Strength in low numbers

Matilda Wnek offers a personal perspective on keeping the protest flame burning when action on behalf of the many is being taken by so few

December 1, 2014 · 5 min read

An apocryphal exchange between Roman senators forms the epigraph to many an activist blog. Two thousand years ago, the story goes, a senator suggested that all slaves wear white armbands to better identify them. ‘No’, said a wiser senator. ‘If they see how many of them there are, they may revolt.’

The moment an oppressed group gains consciousness of its majority is the revolutionary moment, as everybody knows. But what happens when the reverse happens: a group of revolutionaries gain consciousness of their minority?

Despite months of planning, a central location in the capital city and a broad, mainstream pro-democracy message, only about 300 people could be persuaded to show up in October to the Occupy Democracy protest in Parliament Square. At its lowest point, there were around 15. So, unless we take low turnout as proof that these movements don’t represent majority interests (the 99 per cent, as our slogans insist), we need to start defending ourselves against the power of these low numbers to eat away at resolve.

Right now, coming together as occupiers means having to acknowledge just how few of us there are. This is the current price of organisation. Except what if this price is not a price at all, but a necessary stage on the way to accruing a critical mass? If so, the pressing task for activists is to teach ourselves how to bypass, overlook and weather the pain of feeling like we’re part of a hopelessly small group – to refuse to let it persuade us to go home.

Many of us may be prepared to fight for what we believe in when the going gets tough. But what about when the going gets boring? When a few thousand people are in Parliament Square, getting more may be beyond easy – or at any rate interesting – but the special efforts required of the first few hundred deserve their own analysis, their own debrief.

The thing about an occupation is that, unlike a march or a picket, you have time to lose your resolve. These fluctuations of intensity, which are so familiar in the form of shifting intellectual confidence, hit you on the ground like mood swings, like pleasure and pain. And the police have weaponised bathos.

While I was in a kettle on the first Saturday night of Occupy Democracy, resisting for hours in the rain against what we had fought to define as unlawful eviction, I heard a constable humming ‘I Fought the Law’. When I was arrested on Tuesday morning, after making impassioned legal arguments to a ring of police officers until I was hoarse, my eventual arresting officer read the name of the law off the back of his hand, with a wry wink as if I was in on the joke.

There are two ways to stop yourself from getting hurt by these tablecloth tricks. One is to insert an artistic detachment between you and the occupation. The other is to bed yourself down in that pristine parliamentary lawn like a big, blind weed and refuse to let anything persuade you that now is not the time you’re supposed to resist. As much as we want to talk about messaging, outreach, publicity, and civic discussion, it seems to me the heart of Occupy is two things: a stubborn resolve not to leave, and a conviction that because of that our numbers will inevitably grow.

Among parliament’s many attempts to undermine the occupation, claiming that we would dwindle away was never one of them. In a debate in the House of Lords the week after the occupation, Lord Bates asked: ‘What is a light touch when you are faced with a protest that begins at 50, grows to 100 and then grows overnight to 150? The potential for that to get out of hand, and the risk to the public, is something which the police clearly take seriously, and they are right to do so.’

What that paranoid mathematics cannot account for is how different the experience will be for the first 50 and the last 50 in any such growing protest. We should endeavour to make ourselves the unmanageable weed that they fear will take over the lawn. But for that to work the colonisers will have to be an altogether hardier, more stubborn, deeper-rooted breed. It takes courage and strength to resist police intimidation and violence but other, much less glamorous things are often the real enemy. Things like boredom, tiredness, cold, ridiculousness. We need to be able to fight them with the same righteousness if we’re going to hold out for the critical mass.

Ultimately we have just one enemy: things that make you want to leave. Imagine what we could do by treating them all the same: police, doubt, rain, fences, hunger, absurdity. Practise getting unlawfully arrested and feel your conviction intensify. Now read this contribution from cockneygeezer2014 on the Guardian website: ‘I cycle past that site twice a day. There are about 20 “protesters” there, if that. Nobody stops and looks at their placards. Nobody in the public (mostly tourists) seems to be engaged in any way with whatever they’re protesting about. It’s just a big fat nothing.’

We have to develop a weapon against this kind of attack too. That is the knowledge that there always has to be a first 20, and the conviction that the only thing stopping Lord Bates’s nightmare from becoming a reality is those 20 going home.

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