As protests become part of our lives, perhaps a supportive eco-system is also here to stay

In 10 years, it feels like the protests have never stopped and even Covid hasn’t ended them. From Belarus to Brazil, Hong Kong to Kenosha, protests are now permanent parts of our lives. This reflects how divided and desperate our politics have bec...

Agencies
Something similar is now happening with US protests over Black Lives Matters and the Trump government’s harassment of undocumented, mostly Hispanic workers.
This year marks a tragic anniversary: 10 years since Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit seller, set himself on fire and, in doing so, ignited the protests that became known as the Arab Spring. The initial success of those protests was, sadly, followed by divisions and disillusionment with democracy that enabled anti-democratic forces to take power, which has led in turn to more protests.

In 10 years, it feels like the protests have never stopped and even Covid hasn’t ended them. From Belarus to Brazil, Hong Kong to Kenosha, protests are now permanent parts of our lives. This reflects how divided and desperate our politics have become, but also how practiced people have become at organising protests.

The Internet has helped, but a lot of this knowledge is practical, feet-on-the-ground learning. Most protests require a great deal of planning, particularly in the practical aspects of getting permissions (or knowing how to by-pass them), finding the right locations and, taking care of the food and toilet facilities needed when large numbers of people gather for any length of time.


Mahatma Gandhi learned this lesson early. In 1913 he organised Indians in South Africa to march against their exclusion from parts of the country. But he realised the logistical challenge: “I could not afford to give anything on the road beyond a daily ration of one pound and a half of bread and an ounce of sugar to each ‘soldier’.” Then he found a solution: his marchers were mostly Indian labourers fighting for the rights of all Indians in South Africa, and many of these were traders with small shops. Gandhi appealed to them and they readily supplied rice and dal at each stop.

In the Arab Spring it did not seem like an accident that Bouazizi was a fruit seller. Across the world suppliers of food are the one form of enterprise that cannot be stopped since everyone has to eat. But it also means that food sellers are at the bottom of social hierarchies, targets for every kind of government or police bullying. This made them ripe for rebellion – in Egypt it was the self-immolation of a restaurant owner, Abdo Abdel Hameed that started the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. But this knowledge of food supply at the margins of society also helps in making sure that some way is found to feed those who protest. Bags of rice appear, cheap cuts of meat are kept aside, big cauldrons are lit and simple, sustaining food is made.

Something similar is now happening with US protests over Black Lives Matters and the Trump government’s harassment of undocumented, mostly Hispanic workers. The food industry depends on low-income workers from the Black and Hispanic communities to pick produce, cut up animals in abattoirs, shift food crates in wholesale markets and prep food in every kind of restaurant from fast-food to fine dining.
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This has given a personal edge to the protests to these industries and many have stepped up to provide food for the protestors. Some have done this through donations, some by supporting workers who go to the protests and one McDonald’s franchisee in Texas, drawing a fine line between opposing violent protests and trying to mitigate its worse effects, provided free food for the clean-up crews that came after the riots.

Protestors have set up kitchens, but these become easy targets for the police. In a report in online food magazine Goya Journal on how the Shaheen Bagh protests were fed writer Shalom Gauri was told “the police didn’t like it at all, they argued that langars couldn’t be part of the protests.” In the UK the Extinction Rebellion against inaction on climate change experienced the same. George Coiley, the student volunteer running their Rebel Kitchens admitted: “We’re cooking most of the hot food offsite at the moment… The police keep taking our stuff.”

Packaged foods are an easy alternative, but come with problems of managing waste packaging, plus the issue of whether it is ethical to use such foods. During the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 Ben & Jerry’s offered free ice-cream. The brand had long supported progressive causes, but was now part of Unilever, exactly the kind of corporation the protestors were against. They also suspected an attempt to use their protests to boost the brand’s (now possibly deceptive) progressive image. On the other hand, it was free ice-cream during summer!

Both Shaheen Bagh and Extinction Rebellion opted for food brought in by a range of volunteers – and there was no shortage of those. In fact, cooking food became a way for people unable to attend, to still support protests. In the US, pizza parlours near protests often do good business when outside supporters dial in orders for deliveries to the protests. Small caterers near the protests can get some business, which helps build goodwill with the protestors. As protests become part of our lives, perhaps a protest eco-system is also now here to stay.
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