A pointless protest and a pointless death

Published September 1, 2001

Vianney Carriere

WHEN PROTEST degenerates into mere theatre, it trivializes both the issues protested and, as amply demonstrated by events in Genoa this summer, it places those engaged in the protest in an unacceptably risky situation. Whether or not the protesters accept this risk is largely irrelevant. They do not have the right to compromise themselves or others in the name of a cause, no matter how worthy. When they do so, observers are entitled to wonder whether it is the cause that is at the heart of their action or merely being noticed in the act of protesting. The former may be laudable; the latter is reprehensible. To embrace violence for the sake of theatre is morally wrong.

In an interview published elsewhere in this newspaper, a representative of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund who participated in protests associated with this summer’s summit of Group of Eight leaders in Genoa, is quoted as saying that there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the death of Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old protester shot in the head and left to die on the pavement of the Italian city. “People are dying protesting trade liberalization and globalization in the southern hemisphere quite often. This is nothing new,” she said. Those who saw the young man’s picture splashed across their television screens and newspapers might disagree about the novelty of the situation. But what were they looking at? A symbolic act of protest? Or were they seeking titillation through a glimpse at the pornography of violence?

Death by injustice is indeed “nothing new.” It is as old as history itself. But death as theatre, even in the name of a worthy cause, remains exploitation that debases the issues under protest and demeans both the protesters and the cause. The sad truth about this shameful incident lies in the utter waste and meaninglessness of it. In six months or a year, no one will remember this young man’s name. By the time the next summit meeting comes around, the circumstances surrounding his death will have been reduced to notes in a police workbook on how to do things more effectively. In our topsy-turvy world, the profound meaning of Carlo Giuliani’s death is its meaninglessness.

Perhaps the events in Genoa were an inevitable conclusion to these protests. There is, by now, a rather long history associated with protest at meetings of the Group of Eight, protests that have grown in scale and become ever more violent in the recent past. And yet, for all the numbers involved and for all the protest coverage in the daily press, it would be difficult to imagine a more ineffective piece of social action. Organizers can count up column inches of coverage in newspapers and add up the number of news clips shown on CNN and despite their impressive tallies, it all amounts to failure. They can claim moral victories, they can even believe, if they wish, that the coverage they get plays a part in educating the masses, but in fact there are no victories and they accomplish nothing in those areas where they say they strive to effect change.

The protests surrounding Group of Eight summits, predictable as they are, have merely cast the protesters themselves in a ridiculous light. The magazine The Economist referred to them as “anarchists, greens, anti-capitalists and sundry loonies,” and while it may be expected that the publication would take a dim view of disruptions of summit leaders, the phrase, even if cruel, has a ring of legitimacy to it.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew that the heart of protest is the cause, not the protester, the principles, not the tactics, and certainly not the theatrics associated with taking to the streets. When a protest draws the level of attention that this summer’s did, and when all of that attention is focused on the numbers involved, the attendant violence and ultimately, the pointless death of a young man, then that protest has been an appalling failure.

No one will remember this young man’s name, and no one will remember, if they ever knew, the cause he died for. In the detailed newspaper accounts of how Carlo Giuliani came to be reduced to a clump of flesh with a bullet hole in his head lying on pavement, there was scarcely a mention of the causes under protest in the first place. It was the theatre and the death that got the ink, not the cause. And so the protest fails, and the cause is ill-served.

In a column published in the entertainment section of a Toronto newspaper shortly after Carlo Giuliani died, a writer used the incident to bemoan the fact that the quality of news photography is simply not what it used to be. She had not a word to say about the “trade liberalization and globalization” issues that the PWRDF staff member alluded to. How sad, if this young’s man death turns out to be nothing but an illustration of the premise that newspaper photographers today lack the pluck and talent of those of a generation ago.


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