Good Protester, Bad Protester - Don't Fall for Divide & Conquer (Text & Audio)


I'm not a bad protester, I promise. I'm a good protester. I'll be a good protester!

The farce that is the Jobstown [1] trial has mostly been a back and forth about what kind of protest is acceptable and right. Did the people of Jobstown keep Joan Burton and her assistant waiting for too long? Were they too foul mouthed? Too angry? Did they bang on the car too much? What about kids throwing water balloons? The infamous Jobstown brick? Maybe we should put them in prison then. At the heart of this argument is a very important notion: splitting people into 'Good Protesters' and 'Bad Protesters'. This article lays out exactly how that works, and how we should counter this divide and conquer tactic.


The way the 'Good Protester' vs. 'Bad Protester' narrative works is that one group of people are put on a pedestal as an example of how protesting or political campaigning should be done. Then they are put in sharp contrast with another group of wojus people who are most definitely going about things the wrong way for all sorts of reasons. This is the very basis of the Jobstown trial. The Jobstown protesters were very naughty Bad Protesters. Burton and her assistant O'Connell's testimony is packed with statements along the lines of 'people have the right to protest, and I've no problem with that, but at Jobstown they went too far'. Sit-down protests are legitimate, but this one was totally different. Protesting is fine, but 'bad language' renders the protest unacceptable. People were just too angry, the atmosphere was bitter and tense, which surely can't be condoned.

Of course the Good Protester / Bad Protester narrative did not begin with Jobstown. It's one of the old favourites. Pick any progressive and challenging campaign and you're sure to find it in use, and not just in Ireland. We all had a pain in the neck from this throughout the anti-water charges struggle from the beginning. It reached comical proportions with the advent of the 'Sinister Fringe'. [2]

The Formula - Good Divided by Bad

Here is the formula. It generally hinges on a notion of 'peaceful protest', which we will examine in more detail later:

'While most people are reasonable and express their democratic right to protest in a peaceful way, a small group of people have crossed the line and far from protesting peacefully have acted disorderly, rudely, aggressively, unlawfully, even – Lord save us – violently. This shameful minority are to be condemned by all sensible-minded people, as you and I surely are. Their actions are not only illegitimate but threaten the very foundation of our free, democratic, and law-abiding society. If people want to make their voices heard they should write to their local TD or councilor, or participate in a demonstration holding a placard.'

We wrote about this in relation to the water charges way back in 2014:

'The issue which defined and dominated the program is captured in a framing question the RTE narrator posed at the beginning: 'Will it remain a broad based campaign, or will the hardline elements [the sinister fringe] come to the fore?' ... As the narrator noted about the December 10th rally, 'the vast majority ... were polite and engaged in legitimate protest. But a small concentrated group of people are targeting water meter installations, but they are a very small element, of what is for the most part a group of people genuinely frustrated at the charges, and the way the government and Irish Water have handled things' ... As if it weren't parodical enough already, the program aired Kevin McSherry, the Irish Water executive who leads the water installation program ... this regular working class hero added 'I can't understand why anyone would protest against the working man. If someone wants to protest then you're welcome to walk to the Dáil or walk on O'Connell street' ... Again the subtext here is that we should walk around with placards, but should not take direct action, especially not prevent the installation of meters.'

Here is one more excerpt, from a 2015 article:

'For anyone who wants to make a similar statement, here is a template:

THERE ARE A LARGE NUMBER OF <genuine/legitimate/orderly protesters> BUT THERE IS A <tiny minority/dark element/small, small band/sinister fringe> WHO ARE <intimidating meter installers/violent/attacking our democracy/dissidents/hard leftists/utopian/anarchy fantasists/thugs/bent on chaos/dole scroungers/loony left manipulators/taking it too far/tax evaders/terrorists/threatening law and order>.'

Playing Their Game - Respectability Politics

What, then, is the effect of this haranguing? Essentially the effect is the same as scolding a child for having bad dinner table manners. 'I wish you could be more like your brother and sister' the mainstream media and politicians preach to us, 'they're so well-behaved. Look, they licked the rat poison clean off the plate, and didn't let out a peep as they fell to the floor!'. So we try to be good chidren to appease the papers. However, we find that they won't be appeased. Not until what are doing can safely be stamped tame and ineffective. And what's the point then? Keeping the powerful and their press happy is a very, very long road, and at the end is an insufferably luke warm cup of weak tea with a quarter of a soggy biscuit disintegrating at the bottom, sitting in a grave where the tombstone reads 'We'll Beat Them At Their Own Game'. Unfortunately this is precisely the road many of us try to stride down, including those leading or at the forefront of campaigns – sadly the rest of us have to drink the rubbish tea too.

