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Inject potency into American protests

Peter Quaranto | Wednesday, March 30, 2005

In recent decades, protests as a form of political expression in America have become ineffectual, impotent social gatherings. The typical modern demonstration musters crowds in a police-permitted area to listen to speeches they already agree with, sing the usual protest hymns and perhaps march down the sidewalk – sure not to bother traffic. And for protests at Notre Dame, add or substitute a prayer vigil and a candlelight march. While these events are valuable at times in rallying activists, they have overwhelmingly become spineless, trivial vehicles for true political and social change.

Last week, I found myself in the middle of Uganda’s first non-repressed opposition protest in twenty years. I have been to my share of demonstrations in recent years, but this one had a very different feel from the typical American rally. To begin, the hundreds of people that gathered at Constitutional Square faced the very real risk of being repressed, imprisoned and even shot by police. In recent history, the police have shot at crowds gathered to protest against the Ugandan government.

The demonstration Thursday was organized by the Popular Resistance Against Life Presidency, a youth coalition of the different opposition groups here working to stop a constitutional amendment bill that will repeal presidential term limits. Posters at the rally read, “Time out for Dictator in Africa” and “We are fighting for a transparent, non-corrupt government, No to Third Term.” One I found particularly interesting read, “Bush, why are you quiet?”

The rally began with speeches at the square, followed by a march to the Parliament down the main roads of Kampala, blocking traffic for almost an hour. The hundreds marched, danced and sang in the streets, while many bystanders on the sidewalk cheered. They marched to Parliament, where they were greeted by a number of parliamentarians from opposition parties.

At the rally, the passion and zeal of the participants was palpable. Their very presence at the protest in such a repressive political climate is a testament to their willingness to sacrifice for their beliefs. One protestor told me they were not afraid of the police. One organizer of the rally whom I interviewed told me, “We have a program of two years to change this government democratically, but if they repress us, we will lose patience and we will be forced to storm Parliament and stage a revolution.”

Witnessing this event, I was inspired by the courage of the protestors. By taking to the streets, they were sending a clear, loud message to the political establishment that their demands could not be ignored. And those holding power and even the general public, witnessing the individual sacrifices of the action, cannot disregard such resolve.

The difference between the typical modern American protest and those happening in poor repressive nations throughout the world is that the latter requires individual sacrifice. From Zimbabwe to Cambodia to Burma to China, patriots are risking their own lives, daring to face the barrel of the gun as they stand for liberty, freedom and justice. This is not to praise those nations, but to praise the activists who dare to defy in such repressive cultures. In the United States and many other richer nations, it has become too easy to protest. Consequently, the efficacy of protests has become paltry.

Throughout the history of United States, effectual protests have played a critical role, dating back to the days of the American Revolution when a few brave Bostonians dared to throw tea over a ship. That history runs through movements for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, civil rights and more. In each of these movements that we now celebrate, protest actions played such an important role.

Yet today, when more than five hundred thousand in the United States and ten million people throughout the world took to the streets on February 15, 2003 to protest against the Iraq war, President Bush was easily able to dismiss the gatherings as a “focus group.” While it is great that America has become a less repressive political atmosphere that allows protests, a major casualty has been that protests have become trivial in our times.

Activists have failed to intelligently adapt and organize demonstrations to challenge power structures. Even more, concerned citizens have lacked the courage to take risks for their convictions. As result, politicians and the elite have been able to act manipulatively and coercively under the cloak of an open political space. Which is worse: an environment that allows political expression but does not take it seriously, or an environment that simply suppresses political action?

Of course, the latter is worse because people die for holding signs or wearing shirts, but the question challenges us to reevaluate the role of protests as a tool of real political action in our nation. If we are serious about changing problems that exist, we have to be serious about the actions we take to challenge them and the systems that entrench them.

This can even begin at Notre Dame, where activist groups have become far too content with prayer vigils or filling South Quad with crosses. In the late 1960s, students took over the administration building, blocked traffic and took other acts of civil disobedience for their convictions. Why can such high-risk high-sacrifice actions not happen today? They must if we are to see real change.

Peter Quaranto is a junior political science and international peace studies major. He writes from Kampala, Uganda, where he is studying development studies this semester at Makerere University. Read his running commentary from Uganda at www.peterquaranto.blogspot.com. Contact Peter at pquarant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.