It ain’t exactly hyperbole to call these frightening times. Rising authoritarianism seems to be everywhere within the Anglosphere, from Donald Trump’s tweeted ravings calling for Antifa to be classified as a terrorist organisation, to stern warnings as to what Extinction Rebellion protesters can expect from police.
Part of this is the result of an incredibly successful campaign on behalf of state and media actors. The demonisation and marginalisation of the act of protest – pushing the idea that those hitting the streets are jobless layabouts, or violent extremists – has been carried out by any number of talking heads across broadcast and online media.
When the ballot box either fails to adequately represent the people’s best interests, or ceases to exist, protest is the one weapon we ordinary people have in holding the powerful to account.
Another factor is sheer apathy and fatigue. It seems we’ve been brutalised and beaten down by the sheer weight of the news, and the lack of consequences for the powerful when they misuse their office. Both Trump and the newly-minted PM Boris Johnson represent a “born to rule”, autocratic vision of leadership where transgressions simply don’t matter.
It can be incredibly difficult for the best of us – even the very politically engaged – to get angry enough to pick up a placard and hit the streets. Alongside commitments of time and energy, there’s the growing sense that the consequences of protest can be too personally damaging: a criminal record, fines, even physical harm. With images of Hong Kong’s current violent protests flooding our screen, it can seem like the act of protest is akin to going to battle.
However, one truth must be acknowledged – when the ballot box either fails to adequately represent the people’s best interests, or ceases to exist, protest is the one weapon we ‘ordinary people’ have in holding the powerful to account.
It’s not as if we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to successful protest movements that have effected change, from the US civil rights movement in the sixties, to the wave of protest movements that escalated the fall of communism across the Balkans and Eastern Europe. To this day, governments and corporate interests are regularly forced to walk back decisions due to protest campaigns.
Protests have even been shown to work against the most brutal, repressive regimes. As a student of German history, I’m reminded of the Rosenstraße protests against the Nazi regime of February and March, 1943.
At that time in Berlin, following the implementation of the “Final Solution”, Jews were being rounded up for registration ahead of deportation. Many were kept temporarily in a Jewish community centre on Rosenstraße, near the Alexanderplatz. Among the thousands of Jewish men detained, there were the spouses of women deemed ‘German’ by the regime.
It’s only through taking the risk in hitting the streets, placards ready, that we are able to safeguard ourselves from those who would take advantage of us.
Beginning on 27 March, women began to appear on Rosenstraße, demanding the release of the husbands. Despite threats from the police and the Gestapo, their numbers soon swelled, with some coming out in solidarity for these women. The protests continued for over a week, gaining in voice until the regime relented, and began releasing the men to their wives.
In the face of industrialised murder and a callous disregard for human life, the flame of defiance and protest was enough to hold it a bay, at least in a small temporary way.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to fail to mention that sometimes protests don’t work, or enact a heavy toll on those taking part. One need only turn on the TV news to see beaten and bloodied protesters being carried away in places like Russia, where a pro-democracy movement struggles against Putin’s government. Protests are, like many things, a gamble.
However, those things that protest struggles for – freedom, equality, protection, recognition under the law – don’t always come without a cost. It’s only through taking the risk in hitting the streets, placards ready, that we are able to safeguard ourselves from those who would take advantage of us.
Think of it like this: protest is a muscle. Used regularly, judiciously, we’re able to achieve things, protect ourselves from harm and ensure our free movement. If we don’t exercise that muscle, it weakens – slackens. We find it harder to get about and live life as we want. Furthermore, there may come a time when we really need that muscle to get out of a tight scrape, and it’s simply not there.
Protest is our last line of defence, outside open conflict, against a world where rights and freedoms are rapidly being wound back. Those who would take your rights are counting on the fact that you are too exhausted or frightened to appear on the streets to confront them.
Don’t let them have that satisfaction. Whatever your cause or passion is, get out there and flex that muscle.
Mike Stuchbery is a journalist and historian