Why is protest so fundamental for human rights and democratic society? Here are six basic reasons why we need to protect and exercise the right to protest.
This listicle is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society.
1. People realise that they
are not alone
One way in which the establishment
maintains its power is by creating a dominant discourse from which dissidents’
views are excluded. If people think differently, they may feel isolated, marginalised
and powerless. Public demonstrations and marches empower people by showing them
that there are thousands of people who think the same things.
2. By protesting, we alter the agenda and start a debate
Those in power
may try to ignore us, but if there are enough protesters then they will feel
the need to come up with reasons why all of the protesters are wrong. That is
when the debate begins and argument becomes possible.
3. In an electoral democracy,
protest provides an essential voice for minority groups
The classic theorists of representational government recognised
that universal suffrage and majority voting threaten to impose the ‘tyranny of
the majority’ and override the rights of minorities. Protests are a vital
corrective to majority rule.
4. Sometimes we win!
If there are enough protesters, the policies of those in power may
become unworkable. When the UK government introduce the flat-rate Poll Tax in
1990, huge numbers of people protested and refused to pay the tax. It became
clear that prosecuting everyone who refused would be impossible, chaos
threatened, and the government abolished the tax.
5. Sometimes we win in ways
we had not intended or planned
are unpredictable. The protests against nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham
Common in the UK in the 1980s appeared to have failed when the missiles were
installed, but the protests had forced the US and UK governments into saying
that they had to deploy the missiles only because the Soviet Union was doing
the same. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and said
that he was willing to make an agreement to withdraw all the missiles, the
Western governments could not go back on what they had said. The missiles were
withdrawn, and Greenham Common is now public parkland.
6. Sometimes we win but it
takes a generation or more
At the time it may feel
that it’s going nowhere; that those in power are stuck in a certain
mindset and cannot change their thinking. But then a new generation may come
along, unencumbered by past thinking, and see that the views of the protesters
were just common sense. Think of the huge turnaround in attitudes to gay people
over a couple of generations.