Protest in the Digital Age

10/06/2016 16:47 | Updated 13 June 2016

Today you can protest as you sip your latte. A Facebook friend may have forwarded you a petition about something they feel strongly about. Whatever the issue - from saving the Himalayan snow leopard to taxing Top Shop - you enter your name, adding a short comment, if you can spare the time. My preference is to only sign those that emphasise a 'result' - i.e. if 'we get 30,000 signatures David Cameron has to resign'.

But are these digital 'protests' becoming an alternative to leaving the coffee on the hob, putting your boots on and getting out in the streets?

My book, Left Field: the Memoir of a Lifelong Activist, is an account of a life spent with my boots on. I first protested as a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the 1960s, then at factory gates in the 70s, miners' pit villages in the 80s, at anti-war demonstrations in the 90s and more recently at Occupy gatherings and UK Uncut rallies.

Were we successful? In retrospect the protests against the Vietnam war in the 1970s did bring that terrible war to an end. Watergate brought President Nixon down, but popular opposition to the war and near-insurrection in the US armed forces brought the troops home and closed the B52 bomb bays. Ten years ago the Stop the War Coalition failed to stop the UK's participation in the war and occupation in Iraq. But perhaps we stopped future wars and perhaps Tony Blair today faces calls to move to the Hague because of our actions on the street.

Sometimes we forget the effect popular demonstrations have on those we are called on to support. Haifa Zangana, who will be with me at The Southbank Centre to take part in a discussion about protesting in the digital age, will tell you that the Iraqi people were well aware of the international solidarity launched in their name and took comfort in the knowledge that people as far away as London and Perth, were aware of their suffering and that another world was possible. There are also effective protests on issues closer to home. The riots that stopped the poll tax and the junior doctors picket lines at each end of the last 25 years for example.

In any case, and in answer to what effect protests have, perhaps we should take account of Zhou Enlai's words when asked what had been the results of the French Revolution: "Perhaps" he answered, "it's too early to tell".

So what do I think of digital media as a part of political action? I use the internet as a resource for news and as a means to protest. The information I draw on is no longer taken from newsprint but from Facebook 'Friends' and radical websites, some of which I have written for.

If you want to know what's going on in the world, check out the US site and here in the UK, and my personal favourite, CounterPunch was founded by Alexander Cockburn, son of Claud Cockburn, who famously said, "Believe nothing until it has been officially denied." Claud reported for the Morning Star during the Spanish Civil War and I have no doubt he would have joined his son as a website reporter had he been alive today.

After recently visiting the Calais 'jungle' refugee camp, I wrote an article about the absence of NGOs there. The ​mainstream press wouldn't publish it, but it was enthusiastically received by Counterpunch. (You can read it here.) Because of internet communicators like them, I continue to be an optimist. I think the digital 'revolution' contributes to that. Despite the internet having been invented for military purposes, it has handed control of information toward the people. I use the word 'toward' and not 'to' because this is an unfinished process. The internet is a democratic means of alerting us to many of the issues we need to confront, but it is an addition to and not an alternative to direct action.

My presence on this web page is the result of online promotion. Left Field was crowd-funded by friends and strangers who became aware of the manuscript through the internet. Published by Unbound and now distributed by Penguin Books, it is not only a narrative about my life, but also a call to action to the younger generation.

So keep those boots by the front door and build up a network of Facebook friends who have their minds and hearts set on a better future. Don't forget Twitter and Instagram. Add your fingers to those already clicking across the world as we prepare to meet in the streets.

I will be taking part in a discussion entitled 100,000 Signatures: Protest in the Digital Age on Saturday 2 July at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of Southbank Centre's Power of Power festival.