No, we cannot foretell the fates of Egyptian, Tunisian, Iranian, and Yemenite people and their governments. But we do know that the mass demonstrations in these countries mark a monumental shift in the histories of their nations. In my mind, there is little doubt that, ultimately, things will get better- even if they initially get worse.
This is so because when people peacefully band together to achieve positive change, that change will eventually arrive. The power of the collective, united human spirit to guide its destiny toward greater equality, democracy, and justice can be temporarily impeded, but it cannot be forever beaten.
But what do demonstrations in oppressive regimes where public gatherings are usually met with the fatal force of the military or police have to do with us in Canada? Plenty. These events teach the skeptics among us two things: first, protests do change the course of history; second, we must resolutely defend our right to protest peacefully.
Recall just a few months ago when critics derided Toronto’s G20 protestors for trying to effect change through demonstrations. “Protests achieve nothing,” they jeered. “If you go out and protest, then you’ve got to accept the risk that the police may beat you or arrest you, so quit complaining.” These detractors had no sympathy for the cause or the fate of the protestors.
Even once image after image, account after account, revealed shocking police abuse of power during the G20, these critics seemed to regard the incidents as excusable exceptions. The entire country should have been on the verge of revolt, so to speak, at least to denounce the actions of the police and the complacency of our government. Yet none of that happened. The apathetic sentiment continued, “Why bother protesting?” “Protests may be a necessary ‘evil’ in dictatorships or in countries where people have no other means of participating in government, but they are a waste of time and unworthy of protection in Canada.”
In other words, while oppressed people are justified in demonstrating against state tyranny, people living in democracies should not indulge in such vulgarities. Or, if they do protest, they should accept a little police brutality.
These conclusions run counter to our democratic principles.
The right of individuals and groups to voice their opinions directly, openly, and through the most basic method of participation in demonstrations is a fundamental element of democracy, is essential for its survival and instrumental to both attaining and promoting it.
Without people’s desire to participate, democracy is rendered meaningless.
Demonstrations are particularly important in capitalist democracies because they give voice to disenfranchised members of society, allowing them to partake in democracy alongside the more powerful in a manner that is more accessible than making submissions to Parliament or writing policy papers. No other form of democratic participation offers this crucial benefit.
Demonstrations give people a sense of belonging and solidarity, which helps to strengthen their resolve and determination to make change.
When properly conducted and properly reported in the media, demonstrations grant visibility and exposure to issues that are otherwise ignored.
Specifically, the annual demonstrations during the G8/G20 summits send a message to leaders about the priorities of large segments of society: focus on the environment; don’t abandon the poor; reinforce Aboriginal rights; stop corporations from committing or enabling human rights violations in other countries which we would not tolerate in our own democracies.
If Canadians and Americans, or, for that matter, Egyptians and Iranians avoid protests for fear of being arrested, assaulted, detained and threatened by the state, or for the pessimistic view that nothing will change, then, indeed, nothing will change. Democracy will never be attained nor, once attained, will it survive without people’s ability and desire to participate directly in their own governance.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There is more power in socially organized masses on the march than there is in guns in the hands of a few desperate men.” That conviction holds as true now as it did sixty years ago.
Of course, it is perhaps for all these same reasons that so many people, the police, and the state often fear and attempt to curtail demonstrations.
It is, therefore, never more important to protect our democratic rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom from unlawful and abusive police (state) interference with our rights than when people voice dissent and try to participate, peacefully, in democracy. To punish them for their participation is an attack against democracy. If we reserve demonstrations only for dictatorships, we in the free world will surely lose our own liberty.
Every Canadian must defend and value our right to protest peacefully. We owe it to our fellow human beings in the Middle East. And our democracy depends on it.
(To see a short list of demonstrations that changed history…or at least, gave it a helping hand, click here: http://justicerequiresempathy.wordpress.com/?p=140&preview=true)