Use energy and anger for effective direct action
We’ve all seen footage of the December 9th action in London on tuition fees: the immense energy and anger there. Energy and anger are at the core of our movement, as we face fundamental threats to our rights and our futures, our economy and environment while bankers, tax avoiders, and private companies pocket the cash.
But we must separate out energy and anger from what I call mob mentality – because parts of the December 9th action and others I have witnessed clearly erupted into mob mentality. Mob mentality is counter-productive and is only one way to express energy and anger.
Energy and anger are immensely powerful and we need to be very aware of how to use this power positively - to put across our message and to draw in supporters. It is very easy for energy and anger to get out of control. We need to plan actions with awareness.
Here I want to explain what mob mentality is, what produces it, why it is counter-productive, and what tactics use energy and anger positively. Before that I want to make two things absolutely clear: firstly that direct action is crucial – to make our message heard, to draw in support, and to put maximum pressure on government and tax avoiders; secondly that energy and anger are GOOD and are massively powerful forces for change – but that power needs to be used with awareness.
What is mob mentality?
- When you’re in a crowd and energy and emotion take over. The experience is seductive: you get a high from the energy and the passionate emotion.
- You aren’t thinking as an individual. Energy and emotion override thought and reflection.
- You get caught up in the power of your cause and that takes over your behaviour. You lose sight of normal empathy and engagement with others. It feels like you’re the group and the world is divided into goodies and baddies.
What produces mob mentality?
Here I will use three examples from my own experience in recent weeks. On the last weekend in October I was at an anti-cuts protest that I think crossed over into mob mentality. In the same forty-eight hours I also witnessed two other instances of high energy group behaviour: a gospel choir performing at an open-air event in central Oxford and a crowd of football fans on the platform at Stoke-on-Trent railway station. The three events all had elements in common and comparing them made me realise what was counter-productive at the protest.
Firstly, loud dominating music: when this combines with a crowd and passion for the cause it pumps up the energy, pumps up the emotion, and suppresses thought and reflection. I was right at the front of the audience at the gospel concert and was one of the protesters outside a Vodafone shop. Both times I felt like my strength was limitless. With the rave music and yelling ‘Pay your tax! Pay your tax!’ outside Vodafone I felt like I connected with a consummate fury at the very core of my being. At the concert I was there singing at the top of my voice ‘Jesus washed my sins away!’ In fact I’m not a Christian and I do not think that Jesus washed my sins away.
Secondly, lack of a focussed objective. The protest came after a march and rally. A group left the main rally and occupied Barclays bank, then went on to demonstrate outside Vodafone. It wasn’t clear what the destination was after that. At that point it felt like the energy was getting out of hand. I backed off. Later I saw anti-cuts posters littering the drain-grilles in Oxford’s main shopping street where the crowd had been. Later the same day, I was an onlooker on a train as it pulled into Stoke-on-Trent station. A huge crowd of singing and chanting football supporters filled the platform and those at the front started to pound on the windows of the train. Again, these were fans after the game, dealing with anti-climax and without clear purpose or direction. In both situations, anti-social behaviour ensued.
As an onlooker in these two situations I felt fear. In fact at Stoke station I felt panic – ‘get them out of here and get me out of here’. It felt like the football fans were capable of anything and I was in their path. I got off the train as fast as I could and waited for the next one.
Why is mob mentality a bad thing?
Mobs are very visible – the high of the mob drowns out everything else, for participants and onlookers. Mobs are very easy to create. Mobs are counter-productive: our message is lost and potential supporters will not rally to the cause if they feel afraid and if they object to anti-social behaviour. Mob situations attract people who want a mob ‘high’. I saw two boys around thirteen years old walking away from the Vodafone protest, shouting ‘Pay your tax! Pay your tax!’ They were just getting off on it in a yobbish way, they weren’t thinking about what they were saying. Mobs invite inflamed aggressive responses. The police also succumb to mob mentality behaviour – for example in the mounted charge on protesters in London.
Our tactics in the anti-cuts campaign must use energy and anger positively. Our tactics must
- Engage energy and anger
- Spread it
- Make it positive and sustained – not mob energy that is destructive and short-lived.
What tactics use energy and anger positively?
The following make for effective direct action:
A focused, clear objective: Don’t have crowds without clear direction or purpose.
Message not music: I don’t mean never have music, but don’t have continuous loud dominating music. Have some one delivering the message, loud and clear. Have teach-in occupations. It forces everyone to think and it invites dialogue – for example with the staff at Barclays or Vodafone and the shoppers on the high street who may agree with us.
High visibility and humour to attract people: In Oxford we did a ‘chicken protest’ with chicken costumes and chicken-themed placards, to highlight Vince Cable and Nick Clegg chickening out of coming to speak in Oxford (see the Chicken Dance flashmob film on the Oxford Save Our Services website). We got good press coverage. We are planning a Christmas action in the city centre on the Scrooge/Christmas Carol theme.
Sit-down occupations: If you sit down you are physically stronger and harder to move, especially if everyone links arms. In Oxford a standing-up occupation of Barclays bank was routed by the police in less than a minute. If onlookers see police dragging calm sitting protesters out of an occupation they are likely to side with us. Sitting protesters also physically take up more space. And if you sit down everything is immediately calmer.
A superb example of a sit-down teach-in occupation was outside Top Shop in Oxford Street, central London (see the Top Shop flashmob film on You Tube). That occupation delivered a pounding message and made bridges to shoppers, to exploited Top Shop workers and to the police who are also facing the effects of the cuts.
Direct action is demanded by the urgency of the anti-cuts campaign and the energy and anger that we have. In that direct action let’s be very aware of how energy and anger work. Aware of what makes for intimidating, alienating, destructive and short-lived mob mentality energy. Aware of what makes for highly visible, powerful, articulate sustained energy, energy and anger which win arguments, change minds, and call to people to join us.
- Posted by: Katherine Wedell at 9:23am on 11 December 2010
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