused to give any media interviews,
instead referring all enquiries to their website. This has had the
predictable result of the rumour-mill working overtime as journalists
try to second guess the precise Monopoly properties which shall
attract the protestors' ire.
This is exactly
the type of media savvy that the notorious California-based Ruckus Society
preaches to its students of what it calls "non-violent civil disobedience."
It seems highly likely that they have had some influence upon the smooth
running of this military-style operation. Yet it is difficult to ascertain
the exact motivations of this campaign - are noble causes such as the
removal of third world debt and the introduction of universal child
labour laws really at its core?
"Let us attempt to reclaim May Day as a day to celebrate our struggles",
cries the official protest website. This is typical of the attitude
which is adopted by Womble (as it is they who operate maydaymonopoly.net)
towards the monster which they are conspiring to create. On the same
page they call for their followers to create a degree of wilful disruption
with which it is difficult to reconcile the idea of celebration. It
is also mildly confusing as to why anyone should want to "celebrate"
a struggle against social repression and exploitation in the first place.
The true nature of the organiser's motives becomes apparent through
phrases such as: "revolutionise your consumer rights - take the
lot." This is a reference to the planned mass gathering in Oxford
Street - home to a high concentration of international brands and companies
- which has been billed by the organisers as: "the sale of the
century." The traditional concept of May Day as a workers' celebration
of fertility, both of the body and of the land, has never been so remote.
It would seem instead to be mutating into an ill-disguised free-for-all.
Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has called for
a policy of zero-tolerance against violence during the upcoming protests.
There are an extra 5000 police being drafted in from other forces around
the country and all police leave has been cancelled. The authorities
are determined not to allow a repeat of the running battles and vandalism
which took place in Whitehall and Parliamentary Square in last year's
There has been a notable escalation in the activity of organised protests
in recent years, although this perception is perhaps due to the growing
media frenzy which surrounds demonstrations, in anticipation of violent
confrontations between protestors and the authorities. The water-shed
for our current understanding of the modern protest came in 1999 at
the World Trade Organisation's meeting in Seattle. Since then there
have been violent protests in Prague, Davos and Washington. Organisations
such as the Ruckus Society may claim to abhor violence, yet they tread
a very fine line between disruptive and destructive protest, having
trained protestors, such as those who recently participated in the violent
demonstrations in Quebec City.
The causes which the protestors on 1 May claim to represent are commendable,
such as a removal of third world debt and the eradication of poverty.
However, it seems far more likely that the majority of legitimate protestors
will find themselves entangled in a tight web of violence and looting,
where the only Monopoly square that most will find themselves occupying
is jail. As a result, the only beneficiaries from the supposed workers'
day will be extremist groups such as Womble and Urban Alliance.
© Stuart Macdonald 2001