Two hundred years after the Peterloo massacre, which led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian, protest is shaping our political moment. Where do we go from here?
Scale it up and its revolution; scale it down and its individual non-cooperation that may be seen as nothing more than obstinacy or malingering or not seen at all. What we call protest identifies one aspect of popular power and resistance, a force so woven into history and everyday life that you miss a lot of its impact if you focus only on groups of people taking stands in public places. But people taking such stands have changed the world over and over, toppled regimes, won rights, terrified tyrants, stopped pipelines and deforestation and dams. They go far further back than the Peterloo protests and massacre 200 years ago, to the great revolutions of France and then of Haiti against France and back before that to peasant uprisings and indigenous resistance in Africa and the Americas to colonisation and enslavement and to countless acts of resistance on all scales that were never recorded.
They will go far forward from this moment. And at this moment, with organisations addressing the climate crisis, reinvigorated feminism in many parts of the world, antiracist and human rights campaigns focused on specific groups and issues, protest is a force running through everything and running against a lot of things, since this is also an age of authoritarianism and a consolidation of wealth among a global superelite.
Right now, for example, Floridas Coalition of Immokalee Workers is forming another alliance with students to pursue rights for farmworkers by targeting nationwide US burger chain Wendys. They can stand as one of the great examples of the power of the supposedly powerless, which could be more fruitfully thought of as exercisers of other kinds of power than institutional, military, or financial power, the kind less seldom recognised, cultivated, studied or valued. This alliance of labour organisers and immigrant farm workers from the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico began co-ordinating human rights and workers rights campaigns almost two decades ago, from a base in the tomato-growing region around the town of Immokalee in Florida. It would be easy to call immigrant farm workers powerless, and indeed modern-day slavery was one of the issues they addressed.