Why George Floyd’s violent death has moved young Irish people

Issues around race and social justice are increasingly important in Ireland too

Work on a Falls Road mural of George Floyd who was murdered by police in Minneapolis. Protests took place across the world, including in Belfast and Dublin. Photograph: Pacemaker Press

Work on a Falls Road mural of George Floyd who was murdered by police in Minneapolis. Protests took place across the world, including in Belfast and Dublin. Photograph: Pacemaker Press

 

This week’s protest march in Dublin against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was notable for a number of reasons. For starters it was the most blatant breach of the regulations prohibiting mass gatherings since those regulations were introduced almost three months ago. It’s misguided of supporters of the protest to attempt to elide that fact, or to argue that the importance of the issue outweighed the potentially disastrous outcome of the action.

To be fair, it seems some of those involved in promoting the event subsequently realised this, and have taken steps to self-isolate themselves while cancelling further marches.

It does look as though everyone involved was honestly shocked by the number of people who turned up on Monday for what was one of the bigger demonstrations the city has seen since the heyday of the water protests. Sorcha Pollak’s report for The Irish Times described a crowd mostly aged between 16 and 30, carrying handmade placards decrying racism in Ireland as well as the US (with direct provision the touchstone local issue).

Conor Lally subsequently reported that a number of people “who took on supervisory or organiser roles at the protest in the city centre and Dublin 4 were spoken to by gardaí on duty and had their names and contact details taken”. Investigations and possibly prosecutions may follow.

Emotional impact

Is it fair, though, to describe these individuals, no matter how co-operative they were, as “organisers”? It might be more accurate to take a word more associated with the fluffier corners of social media and call them “influencers”. Because the impetus for Monday’s event didn’t come from traditional organisations or from legacy media, but via Instagram, WhatsApp and TikTok.

That’s where young Irish people were watching the news from the streets of US cities, along with personal testimonies of racism experienced by people of colour both in America and here in Ireland. The emotional impact of these mostly shortform viral videos cut through in a way that most of the traditional news agenda never can.

In her 2017 book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci describes the new forms of direct political action which have emerged over the last decade via social networks. Contrary to easy cliches about keyboard warriors and virtue signallers, she argues that meaningful new forms of political mobilisation are occurring. Their strengths are speed and scaleability: it used to take weeks or months to achieve protests as big as the ones that popped up in cities across the world, including Dublin, last week. Now it can just be a matter of hours.

But that astonishing ability to scale carries its own weakness. Tufekci argues that networked movements can now grow dramatically and rapidly, “but without prior building of formal or informal organisational and other collective capacities that could prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will face and give them the ability to respond to what comes next”.

That leads to what she calls “tactical freeze”– the inability make movement-wide decisions and survive over the long haul, as happened with the stagnation and decline of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Propaganda and surveillance

Tufekci identifies the different ways in which protest movements can exploit the advantages that new communications technology offers, and also how governments, particularly authoritarian ones, fight back by tactics such as flooding social media channels with propaganda and using surveillance to track down dissidents.

When some ask why thousands of young Irish people would break the law to protest about a single act of police brutality that happened several thousand miles away, they miss the point about the way in which social media sometimes collapses geographical distance and can make faraway stories intensely personal and immediate on a mass scale.

But they also fail to recognise that cultural and political issues around race and social justice which this case crystallises are increasingly important in Ireland too.

There’s one other highly significant element in the current protests which isn’t particularly new at all. African-American culture – music in particular – rooted in black pride and resistance to racist oppression has an extraordinary resonance across the world.

It’s been relentlessly commodified and sanitised to form the bedrock of much of contemporary global pop culture, but its remarkable cycles of innovation have soundtracked the lives of successive generations of young adults and continue to do so. And it provides an inspiration for people of colour here and in other countries to articulate their own experiences.

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