We try to fend off the criticisms of our newly appointed parents but are lead into a situation where those at the top of society set the agenda, the rules of engagement, the topic of discussion. Instead of talking about something important, such as the actual issue (heaven forfend), we are debating whether or not it is OK to curse at a protest or something equally trivial and distracting. From our point of view as people who want to make the world a better place, this is a tactical failure. Conceding ground to your opponents like this is not smart or 'playing their own game against them'. It's only playing their own game against them like 'Aha! We'll play the suicide bombers' game against them. Strap me up ...' Yes, but blowing ourselves up wasn't exactly the original goal. We have to set our own agenda and let the chips fall.

One very insidious fact about the Good Protester / Bad Protester narrative is that it isn't just wheeled out by those at the top. It soaks into all of our brains. It exploits and draws out any conservatism or spite knocking around our heads. Next thing you know your co-worker is moaning about how greedy the Bus Éireann workers are for striking and denouncing them for violating the sanctity of Convenience, rather than cheering them on for putting upward pressure on our class's wages and conditions. Or a friend who read the Irish Times will tell you that although Ireland's abortion laws are wrong, Strike4Repeal went too far by blocking O'Connell bridge.

Of course the Shell to Sea campaign in Erris, Co. Mayo, was a textbook example of Good versus Bad protesters. There residents and other campaigners worked long and hard to stop an experimental gas pipeline by which Royal Dutch Shell plc could basically extract billions of euro worth of natural gas without paying us anything. Their private security and the Garda - what's the difference really? - were extremely dirty in suppressing the resistance. Yet this resistance was condemned for all the standard reasons, layabouts without jobs, property destroying hooligans, violent thugs, being 'protest tourists' from abroad. Soon people who had listened to the radio and watched the news on TV were repeating the same soundbites, rather than questioning why a rural community were being put in danger by a murderous corporation so that they could steal our resources.

This whole business is known as 'respectability politics' - being overly preoccupied with appearing 'respectable' or 'sensible' to someone or other. Once you become aware of it you can see it everywhere. Pride parades become commercial and sterile in order to fit in. Women can't openly express their frustration at sexism.

This Jobstown fiasco particularly taps into middle class pearl-clutching sensibilities (and any wannabe member of the establishment). 'Those awful scumbags from Jobstown, they're rabid creatures, imagine if they sat in front of my Beemer! What's next? They haven't worked a day in their life, I can tell by their tracksuits. I'm discerning like that you know. These scroungers need to be taught a lesson.'

Making Our Own Rules - Be Effective

What should we do instead of compromising to appease our masters and having the same useless etiquette debates? The answer is very simple, we should do whatever we need to do to achieve what we want. It sounds idiotically straightforward but it's true. Being effective is the primary concern. We don't need the approval of the powerful, our own power as the risen people is enough. Compromise leads to compromise leads to compromise. There's no way to politely squeeze by the elite to freedom saying 'excuse me, pardon, sorry, excuse me'. As Martin Luther King Jr. said 'freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed', or as Malcolm X famously said 'by any means necessary'.

The limits of respectability politics are strict, and can be tightened at any time by whoever is using them. No cursing, no anger, no property destruction, no rowdiness, no self-defence, nothing shocking, nothing surprising, nothing illegal, nothing rude. It's practically a way to castigate any form of protest that isn't a funeral march. In the course of the water charges campaign much effort has been spent trying to prove that we are peaceful protesters. Apart from issues of publicity it's quite an irrelevant question. One person's peaceful is another person's disgraceful. 'Peaceful protest' is commonly used as a euphemism for the funeral march described above. We're supposed to be peaceful like a still lakeside rather than peaceful as in not harming someone. Or damaging some property is not considered 'peaceful', as if bits of metal, glass, or plastic, had feelings.

We live in a profoundly violent and unjust global society, rife with police brutality, climate disaster, constant threat of nuclear war, growing wealth inequality, repression of women and non-binary people, thousands of migrants drowning in the sea, and spreading fascism. Table manners are not a priority. It all has to be put in that perspective. If you're part of the elite and base everything on the assumption that nothing should or will change, then it makes sense to expect everyone else to toe the line like schoolchildren. But if you want to actually create a free world for ourselves and the coming generations, it does not. What makes sense is to work towards freedom 'by any means necessary'.

