Some observers have cast doubt on the sincerity of “students” whose demonstrations in the past few months culminated in an assault on Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. “Were they an unruly rent-a-mob, hell-bent on violence,” asked the Mail on Sunday‘s Tom Harper, “or well-meaning students caught up in the dizzying excitement of civil disobedience?”
The answer to this question is less important than one might think. Protesting has changed in the half century since Michael Wharton, who wrote the Daily Telegraph‘s Peter Simple column, invented the organisation Rentacrowd to mock those who riot for rioting’s sake. Sincerity is no longer a requirement, as the tens of thousands at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear in Washington showed. Protesters made snarky comments about their own participation, with signs reading “I hate crowds” and “I hate rallies.”
Wharton’s satirical creation is more fully realised in DC’s small-scale protests. Groups of hired protesters can be seen walking picket lines on most days in downtown Washington. Recruits are often homeless, long-term unemployed or recently retired, and have no particular interest in the cause. For $8 an hour, they offer a one-size-fits-all service, drumming on upturned plastic buckets, and chanting “Low Pay! Go Away!” Their placards are reusable too: the name of the offending corporation is simply tacked on over the old one.
Rentamob operations are, however, getting slicker. One protest outsourcing company offers tailor-made demonstrations, staffed by an experienced team. They understand the importance of an online presence, and will publicise the event with videos and photos of the day. And they have cleaned up their own image, posing as a champion of the underdog, which “exists specifically to give a voice to those groups that cannot protest directly.”
The most intriguing thing about this new enterprise is their promise to campaign with “all the enthusiasm and vigor that our client would”. Sincerity may be back on the agenda — but at a price. As Peter Simple would say: “What a boost for the crowd-supplying industry!”