Graham McKitrick, Queen’s University
The right to protest freely is an important and recognized tenant of any functioning democracy. The countries in the world that Freedom House rates as the most free all have some form of protection for freedom of expression and gathering enshrined in their constitutions. The concept of freedom to protest is perhaps best put by the constitution of the United States, where the 1st Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
One of the reasons for this special and deserved protection is the historical effectiveness of protests in raising awareness about infringements on other basic human rights. From Gandhi’s protest against British rule in India to Martin Luther King (MLK) and the civil rights protests in the United States, protests have brought serious and lasting change throughout history in a way that not many other political tools can. There are many similarities between the historically significant protests, but one commonality that drives the movements is that protest is most effective when there is no other method of creating the change that the protestors desire. Perhaps the British planed on giving India self-governance eventually, but at the time Gandhi’s protest campaign was the only way to achieve that goal. In the same light, MLK and the civil rights movement had no other useful avenue to achieve their goals of equality in the United States.
Overusing this political tool, or using it improperly, is detrimental to both the intended cause and the effectiveness of the protest itself. Too often, it seems, political actors misuse this tool in their arsenal. Protesting minor, scheduled and democratically accepted policy changes with the same ferocity and fervor as protesting systemic injustice devalues the effect the protest has. When minor changes to educational curriculum are met with similar levels of protest as changes to major policy files like environmental regulation, this lack of proportionality lessens the need for those in power to take protests seriously. Moreover, these protests are often completely unnecessary – unlike historical protests like the civil rights movement and the desire for self-rule in India, these protestors have time, resources and influence to make change. If the protest calls for something that can be as forcefully called for by other means, the protestor is making image their priority instead of concrete action.
Perhaps the best example of an effective and necessary protest in recent history is the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Across the Middle East, citizens under repressive governments who have been denied basic freedoms like those of speech or political expression protested on masse to demand these fundamental rights. This protest was effective for the same reasons that the Indian desire for self-rule was: there was no other means of bringing about change that would be effective, the protestors had scarce resources or influence, and the target of the protest was an entrenched and oppressive group that held all the cards. Protest was the last card the leaders of the Arab Spring had to play, their action when all other actions were exhausted.
Comparing this to protests in the free world in recent history, it is no surprise that protests there were more effective than they are here. Leaders of major protests in recent Western history have other political cards to play and incredible amounts of influence and resources, but protest anyway. This lessens the impact protests have, and make what is an important tool of last resort into merely a platform to grandstand. Overusing the political protest gradually takes power away from society and limits the effectiveness of what has historically been humanity’s last and greatest tool to fight oppression worldwide.
Aghekyan, Elen et. al. “Table of Country Scores.” Freedom House. 2018.
US Constitution. Amend. I.