The Ritual of Protest

Protests in most places seem to follow a certain ritual. The protestors march, chant slogans, hold banners, occupy some part of the city, pass out condoms. Occasionally, a few may storm a building and break window or two. For their part, the police don ‘riot gear’ – shields, batons, helmets – and remove name badges. A push here, a shove there, possibly a ritual arrest. If it becomes a little nasty, then the protestors may find some rocks to hurl, marbles to roll under police horses, perhaps soiled menstrual pads to slip into pockets for police hands to find. And the police themselves may give the protestors a wash with hoses, toss in some tear gas, or fire a few rubber bullets. In assessments of the numbers, protestors give an inflated figure, police sources a deflated one.

Afterwards, the protestors will decry police brutality, hopefully with a picture of a policeman tapping someone with a baton. The police, on the other hand, attempt to humiliate the protestors – keeping them confined in a zone without toilets, handcuffing a few representatives in uncomfortable positions. All to deter them next time, which is also the purpose of the drawn-out court proceedings for the token few arrested.

Everyone remains relatively civil, operating within the boundaries of the accepted ritual. When those boundaries are crossed, however, the rules change. Take the Ukrainian protests, for instance. From the earliest days, far right groups were present with their stashes of weapons on display and ready to use. They were certainly not there to favour Western Europe and the EU, but to rid Ukraine of Jews, homosexuals, Russians, and communists. For some reason, the security forces in Ukraine still played by the old rules, using water cannon, tear gas, stun grenades and batons. Yet, in response they too bent the rules on the edges. Civilian groups were free to reply in kind to the protestors, and the anti-riot police wrapped stun grenades with nails and other shrapnel. For some reason, President Yanukovich held back with calling a state of emergency, seeking perhaps with his offers to split the protestors between the radical right and the more moderate sections. He seems to have wavered when decisive action was needed. Perhaps he was curiously bound by the ritual of protest.


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