I'm sat watching coverage of the riots currently taking place in Paris, and musing on the violent theatricality of the movement. My recently completed Masters Dissertation investigated, in part, protest and riot - therefore what is happening right now is relevant to my interests (especially since the city centre of Paris was designed, ostensibly, to discourage protest, and I argue that the usurpation of space is intrinsic to its existence)
This is NOT my Dissertation verbatim - it is a splicing: reworking and rewording several sections into a smaller whole.

Protest may appear to reclaim or usurp the intention of the space, but ‘it is one of the great paradoxes that the state is beholden to ensure that it sustains the public spheres that criticize it.’[1] Open public spaces appear to invite freedom of assembly and thus freedom to protest, however bodies are manipulated, even in the appearance of this freedom, and ‘a ruling elite sanctions ineffectual protest’[2] in an attempt to limit the efficaciousness of any opposition. Thus, protest is actually actively encouraged: as with the catharsis of carnival, protest syphons energy, focusses anger, and allows participants to feel that they are free to engage with the political process, when, in fact, this freedom has been authorised and therefore absorbed.

Democratic societies must permit peaceful protest, and official protests must seek ‘permission for the temporary suspension of the usual order’[3] from the authorities who own and control this ‘apparently apolitical’ space[4].  Authorised outlets and channels allow people and energies to be manipulated which results in ‘a society where protest is sanctioned and absorbed’[5]. This ‘defanging of protest’,[6] when protest takes place within specific spaces, limits its exposure and impact, leading to a less efficacious protest which may simply reinforce the hegemony of mainstream authorities. If permission needs to be sought, then permission can be withheld, and protest becomes nothing more than a diversionary tactic. When the underlying structure has been predetermined by those against whom the protest may be directed, then I question whether protests can be considered democratic or functional at all.

Protest in Trafalgar Square
Originally posted here

Cities need clearly delineated spaces for protest in order to allow citizens a way to express political dissatisfaction or engagement, as ‘when institutional channels do not exist for antagonisms to be expressed in an agonistic way, they are likely to explode in violence’.[7] So, I suggest that authorities consciously create and curate city spaces with the foreknowledge that public sites will be appropriated for the purposes of protest. Cities with broad, open streets, accommodate large numbers of people easily and lead to spaces of national importance and sites of civic power. These are designed to display national supremacy and pride, and provide an imposing, magnificent backdrop to exhibitions of official power. These streets also provide protest routes to important public and political places, and the iconic landmarks also provide striking images which serve as visual cues for worldwide media dissemination, appearing to lend a protest legitimacy through alignment with symbols of civic power and identity.
Limitations imposed on what authorities consider constitutes a legitimate protest intrinsically provide the potential for greater disruption and intervention within its own definition: I would suggest that the only forms of demonstration which are truly ‘not contained by the law but beyond the law’[8], are spontaneous protests and riots. Potentially, then, riot is the more politically effective form of democratic intrusion as it forces authorities to confront, rather than absorb, the performances of dissatisfaction.

Images coming through from Paris as I write...
Image Source:

Protest shares with carnival the idealistic notion that the future contains the potential for the socio-political situation to be different; better, in the sense that the term is relative to individual participants. However, riot occurs when this utopianism or ideal outcome is not present, as when ‘people are robbed of a sense that they have a dignified future awaiting them, they will take to the streets in collective rage.’[9]

Nadine Holdsworth compares riots to the ‘visceral level of the scream’, which ‘emerge at times of acute socio-political tension to cause often extensive personal, social and material damage.’[10] Riots, as opposed to the endorsed protest, take place without permission, in unsanctioned time and space. The outcomes of riot, as noted, often include property damage which is used by official channels to discredit riot actions: however, the concrete, physical change produced stands in opposition to the passage of protest marches, which often leave very little trace, materially or politically, of their presence.

While the socio-political intervention of riot may be discredited by the mainstream, it is undeniable that these actions usually result in much more attention than conventional, sanctioned protest.

[2] Michael Billington, State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945 (London: Faber and Faber, 2007) p.157.
[3] Richard Schechner, Performance Theory (New York: Routledge, 2003) p.283.
[4] Lauran Berlant and Elizabeth Freeman, ‘Queer Nationality’, in Jan Cohen Cruz, ed. Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology (London: Routledge, 1998) p.136.
[5] Billington, ‘State of the Nation’, p.213.
[6] Lara Shalson, Theatre & Protest (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p.25.
[7] Balme, ‘The Theatrical Public Sphere’, p.159.
[8] Baz Kershaw, ‘Fighting in the Streets: Dramaturgies of Popular Protest, 1968-1989’, New Theatre Quarterly, 13.51 (Cambridge University Press, 1997) pp.255-76 <> [accessed 22 January 2018] p.263.


  1. Really got a useful blog to read today,keep posting more like this.
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