Confused protest

The Protestor's Handbook by Bibi van der Zee (Guardian Books), reviewed by Tom Walker
June 2010

I've always thought it patronising to say that someone's politics are 'confused' - but in Bibi van der Zee's case it seems quite generous. This book seems to have been written with good intentions. Unfortunately, it is incoherent and incredibly contradictory.

Its 'protest phone book', for example, lists the Countryside Alliance next to Climate Camp - both under the 'environment' heading. There is even an interview with one of the organisers of the 2002 pro-fox hunting march, as an example of a great 'campaigner'.

It quotes Marx and Engels one minute, yet gives a history of 'consumer activism' and Which? magazine the next, saying 'The modern anti-capitalists... are really the heirs of both these schools of consumer awareness.'

It talks about the death of Ian Tomlinson, yet suggests you might want to organise a 'neighbourhood campaign' for 'more police'. (Advice: 'Identify who your allies might be in the council and the local police service.')

This is 'protest' robbed of its radical content. In van der Zee's hands, the word means anything from the poll tax riots to the Facebook campaign that apparently got Cadbury's to bring back the Wispa chocolate bar. ('Petitions: they really do work.')

A little digging suggests this might reflect the somewhat 'interesting' politics of the author. Bibi van der Zee's previous works include Green Business: Sustainability, Resources, People, Planet, Profit - not a critical investigation, but a how-to guide.

These views show through most in the chapter on fundraising, which advises the reader to start a charity, apply for government funding or 'become, in effect, a business'. Bizarrely, this chapter includes a box about the road protests of the 1990s. Such voices and stories of real activism seem to be thrown in for the 'street cred', as they're not the book's real focus at all.

Of its 17 chapters, only two are about demonstrations or direct action. The rest cover letter-writing, lobbying, petitions, boycotts and so on. It may speak admiringly of anarchists and Che Guevara, but really, the book argues, writing a firm letter of complaint is 'one of the simplest and most effective methods there is'.

A well-told history of radical protest, interspersed with helpful do-it-yourself guides and legal advice, could be a useful and even inspiring book. This is not that book.


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