The People Take to the Streets Again: In Italy, France, Venezuela, Argentina, the Netherlands, the Big Issues Are Being Fought through Marches and Demonstrations. Can Democracy Stand the Heat? (Cover Story)

By Lloyd, John | New Statesman (1996), May 13, 2002 | Go to article overview

The People Take to the Streets Again: In Italy, France, Venezuela, Argentina, the Netherlands, the Big Issues Are Being Fought through Marches and Demonstrations. Can Democracy Stand the Heat? (Cover Story)


Lloyd, John, New Statesman (1996)


The street is coming back into politics; it may represent growing danger for democratic practice. It has been best expressed in the demonstrations of the more militant global movements, where the street attempts to drain authority away from the state, and the international institutions and corporations, through mockery rhetoric and minor violence. Now, the right as well as the left is taking to the streets. In the week of 6 May, the murder of the Dutch far-right leader Pim Fortuyn was the occasion for his followers to throw stones, metal barriers and bottles at police outside the parliament in The Hague.

In one way or another, street politics nearly always expresses opposition to "the establishment". The time when the street could be used by the people -- with whatever degree of spontaneity -- to show support for the government or for the symbols of the state is largely gone in democratic societies. The street tends naturally to the extreme. Even the small "loyal demonstrations" in Britain for the Queen during her jubilee tours tend to express themselves as defiance of a fashionable consensus that is at least sceptical of monarchy; the vast street turnouts after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, were seemingly in protest against her supposed enemies -- in the establishment, the media and above all the royal family.

A 200,000-strong rally of (mainly) Jews, demonstrating in favour of Israel in Washington on 15 April, appeared at times to be seeking a quarrel with a US administration that many people regard as thoroughly pro-Israel. When the hawkish (and Jewish) deputy secretary for defence, Paul Wolfowitz, reminded the crowds that innocent Palestinian civilians had died as well as Israelis, there were howls of protest. The street must feel pure in its quest for redress of wrongdoing.

Until this year, the global protesters, heirs to the popular tradition of rioting, seemed to have established themselves as the rulers of the modern street. They had stopped (they believed) a World Trade Organisation negotiation in Seattle and forced the World Economic Forum out of its exclusive luxury in Davos. They have consigned the G7/8 -- whose meeting in Genoa in July 2001 led to riots in which one young man died -- to gathering in the tiny hamlet of Kananaskis, in mid-Canada, where the leaders of the major economic powers are due next month. The protesters have forced the figureheads of supreme power off the streets: no more screaming motorcades or regal waves between meetings, far less the improvised bicycle race in which the heads of European Union governments took part in the summer of 1997.

The protesters took over the streets as their rightful place to be gay -- in both the new and old senses of the word. Much street occupation is theatre of sorts, with jugglers and stilt walkers, and cyclists riding very slowly to disrupt the traffic. Even the taunting of the police and the rocks through windows are ritualistic. In a radio debate with me the other day, a young female May Day protester said: "We've come to use the spaces to make our protest and to have fun. It's a fun day! It's theatre!"

But it now goes further thanthat. The "anti-Davos" WorldSocial Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, constructs its iconography to be antithetical to everything that characterises the west: in a televised debate last year, it highlighted black or brown-skinned people, and often women, in contrast to the middle-aged men in smart clothes at Davos. The forum begins with a march through the streets against neoliberalism. This year, it founded an international people's tribunal, which pronounced "a sentence": the cancellation of all external debt owed by southern countries, the break-up of transnational institutions and corporations, the dismantling of "neoliberal policy regimes" and the trial at the Court of Justice in The Hague of those who violate social and human rights. …

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