Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Rough Music as Political Protest

I've been following the ongoing student strike in Quebec with interest. Partly, of course, I'm interested in attempts to impose punitive fee increases on students and the reactions to such moves, as these affect everyone in and around education. Alongside that general political interest I've also been watching with a folklorist's eye.

The situation in Quebec, briefly, is this: the regional Liberal government, as part of its austerity measures, is moving to raise tuition fees by 82 per cent over the next seven years. There was an immediate response from students, and over the last four months their strike has gained ground. In order to control the growing anger the government introduced Law 78. This draconian measure has effectively criminalised the student strike. It also severely curtails the right to protest more generally, making all protests subject to police approval. Since the introduction of Law 78 on 18 May some 1,500 people (including a Québec Solidaire member of the regional parliament) have been arrested for protesting, and homes have been raided.

Around 100,000 people demonstrated when Law 78 was introduced, and protests against it continue. These protests have reverted to a traditional folkloric expression of anger and disapproval. The 'casserole' protests that began last month have a long history, which has probably contributed to an enthusiastic and broad response for them far beyond the initial limited call on social media sites.

It was proposed that protesters demonstrate their anger against Law 78 by beating pots and pans. This has taken off. The nightly protests in Montreal have escalated, and similar demonstrations are now taking place elsewhere across Quebec and Canada more generally.

This is, of course, Rough Music. Night-time demonstrations involving the beating of pans are well known across Europe. They tend to be community expressions of outrage at breaches of moral or social codes, often working within the limits of the existing establishment of social order. In England Rough Music is best known as expressions of criticism of sexual misconduct - adultery, most frequently - but an element of political protest has also been recognised (1). This article on the casserole protests identifies the recognition of social disruption, although it does not note the traditional form of protest being invoked.

As a folklorist it does not seem surprising that political protests against the impact of the economic crisis are taking such traditional forms. The spread of this resurgent Rough Music is quite wide, and can probably be attributed to the disturbance of social life caused by the financial crisis. There have been plenty of demonstrations in Spain over the recent period, for example, but the pan-banging's been a particular feature of the protests against the latest bank bailouts. (The Metro had a good picture). It will be interesting to follow the forms of protest used as well as the political events to which they are responding.

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1: 'Rough Music', in E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (London: Merlin, 1991), pp. 467-538

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