Freedom and Protest in Virtual and Physical Space

by Min Li Chan

While wandering through the streets of London's city center recently, I found myself intrigued for a moment by the endlessly complex intersection of protest, democracy, anarchy, surveillance, constraint, and the remembrance of history.

First, the events that recently unfolded on the streets of her city center provided an interesting backdrop to begin with: a demonstration against public spending cuts turned into a field night for anarchists, subverting the protest's original agenda for a peaceful rally.

Strolling down London's historic streets, nearly every street corner is equipped with state-installed CCTV for public safety and security:


But before one kicks up a ruckus about surveillance and freedom, it's important to note the genuinely democratic context of England's parliamentary democracy. Like any democracy, discontent in established institutions is freely expressed, but at the same time, a sense of trust in the scale and reach of a benevolent government prevails. The notion of allowing a government to monitor the comings and goings of every street corner in the the service of protecting her citizens wouldn't fly well with England's counterparts across the Atlantic, who subscribe to a slightly different flavor of democracy.

Venturing into London's commercial center on Oxford Street, the aftermath of a protest come into sight, with broken windows, paint bombs, and riot police on the watch for attacks on retail and luxury stores:


— a post-protest party on the street with pirate flags and happy singing folk around a bonfire, lightly observed by police in the area who don't appear to have problems with the revelry:


— in the morning, signs of the previous night's paint bomb assault on the Olympic countdown clock at Trafalgar Square:


The Museum of London subsequently announced an initiative to gather protest placards as part of the museum's collection, in an effort "to give demonstrators the chance to influence how history remembers them," sans the disruptions of the protest's subverting anarchists.



All this certainly could not possibly take place outside free, democratic socio-politcal constructs — but as a recent blogger infographic reminds us, states can be inconsistent: freedom in the offline world doesn't always translate to the online world in the same way with its accelerated means of disseminating information — fact, fiction, myth, and the everything in between.

Credits: Photos by Min Li Chan. Venn Diagram from yuxiyou.net.

2 comments:

  1. http://www.williamlamson.com/#/selected_work/intervention/works/1

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  2. I think you may be overestimating 'a sense of trust in the scale and reach of a benevolent government.' The number of CCTV camera, operated both privately and by the state is a concern for many in the UK. So is the growth of various unchecked powers that are given to the police under the guise of 'war on terror', for example stop and search power and prolonged detention. This has been a subject of an independent documentary 'Taking Liberties':
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXq5F8Dus-c
    I also think you are too easily buying into this narrative of 'peaceful protest hijacked by a small minority of troublemakers'. It overestimates the amount of violence on the side of protesters and totally underestimates the often-unprovoked violence of the police. British media are peddling it full time. For example the number of people arrested on the 26th of March is massively inflated by inclusion of almost 150 UK Uncut protesters who peacefully occupied Fortnum & Mason:
    http://www.ukuncut.org.uk/blog/press-release-uk-uncut-occupy-tax-dodgers-fortnum-and-mason
    On the other hand the police brutality against the people who wanted stay overnight in Trafalgar Square goes totally unreported because by then all mainstream journalists have already left. Fortunately there are some credible reports from participants:
    http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/laurie-penny/2011/03/trafalgar-square-police-young
    http://march26tahrir.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/trafalgar-square-a-report/
    Regards!

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