Around the world we are used to nonviolent protest being violently repressed. Those in a position of power have ruthlessly killed and tortured those who opposed them ever since human beings first learned to fight with sticks and rocks.
However, History is littered with well-known characters such as Gandhi and Luther King who not only survived repression but became the successful archetypes of the nonviolence movement. Then there are others, less well known or less successful but perhaps even more inspirational, such as Sophie Scholl in Munich who lost her life in 1943 for nonviolent protest against the Nazi regime and the protesters of Tiananmen Square in China.
Myanmar has in the recent past brutally repressed Buddhist monks protesting against the military regime and across the Arab World protesters have gone to the streets to face police armed with guns ready to kill those they are supposed to protect. These places are denounced as ‘undemocratic’ regimes, yet you don’t have to observe only these so-called undemocratic regimes. Chilean authorities regularly use tear gas and water cannons against protesters, even high school students. In the recent Occupy demonstrations in the USA, videos of seated protesters being attacked directly in the face by police officers with pepper spray have shocked people around the world, and in last year’s Indignados protest in Barcelona a crowd, including women and children, sitting peacefully in the central square discussing their protest were brutally attacked by the police in an attempt to “clean” the square in preparation for a soccer match to be broadcast on big screens in the evening.
Physical violence used by states against nonviolent protesters is nothing new.
What appears to be new, however, is the change in strategy of these “democratic” countries to criminalise nonviolent protest. To put this in context it is necessary first to recall the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which in its article 20 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” So let us be clear, peaceful gathering and protest is a universal freedom accepted by all governments back in 1948. However in recent years there has been a growing trend to erode these freedoms by the insidious linking of nonviolent protest with terrorism.
In London last year a group known as UK Uncut started demonstrating to raise awareness of the fact that cuts to public services introduced by the government could have been more than paid for if individuals and businesses were forced to pay the taxes they owed instead of finding ways to avoid it. Phillip Green, the owner of a chain of stores in the UK, avoided paying a huge amount of tax by transferring £1.2 billion into his wife’s bank account in Monaco where there is no tax.
After 2001, terrorism laws were mostly targeted at foreign nationals with different coloured skin and this led to the erosion of rights such as extended periods of detention without trial and restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Now, the definition of terrorism seems to be expanding to include also the concept of “economic terrorism”: when a protest prevents a business from carrying out its activities.
After a nonviolent protest in the Fortnum and Mason store in London’s West End over 100 nonviolent protesters were criminalised for taking part and further examples are emerging. The apparent paragon of human rights and freedom that is Canada has shocked human rights observers around the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have been on the streets in Quebec since February 2012 to protest against measures that will end up restricting access to higher education for the poorest members of society. The government has responded by criminalising student protests with Bill 78. This law restricts freedom of assembly, protest, or picketing on or near university grounds anywhere in Quebec, places restrictions upon education employees right to strike, and authorises fines of up to $5000 Canadian dollars (around €4000) per day on protesters.
Spain too, in a desperate attempt to scare people away from protesting, has started fining people hundreds of euros for participating in nonviolent protests. But this measure has been taken even further by Russia which recently introduced measures to fine protest participants €7,500 and organisers €25,000. It is clear that the economic system we live in is collapsing. The huge bank bailouts in recent years by governments have resulted in citizens in all countries being left with the responsibility of paying for the irresponsible behaviour of private banks while at the same time suffering increased unemployment and cuts in public services.
As the economic system collapses, public protest will grow louder and louder. As recent social movements around the world have shown, protests are stronger and bigger when they are nonviolent and governments have understood this message and are working to undermine this form of protest by linking it with terrorism. And as has been shown over decades Governments believe it is acceptable to fight terrorism with violence of any kind.
The challenge for nonviolent protesters is to not lose faith. Gandhi and Luther King understood very well that the system cannot cope with nonviolent protest undertaken by hundreds of thousands. No criminal justice system can cope with this number of criminals.
Therefore what is needed is a struggle that can mobilise people in the hundreds of thousands and remain nonviolent even in the face of extreme provocation and violence thereby making it plain for everyone to see that the actions of Governments are totally immoral.
In an ideal world, of course, social protest would not be needed. People would see how the system works and manipulative and violent governments would be voted out at the next election without anyone being arrested for anything. Military leaders would then respect the will of the people and hand over power. However it is difficult to see this happening while the media is still controlled by those with vested interests in keeping everything as it is.
In the US deep south, to be arrested was a badge of honour. When we find a cause that hundreds of thousands of us are proud to be arrested for the system will finally collapse and if nonviolence and non-discrimination are truly rooted in the hearts of people at that time then we will finally be walking the path towards the Universal Human Nation.
International Spokesperson for World without Wars and Violence