This year is marked by people going out in protest on the streets. What can they achieve and how do politicians divert attention from demonstrations?

Last week, fifty thousand people protested in the streets of Prague. Last Saturday, San Giovanni Square in Rome filled up with crowds in opposition against the far-right League. Tomorrow, people in Poland are going to take to the streets again.

Demonstrations or happenings

Sardines Day took place last Saturday, on 14 December. In Rome, Berlin, Paris, Dublin, London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Madrid, Helsinki, Vienna, Lisbon, Bordeaux, San Francisco, Dresden, Grenoble and other cities, people took to the streets to protest against the politics of populism, hatred and fear.

In Italy, the Sardines movement was born as a protest against the politics of Matteo Salvini. In just one month the Sardines gained hundreds of thousands of supporters. The first event was held on 14 November in Bologna, a traditionally left-wing city.

On that day, the League’s election campaign for the upcoming local elections (26 January 2020) in the Emilia Romagna region began. Right-wing leader Matteo Salvini planned a meeting in the PalaDozza hall with a capacity of 5,570 people. Meanwhile, the organisers of the Sardines’ flash mob set themselves the goal of gathering 6,000 people to show that there are more people who disagree with the policy of exclusion than Salvini’s supporters.

Twelve thousand people came to Piazza Maggiore in Bologna at that time. In effect, they had to squeeze like sardines. Two weeks later, 25,000 protesters came to Piazza del Duomo in Milan, despite the heavy rain. Last week, 10 December, 35,000 demonstrators gathered in Turin. Last Saturday,  thousands of people gathered on on Piazza San Giovanni (100,000 according to the organisers, 35,000 according to the police).

Certainly, the element of competition was not insignificant: “we will show you that there are more of us”.

Sardines for tea

Protests are as old as the streets are. In a democracy, they are more a form of expression than a preference. Protests are a physical manifestation of belonging, self-representation and lending the body a political idea. It is also the most tangible way to build a community that speaks for itself on an important issue.

Contrary to appearances, however, street demonstrations have little influence on government policy. They change it only if they manage to have an impact of the polls’ results.

We have become obsessed with numbers. Every concept has to acquire its numeric representation to be taken seriously. The bigger the number, the better. This is why counting the number of demonstrators turns out to be so important.

There is one more case in which street demonstrations can make a difference. It occurs when they manage to focus the media and virtual attention on themselves. They distract us from those who usually triumph on the Internet, such as the leader of the League. This happened in the case of the Italian Sardines.

No wonder that after the fiasco of publishing cats that eat sardines, the so-called “Beast” of Salvini (a software tool to track online users’ sentiments, which is managed by a team of specialists) made another clickbait move. He used the most popular theme of these days in Italy, related to the successful launch of peanut-cream cookies. So many users were talking about the #Nutella hashtag, it got trending on the web.

Salvini seized the trending topic by saying that he had stopped eating Nutella because the hazelnuts are from Turkey and not Italy. Although the news turned out to be misleading, the Internet took the bait and people started to talk about Salvini in connection to Nutella.

 

It has been known for some time now that what we pay attention to has a significant impact on what and how we perceive things. It is enough to recall the awareness test of Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris:

It is hard to count the exact number of basketball passes of the team in white shirts when there is a second ball being passed by players in black, isn’t it?

From Black Mondays to Fridays for Future

The street, no matter how much it is filled, will always be less spacious than the Internet. One Nobel Prize winner’s dress can have the same effect as thousands of marching women. One post about the Nutella can redirect the attention of millions of Internet users. The game is all about public attention and the ability to turn the generated energy into political projects.

More and more people around the world have been taking to the streets lately. The protests in Hong Kong, Iran, Venezuela, the strikes organised by the “Yellow Vests” earlier this year and the recent protests of the French against the pension reform.

There is no shortage of street demonstrations in Central Europe either. In 2019, great protests were organised in Hungary against the so-called “slave law”, in Slovakia after the murders of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova, in Poland there were demonstrations in defence of the rule of law, in Romania against changes in the penal code, and in Czechia an anti-government demonstration in June attracted the highest number of people in the post-communist history of the country.

The Czechs also protested in a huge number of over 50,000 on 10 December. After information leaked about another conflict of interests of Prime Minister Andrei Babiš, the organiser of the protests, the association “Million Moments for Democracy” announced a new demonstration taking place later today.

Are the street demonstrations likely to make a difference? We will soon have an answer.

Invisible political gorillas

The Czech “Million Moments for Democracy” and the Italian “6,000 Sardines” play a similar role in pointing out phenomena that are destructive for democracy. Both organisations state that they do not want to create a political party. They both call for a return to political seriousness and for policies based on constitutional values.

The street demonstrations they organised are important for at least two reasons. Firstly, when you are squeezed in the square in the name of one idea, it is easier to find the tenderness mentioned by Tokarczuk in the widely commented Nobel Prize lecture:

“Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and codependent on itself”.

Secondly, they attract media attention, anchoring perception of new elements, although – which is worth remembering – not for long.

In an antagonised political game, focused on following the passing ball, we can hardly see a gorilla crossing the room. The kind of blindness is not a novelty. The only difference is that now we are additionally exposed to Internet algorithms, mechanisms we do not fully grasp. However, the truth is that once you notice it, the gorilla will no longer pass unobserved a second time.

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. It was originally published on Res Publica Nowa.

Supporting editor of Res Publica Nowa and Visegrad Insight, translator. A graduate of cultural studies (Mediterranean studies) and philosophy at the University of Warsaw


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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