People in Ireland are fond of saying 'ah, the French know how to protest'. But we must ask ourselves, how do we ever expect to get to that level if we are worried about being good little protesters? Do Good, 'peaceful', protesters flip cars upside down, light fires in the street, and throw rocks and petrol bombs at riot police? Of course not. We have to come to terms with the fact that there will always be some establishment hack shouting at us for misbehaving.

Infamously the Irish Independent published a picture of a protester at Jobstown throwing a brick [3], which then bounced off the back of a garda car like an apple. Many incorrectly declared that the photo was false. Paul Murphy TD publicly condemned the brick throwing, endorsing this division between Good Protesters and Bad Protesters. While he should be commended for participating in the sit-down protest, his condemnation should be condemned. This is what respectability politics leads to, selling others with lower respectability rank down the river. It's not because Paul Murphy is an awful person, he's not. It's because he's a politician competing for votes within an electoral system. Politicians have to be respectable to be elected, even the unrespectable leftist ones.

You don't have to agree that throwing a brick was the best thing to do in the moment, but you do have to refrain from throwing that person under the bus in order to look reasonable to the uptight media and so-called 'middle Ireland'. Frankly it's being a rat. That's an issue for us to discuss amongst ourselves, internally, in private, as friends and comrades.

Why should the person who threw the brick be condemned? Do we know their story? What kind of frustrations were they carrying? What kind of memories did seeing the gardaí swarming the estate bring back? Surely we don't expect people marginalised and exploited by an unfair system to be without bitterness or rage. That would be inhuman. Grossly unrealistic. Frankly the gardaí should be lucky they aren't buried under brick walls whenever they enter Jobstown, or any other neighbourhood left to rot. After all the gardaí as enforcers of the law get paid to keep things the same, that is to keep the children of Jobstown hungry, bored, and away from education. What if the Jobstown protest turned into a riot, should we have condemned it then for 'overstepping' the boundaries? Well if we were actually on the side of the working class, rather than on the side of our masters, we would support them. Again, as Martin Luther King said 'riot is the language of the unheard'. However, it's worth noting that Jobstown was far from a riot.

This gets to the crux of the matter. Respectability politics is about keeping a lid on oppressed people. Because if oppressed people, if the working class, women, queers, migrants, people of colour, the disabled, one day decided to say 'I can't take this anymore. Fuck this absolute bollox' the system would be torn down in a righteous fury. And make no mistake, those at the top know this. However, even now some people will be thinking 'oh, you shouldn't have said 'fuck' or 'bollox''.

We should set ambitious aims and resolutely work towards achieving them, without fear of ruffling feathers.  Be the 'sinister fringe', or 'thugs', or werewolf assassins. Right and wrong are paramount, and you can never please them all anyway. This doesn't mean we can't be tactful, but conceding to the elite at the first turn is not tact. The sooner we throw off the shackles of respectability, the sooner we throw off the shackles of oppression and exploitation. A free world of solidarity and hope will be rude, shocking, and highly illegal.


[1] To briefly give context for international readers, in 2014 the deputy prime minister of the Republic of Ireland and Labour Party leader Joan Burton visited an award ceremony in a community centre in Jobstown for a photo opportunity. Jobstown is a working class and largely poor area. Labour and Fine Gael had been imposing harsh austerity and especially ramming the hated water charges, a water privatisation plan met by widespread direct action, down our throats.

Historically Jobstown would have mostly voted for Labour, so the sense of betrayal was even more intense. When residents heard Burton was coming, they organised a protest. They sat down in front of her BMW and eventually slow-marched her out of the area, delaying her for 2 hours. Later two dozen people involved were arrested by gardaí at the crack of dawn. A 17-year-old – who was 15 at the time of the protest - was convicted of false imprisonment. As of time of publication, adult protesters are on trial, with 7 facing charges of false imprisonment and many more facing other charges.

[2] Fine Gael TD and then Minister for Health Leo Varadkar infamously warned of a 'sinister fringe' which was taking protest to extremes, and so on. The overwhelmingly reaction was that of people falling off their chairs laughing en masse, with some turning up to protests with comic wigs representing the sinister fringe.

[3] WSM Statement on the Jobstown Brick, Nov '14