It can often be hard to see the value in public protests. A few hundred, or perhaps thousand, people walk through the streets, singing and chanting. Traffic is shut down for a couple of hours, and at the end of the day one gets the sense that nothing has been accomplished.
But recent events in Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Jordan have proven otherwise. The fact that the people of two of these countries have peacefully toppled their own dictatorial governments indicates that something tangible and specific is in fact accomplished each time we choose to make a statement by putting our bodies in the streets.
Staging these demonstrations is an important way of catalyzing discourse on issues our governments would rather we forgot about. By occupying public spaces, we can force negotiation upon those who would rather ignore our grievances.
The past ten days in Montreal have seen their own share of demonstrations. On March 12, an estimated 55,000 people marched in protest of tuition hikes and the spending cuts included in the coming year’s provincial budget. On Tuesday, hundreds again took to the streets demanding an end to police brutality.
In recent weeks, students in Liverpool, Milwaukee, and Berkeley have occupied buildings on their campuses, demanding an end to post-secondary education cuts. In all of these cases, demonstrators have succeeded to some extent in having their demands met, and in gaining the support of legislators and faculty members.
Our very right to make our voices heard is also under threat as police increasingly use mass arrests as an anti-protest tactic. At last Tuesday’s demonstration, 258 people were arrested, most of them simply for being present at the anti-police brutality march. The vast majority of these people were entirely peaceful, and only about a dozen have been fined for disturbing the peace.
Last summer’s G20 in Toronto marked another disgraceful abuse of state power. As a small group of demonstrators burned a couple of police cars and smashed a few windows, the Globe and Mail claimed that protesters’ intentions were to “whip up such a street war that the news of the violence would overwhelm the substance of the summit.”
What some of the more extreme protesters were guilty of that weekend was not in fact violence, but rather vandalism. Falling directly into the discourse espoused by the Toronto Police, much of the mainstream media failed to make any distinction between protesters’ aggression against private property and police aggression against human bodies.
The problem is not only that property was being treated like people that weekend, but also that people were being treated like property. The Globe’s is the type of rhetoric that enabled the police at the G20 to forcefully strip search dozens of people, rip off a man’s prosthetic leg before dragging him along the ground and detaining him, and beat dozens of innocent protestors and bystanders with impunity. Of the 1,100 people detained that weekend, only a minute fraction were ever charged with anything. Nevertheless, they were forced into cramped and unsanitary conditions, and given little to eat or drink. Women were threatened with rape. Many were denied access to medical treatment, and virtually all were denied access to legal counsel.
If Canada’s government expects its rather tepid endorsement of the Egyptian revolution to be taken seriously, it owes its citizens a serious apology for what it perpetrated at the G20 last summer. The mass arrest of protestors in Montreal is equally unacceptable. Our right to take a political stand by putting our bodies in public spaces is inalienable and a pillar of any healthy democracy.