The power of protest – revisited.


“….If you were here with me now you would see that all of our struggles have meaning and are relevant not only to our world, but to the sound and humane progress of our planet. This country… is the future of a violent and sociopathic history. It would be foolish to think that somehow we could escape this except through struggle…. All we have done in our lives is acted on what we love, and when we go out in the world, the need for immediacy is obvious.”

Letter to an ex-lover and activist companero in prison, written in Colombia July 2006

I have been an activist since from the age of thirteen years when my friend Miranda and I stumbled across the annual peace demonstration in front of the parliament buildings of Victoria. Back in those days, these were big affairs – a couple thousand people in Victoria, tens of thousands in Vancouver – focused on nuclear disarmament and an end to the military stand-off that was the cold war. From that one demonstration, I was connected to Amnesty International, the fight to save Carmanah Valley, and a host of other issues both local and global, each experience building on the next until I was spit out into the city of Vancouver to do it all over again.

I was seemingly hard-wired for protest, and from that first time have always felt at home among demonstrations and pickets. Participant, organizer, and accused once of inciting a riot (though never charged) – I grew up a militant on logging roads and city streets along the coast of BC and down into the Cascadia states – and although I can’t claim to have been at every major event – the 90s was an escalating and exciting time to be a young radical as the mass protest movements thwarted meetings and blockaded logging trucks, and the underground direct actionists burned corporate infrastructure into ashes.

But as comfortable as I was wielding a megaphone, over the past few of years I have faltered in my belief of the efficacy of what I was doing. Some would say that’s just a natural evolution as I pass from adolescence into true adulthood – now being 34 – and it’s time to put childish angst away. Another cause for my shift might be found in the withering of anglo-North American protest movements since the fall of the twin towers in September of 2001, the re-cast of those seeking social change as a real threat, and the attendant repression that followed (a process started long before, fuelled by the success of demonstrations in Seattle and Quebec). Disheartening? Of course. The effect being to open me up to all the self-criticism and doubt I could withstand, tempering my activism away from vocal street-protest and into education, writing, and ultimately trade union leadership where I am now progressing at both the workplace and political level.

I, like most of my generation of activists, am trying to pay the rent while engaging meaningfully in the world. Too tired (or afraid of losing our jobs) to organize people into the streets. Frustrated by the fact that everything we fought for is being ripped to shreds by a war economy and right-wing governments. Astonished at how little opposition is being mounted in the face of global war, climate change, religious fundamentalism, and the continuing depletion of our natural resources.

Recent examples abound of sweetheart deals being made with corporations and attacks on public services by ideologically-driven governments – while nary a peep of protest is raised outside of the usual circles. Take for example the recent provincial government decision that will see 28,000 hectares of crown land on Vancouver Island transferred into the very private hands of Western Forest Products. Ten years ago I am certain this would have elicited some sort of public protest, at least a few people chaining themselves to bulldozers or a tree-sit or two. Today, the Canada Wilderness Committee is lucky to get a quote in a newspaper article and a few of their supporters to write letters of dismay (which is in no way an indictment of the Wilderness Committee – we’re glad at least someone is pointing out the problems with this process).

Not only do I believe that in the 90s there would have been a protest to this decision, but I also believe it would have made a difference. Perhaps not in the grandest sense – but I suspect that a little more pressure from the public could have produced some more conservation measures, perhaps a protected area or two, or a few less roads into sensitive habitat. As it is, the government has handed over free land to a major corporation, with almost no conditions at all. This is only one example, but with more space, I could cite many more.

And so, while doubts and self-criticisms will continue to exist, in some way I am heartened to realize that I have not been wasting my time for the past 21 years. Strangely, it is in the absence of mass movement organizing that I am finally understanding that protest does make a difference. My working theory at the moment is simply this: “Without an effective, grassroots protest movement governments can do exactly as they want and they will as long as they go unchallenged. Protest doesn’t change the world overnight, but it helps us to temper the worst excesses of a corporate hegemony run out of control.”

I am thankful that there are still organizations and trade unions who bring their members out on the street for issues of relevance to them – and in BC we can at least point to strong labour movement protests in the last few years that have forced the government to deal with public sector workers a little more fairly. Unfortunately, grassroots organizers under the age of 30 seem a rare breed at the moment – and spontaneous radical movement is at a standstill. Beyond my working premise above, I am also pretty certain that we need more than trade union bureaucracies – that we also need the vibrance of an evolving protest culture to push the envelope, and to sustain ourselves creatively and socially in the face of an increasingly harsh world.

In the closing to the letter quoted above, I wrote to my friend the following: “We are not wrong to want to make change – this desire is simply love manifested in struggle.” In Colombia this past summer I saw first-hand the cost of not standing up to oppression and violence, and the importance of fighting for a civil society the world over – one that values more than profits and power and seeks to redress the real hurts of the earth and its inhabitants. Protest is only one part of this re-creation, but essential to our survival.

One Comment on “The power of protest – revisited.

  1. withering anglo-north american protest movement? to be sure! but as one of my fellow co-op members says: you gotta keep the fire burning, no matter how dim, because you never know when ten gallons of gas is going to show up.

    maybe i just have this bias from living in calgary where, for years and years, there were only ever twelve people at any given demo… and then, when the g8 came to town, it seemed like the entire city suddenly showed up with placards and puppets. if a hick town like calgary can summon that ten gallons of gas like that, vancouver certainly can.

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