The Press Club Protest Genre

June 18, 2011 § 3 Comments

I don’t know how I feel about Press Club Protest.  At some level it affirms the state’s pretense of freedom of speech, assembly and our other constitutional guarantees at one sacred spot only. I, myself, have sat in police offices telling officials about what the roads our procession will follow onwards to the Club. But of late, I have stopped going. I didn’t go for the protest for Sarfaraz, the boy killed by Rangers last week at the Benazir Park in Karachi, because I was tired of seeing the same 17 people. And obviously the real struggles are happening outside KESC buildings, the real battles are in communities and streets. When you have power outage for weeks, its the neighborhood that comes out; when a pipe needs fixing, its the people directly affected that come out, and not outside the PC, but outside a municipal office.

But Press Club for me, Karachi, Lahore, or Sukkur, and specially the Press Club Protest is a Place Holder. Its not politically smart to abandon any space completely even if the space has gradually diminished in its capacity to challenge the status quo, and has become impotent — the protest cloning itself week after week. I would rather that the world continue this protest for three interconnected reasons.

1) For the novice or the unattached it a venue for politicization and solidarity meet-up, for birth and growth, a place where you expect to see and connect with the happy and the conflicted, rebellious faces; and its better than sitting in inaction and rot. For newbies, its also a “safe” starting point, and to (oh) the places they will go.

2) If a press club protest suddenly attracts many more people, then it could be amazing. And at some level, its about the people, not the place; there could be a clamp down and a suspension of fundamental freedoms quite promptly (and brutally) if one day some 2,500 uninvited Pashtuns showed up from Landhi to protest drones.

3) When the revolution comes, its going to be an easy place for many activists to show up with or without a text message, especially the ones who are not linked to a union or a community based group, and are floating through NGOs and organizations, or simply reading at home, the students, and the youth. Read text: “We are taking on the (ISI) goons. 1 Million expected.” But where? Kashmir Road Sports Complex, Peoples Stadium, KU campus. Press Club is intuitive, kind of like a catch all space for the old and young who are opposed to something. The only real alternative I can think of is Mai Kolachi.

The Caveat: What needs to be acknowledged, however, is that radical groups totally need to revamp their mode of press club protest utilization. For lack of creativity and discipline, we see the same: procession, burning of effigies, photos, chants (although these improve time to time), hunger strikes, followed by chai, if the activists have time, which they usually don’t. It is good to let off steam, but like ANSWER rallies in the United States, if it becomes the sole purpose of your protest, then its bad. Then letting of steam is letting go of momentum. Plus, you must have roots in the relevant communities, and build campaigns rather than come out in orphan protests that are not backed by on the ground action. Campaigns followed by a PC protest (as a tactic) would be an opportunity to do the requisite publicity and meet up. But I wanted to say, in this moment, lets not completely give up Press Club, but reinvent it. Bring the cool back into it. Make it bigger, hipper, dangerous-er.

And here are two moments in time that I thought the press club protest was quite nice.

I wrote this on September 10, 2010: AND

And then earlier, A CASE OF EXPLODING RED FLAGS, on Saturday, November 8, 2008 at 11:59pm:

If it were possible to romanticize one rally, it would be this one. There was a current in the air. The shot from the van caught a sea of red flags. These belonged to the labor party. Our 120 brown, red and back signs were conspicuous in their condemnation of the bombing up north. One that Sherbaz made awkwardly read “Stop Killing Small kids.” Sorry, Sherbaz, but my Urdu can be as expressive as your English. Husna made an enthusiastic show of hers – Pashtuns are not Taliban. Pashtun students fought to be photographed, and demanded I get them the pictures. They are on Flicker, guys, and we’ve have had a number of views.

There were moments of nerve racking tension. The jeep we had hired began to move. The driver made a unilateral decision to start the march. And as if by magic people began to race after it. Ushering a march is a strange job; no one really listens to you and with a glassy inevitability in their eyes, they charge toward you with signs. I stupidly gave my information to a man dressed in white who was probably an intelligence guy. It was already too late when a PR friend alerted me saying he is not a reporter. A very spirited chanting ensued. Hum Mulk Bachanay Niklein Hain, Aao Hamaray Saath Chalo. I know, it’s a little pompous and delusional to think a baby rally can save the country.

