Books: Playing peek-a-boo on the picket lines

Written By: Paul Routledge
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 26, 2017

Space Invaders: Radical Geographies of Protest
by Paul Routledge
Pluto £17

Oh, no, not another one, I can’t stand it!” So said poll-surfeited Brenda the Bristol voter when told of Theresa May’s snap election back in June. Something of that feeling arises when I pick up this book. Not another writer of the same – quite unusual – name! And another bloody Leftie. Even more lefty. A doppelganger in academia, and less than 30 miles down the road. What are the chances of that?

Fortunately, there the resemblances end. This Paul Routledge is the Professor of Contentious Politics and Social Change at the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. With a title like that, it’s only right that he knows more long words than me, and has a much greater predisposition to use them. In superabundance.

The thesis of this short (149 pages of text) book is that there is a “geographical logic” to all forms of protest, whether through transforming landscapes, occupying enemy territory, or developing solidarity and communication networks. He reaches this conclusion after 30 years experience of working with protests in Europe, Asia and Latin America, taking an auto-ethnographic perspective to the work.

But best of all in Glasgow, where he was active in the Pollok Free State, an encampment set up to protest against the M77 motorway in the mid-1990s. It waged a war of words against transport planning policy, and issued its own passports, built Carhenge – nine cars buried in a circle in the surface of the projected route – and sent out Pixie Patrols to physically disable bulldozers. Sounds like fun. The M77 went through, but fifty trees were saved.

Pollok was “a site of potential.” There are great many more: sites of circulation, sites of destruction, of decision, of production, of consumption, of collaboration, and of intervention. And probably others. There is a site for everything in this primer of protest. Plus a great many lists, though it’s a bit light on humour.

Routledge was also present at the protest aagainst the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005, a “classic site of decision”, no less, where rebel clowns and activists from the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (I’m not making this up) got together to create some alter-globalisation. Rebel clowning utilises the emotive power of transformative play (such as humour, satire, mimicry, wordplay and surprise to communicate messages of opposition.

Faced with a row of police officers bristling with latent aggression, and accompanied by Captain Outrageous, he writes: “I went over to the wall and started playing peek-a-boo with the police. The rest of Glasgow Kiss joined in,” and pretty soon some of the officers began to smirk. A female cop who broke out laughing had to be replaced by the commanding
officer. A result! He doesn’t mention that under pressure from Gordon Brown, the G8 wrote off debts owed to the World Bank and the IMF by eighteen of the world’s poorest countries.

There are some useful insights in this book, but they are lost in a welter of gobbledegook – a site of amphigory, perhaps. When I think of the real, horrific space invaders I have seen, like the mass pickets of the miners’ strike, or the pitched battles at Wapping, or even the recent protests by junior doctors in the freezing cold outside hospitals, this exercise in peek-a-boo politics rings as self-indugent and irrelevant.

About Paul Routledge

Paul Routledge is a political commentator for the Daily Mirror