I’ve been reading two things this week that have inspired this post. The first is Paul Mason’s latest book, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, about the worldwide anti-austerity protests of the last few years and the events of the Arab Spring. The second was a short column in issue 9 of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s newsletter Non-Stop News published in August 1986.
In his book, Mason makes much of the role of the ‘networked individual’ – proficient in using Twitter, writing blogs and multitasking on social media – in recent protest movements. The 1986 article reminds us how activism was pursued before the revolution in social media technologies of the last decade. The fact that it was published in a cheaply printed, four-page, A4 gate-fold newsletter sold on the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy (and related protests) for 10 pence is in itself indicative of how social movement communication strategies have changed in the last twenty-five years.
The article opens with the following assessment:
Many new people have become involved for the first time in the struggle against apartheid by joining the Non-Stop Picket. There are thousands more throughout London and Britain who want to take action. We have to let them know about the Non-Stop Picket. City Group is organising for that. We need you to help.
It goes on to list six actions that supporters could take to mobilize new people to take action against apartheid with and through the Non-Stop Picket. None of these techniques has completely disappeared from activist repertoires; but, almost all of them have now been eclipsed by the use of the internet and social media both by grassroots activists and professional campaigning organisations.
First, supporters were encouraged to place posters about the Non-Stop Picket around London. The article suggests placing these in bookshops, community centres, libraries and local shops. This list in itself describes the social geography of a lost London – where are the radical and community bookshops now? The checklist studiously avoids calling on activists to flypost posters on the streets – although this was a common practice. As major rallies approached, flyposting crews would be organised out of City Group’s weekly meetings to cover key areas of London in posters. At the time, flyposting was a staple means of publicising protests. Today it is exceptionally rare. The demise of this practice has much to do with the rise of new communication technologies. It also a reflection of the increasing privatisation of public space – there are fewer places to paste posters and the surveillance and regulation of this activity is far greater.
Second, the article called on activists to distribute leaflets about the Non-Stop Picket at local tube stations during rush hours. Recently, Ken Livingstone’s mayoral campaign has been mobilising support in this way, but that is largely because he is campaigning about the cost of public transport in London.
The third call to action was for City Group supporters to attend the public meetings of other campaigns to leaflet, talk to people and announce the Non-Stop Picket. Whilst some campaign groups continue to hold public meetings, there do not seem to be as many as there were a quarter of a century ago, when the London listings magazine City Limits would devote a page each week to protests, demonstrations and political meetings across London. The fourth call was related to this, and that was to encourage supporters to get other campaigns and organisations that they were involved with to pledge as a collective to undertake a regular shift on the Non-Stop Picket. In this way, City Group was actively attempting to foster reciprocal networks of solidarity between campaigning organisations and community groups of various kinds. There was an implicit assumption within this call that individual activists would be affiliated to and involved with multiple campaigns.
The fifth action called on City Group supporters to place adverts or letters in their local papers and the newsletters of other organisations publicising the Non-Stop Picket.
The final action was directed at supporters outside London. They were encouraged to book a minibus and organise for a group of friends to visit the Non-Stop Picket. In exchange, City Group promised to arrange accommodation for visitors travelling from outside London to join their protests.
In addition to all these mobilizing practices, City Group activists spent many evenings sat on the phone in the group’s small rented office calling supporters and sympathetic contacts, encouraging them to attend rallies and pledge regular shifts on the Picket. The office served as an additional resource for building networks of activists. There were many other small, grassroots campaign groups based in the same office building. Over time, through (mostly) chance conversations in the building’s canteen, at print shop based in the building or over a pint in pub opposite, reciprocal networks of support were built between City Group and several of these other campaigns.
While social media technologies clearly have many advantages for activists, I question whether the relative demise of older, lo-fi techniques have impacted negatively on the ways in which activist groups interact both with each other and with wider publics. A tweet is quick and has the potential to be spread far and wide with just the click of a button; but there is something important about explaining or defending a political idea through face-to-face interaction. That these older techniques are used less frequently now is not just a result of the development of new communication technologies, it is also a reflection of the changing social geography of urban public space and the continuing professionalization of much campaigning.