But in Pakistan where drawing room cynicism is high, such statements uncannily come across as sincere and compassionate. Things are bad out here. People’s wages are the same; yet the cost of living is out of control. Urdu press will regularly report of parents selling their children for a few thousand rupees. Rising prices are numbers for us but a matter of starvation for many. Hence, our message of protest resonated with many. A call to halt the massacre of civilians in the Northwest sounded a whole lot like a call for economic justice (roti kapra chath) for the urban poor. We did not get the usual snickers – the typical look of amusement in the eyes of people watching a co-ed tamasha in overwhelmingly male public spaces. People related. People were dead serious. People filled balconies and murmured ‘mashallah.’

Everyone is sensing the pinch. After the lawyers redefined the genre of protest through a 19 month mobilization, the common people are no longer cynical about the show of street power. I may have imagined it but there was even a nod of appreciation for women’s participation. Perhaps, it was just me coming full circle in my own skin in a place that appears close to home, and a place that had better tolerance.

For a believer like me, it was a silly and sentimental moment when I spotted a masjid minaret and a church steeple in the background of a shot of a protest brimming with left wingers and socialists.

On the gender thing though. In saddar, especially, there is such overwhelming presence of men, and a scattering of women, like salt on an immense salad. And they are busy rushing, playing invisible, and hiding curves, follicles, and mouths. However, I do not think people want this kind of gender apartheid. They want a more mixed society and inter-sex interaction, and softness. Yet when it comes to being down with freedom for your own family’s women – you don’t see even the activists encourage them to come out. The rally ended at the historic press club. People made speeches. We dispersed. I dealt with emotional outbursts – my own included. Earlier that day, I got into an argument with a Karachi multi millionaire; he’s a liberal and a philanthropist with bubbling patriotism. Ideologically he is not on the same wavelength. He doesn’t think we have condemned the Taliban loud enough. We have. But we’ve been clear that there are more people dying and being displaced due to the bombing by Pakistan, Nato, and the US than by the Taliban terror. However, we can not deny that the Taliban are a fascist force. He said he does not trust people with foreign passports to speak for the welfare of Pakistan. And I do not trust Pakistanis who own multiple properties, to speak for the welfare of Pakistan


§ 3 Responses to The Press Club Protest Genre

  • Sahar says:

    Lovely post, and such a great thinking-through of the KPC protest genre. Leftists cannot abandon that space, if simply because there are no other real public spaces that are frankly safe for us. The fundies and MQM turn out lakhs and can go wherever they want. Other public spaces have become thoroughly commercialized and increasingly privatized. This is not to glorify KPC at all but to recognize the reality of activism in Karachi.

  • adanerusmani says:

    Look, this is being overthought. The point being made was that KPC can only be a means to an end, but that groups in Khi are using the “4pm @ KPC + blast press releases” as an end in itself–it is the sum total of their activity. This is only a property of their weakness, of course; it doesn’t explain their weakness, which is a consequence of more foundational flaws.

    It goes without saying that KPC protests can be important, if they’re part of a well-thought out strategy to build a real organizational infrastructure. But the vast, vast majority of the KPC protests that I have attended do not qualify. They are (a) reactive and (b) done for the camera’s consumption.

    To be explicit, the additional point was that KPC protests don’t require protesters to bear any costs, because authorities/targets by and large don’t care about them. Sure, it’s true that even anodyne, ‘cost-less’ protests have a place in a well-thought out political strategy. But the real objective of any meaningful movement (even those that are campaign-based, reformist, temporary in nature) should be to exert costs on those from whom its demanding reform. Most KPC protests simply do not do that. That is why KESC workers moved to the KESC head office

    Protests that inflict costs will be several times more important to a Left future than KPC naray-baazi. The point of the post was to note that people in Pakistan have these kinds of protests regularly enough (which is proof positive that it’s just not true that there are no other ‘safe’ spaces). If the Left were in a more healthy place, it would be leading the charge.

    Anyway, enough armchair babbling.

  • ercai says:

    It goes without saying that KPC protests can be important, if they’re part of a well-thought out strategy to build a real organizational infrastructure. But the vast, vast majority of the KPC protests that I have attended do not qualify. They are (a) reactive and (b) done for the camera’s consumption.

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