The right to peaceful protest is set aside in constitutions and conventions throughout history. Enshrined in age-old institutions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, protesting is deeply rooted in the political culture of many Western states. But when is this right taken too far? When does protesting lose its peaceful nature and turn into an aggressive, counter-productive act?
Protesting can encompass a variety of forms, and be used to object against almost anything, from a newly implemented tax to an authoritarian regime. Protesting becomes problematic when people turn from peaceful demonstrations to tempestuous riots. Elevated civil disorder is considered illegal when it infringes upon the right of others to go about their lives safely. What is the breaking point? There are a number of current examples of protests gone awry.
Looking at the case of Canada, there have been a number of historical instances of protests turned riotous, especially in the past few years. The most memorable example of civil disorder in recent memory was the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver this summer. To Canadians hockey is considered one of the pillars of society (I say this as a fellow Canuck), and losing the Cup to the Boston Bruins was disappointing, especially when this golden chalice of our game has evaded our snowy nation for the past few decades. The aftermath of the loss though was simply appalling. What had begun as an upsetting loss to thousands of Vancouverites, quickly turned into an Armageddon of police, fans and fire. Store windows were shattered, merchandise was looted and brawls took place throughout the street. It was civil disorder at its worst.
In Vancouver the primary culprit of violence during the riots were the protesters themselves, but this is not always the case. The G20 Summits have sent a concurrent tremor of protests turned riots wherever they go. People have travelled long distances to rightfully take part in these demonstrations, using the gathering of such important political figures to bring up a number of important issues, from women’s rights to poverty to ecological issues. In April 2009 when the Summit was held in London, controversial police violence, through kettling protesters, is said to have caused the death of one bystander. Police brutality can be an unfortunate side-effect of protesting, in an attempt to prevent rioting.
It is the duty of protesters to make sure they hold up their end of the civil agreement made with the government. Keeping protesting peaceful prevents escalation into violent civil disorder. Moreover, peaceful, well-planned protests will garner positive attention, and reduce the risk of losing public support. In the Toronto G20 Summit protests of 2010, the legitimacy of the demonstrations faded when they turned violent and police cars started being burned. People quickly forgot about the issues that were being talked about when they turned riotous. The city was absolutely destroyed after a week of protesting. Bricks thrown through windows of financial institutions, smouldering public property and hundreds of arrests, turned the protests from a justified cause to a bitter memory.
So when is enough, enough? How long do we have to watch our fellow citizens commit acts of unnecessary violence against each other before someone makes it stop. This is not to say that protesting needs to be stopped all together, as it is such an important part of our society. For many it is a way to demonstrate our political views and send a clear message to our politicians. Let us then practice non-violent resistance, the kind Mohandas Gandhi so elegantly demonstrated in the 1930s and 40s in colonial-ruled India. We must look to the White Rose movement in Germany, the 1968 student-led anti-Vietnam protests and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution for inspiration. Peaceful protesting is a right, lets make sure a crazed, riotous few do not ruin it for the rest of us.
Image 1 – vancouver.riot
Image 2 – kowaleski