In Canada, those with political and economic power have contributed to the development and continuation of a range of social and economic injustices, as well as prescribing what are legitimate forms of protest against those injustices. Those who have long failed to adequately deal with the ongoing effects of historical wrongs against Indigenous people, who have failed to eradicate discrimination against people of colour, who have failed to protect the environment, such that humanity may be facing its gravest crisis ever, who have failed to adequately address inequality in its many insidious forms, and who have lately failed to protect seniors warehoused in nursing homes, dictate how such injustices should be protested.
“Legitimate” forms of protest, such as signing a petition, writing your MP or a letter to the editor, voting, gathering in designated areas, speech making, sign waving, and quietly returning home afterwards, are praised by various elites – government, business and the media – as evidence that free speech and assembly are permitted and in fact encouraged, all of which paradoxically serve the interests of those in power. The fact many injustices are still with us to varying degrees, some worse now than ever, despite various governments’ promises and actions, and despite years of “legitimate” protesting, suggests that these acceptable forms of protest don’t cause much anxiety for those in power, that some groups benefit from the perpetuation of injustice and will resist real change with all their might, and that many of these injustices are deeply rooted in the very nature of Canadian society. Often times when it is conceded that the protesters’ cause has merit, changes of a non-structural nature may be implemented leading to some relatively minor improvements, or the matter may be sent to committee for further study and recommendations, or the injustice might be quietly ignored until the next protest or election.
Protests that go beyond the prescriptions for “legitimate” protests are typically portrayed as disruptive and extremist, attributed to “radical elements” and may be responded to with a heavy hand, violence and arrests, as was witnessed recently in the U.S., with some 10,000 protesters arrested, many non-violent, many for just refusing to go home. Protests that are creative, broadly supported, peaceful, and above all, sustained, are harder to ignore, are a more effective way of securing meaningful dialogue and the possibility of significant structural change.
Martin Luther King, who with many other committed activists achieved some successes through sustained non-violent protests over many years, was an advocate for peaceful civil disobedience. He wrote, while imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, “Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice”?