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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The question of protest in a post-pandemic world

Maggie Wilcox discusses the changing nature of protest in the post-Covid era.

This article began as a critique of the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’s erosion of free speech and freedom of assembly. Then in late January the House of Lords rejected numerous clauses of the act, particularly those pertaining to stricter policing of protests and protesters. With only about two months left in this Parliament, pundits do not think that the Police and Crime Bill will become law. If it does, the most controversial elements, like those rejected by the Lords, would not be part of it. This is an act of good fortune for the British public, unfortunately not for my article. 

While I was procrastinating writing about a now doomed law, something dramatic began to happen in my home country, Canada. Hundreds of people assembled in trucks, vans and cars to protest in Western Canada on January Ninth against vaccine mandates for truckers and COVID restrictions. This group swelled to thousands as the so-called “Freedom Convoy” converged on the capital city, Ottawa, starting January 28th. The movement has since began to block various border crossings with the US, severely impacting trade and disrupting day to day life in Ottawa and the other major cities occupied. 

This is an example of the type of protest the proposed Police and Crime Bill would have criminalized in the UK. Amongst the clauses voted down by the House of Lords were the creation of new offences for “obstructing the construction or maintenance of major transport works” or “for a person to interfere with the use or operation of key national infrastructure, including airports, the road network, railways and newspaper printers”. Hearing stories of supply chain shortages, closing factories and hostility from boisterous protestors from family and friends back home, such harsher penalties begin to seem logical, maybe even necessary. And, there was talk of other trucker convoys popping up in other countries, including the US and the UK. Suddenly, the Police and Crime Bill is less of a cut and dry issue. This turn of events has forced me to grapple with a new question: what should protests look like in 2022? 

Over the past few years, the Internet has become the leading way to make one’s voice heard. Online petitions and social media ‘slacktivism’, consisting of reposting articles, photographs and hashtags, has been steadily rising since the dawn of the Internet and especially over the past ten years with increased social media usage. Unsurprisingly, when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed so much of life online, protest followed in part. The typical re-posting trends denouncing racism, foreign conflict and climate change made the rounds on  social media in the first half of 2020. Then, the murder of George Floyd and the re-invigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement laid bare the weaknesses of digital activism. The infamous “Blackout Tuesday”, where social media users were encouraged to post a black square to protest racism and police brutality, was a disaster. Important hashtags and information were impossible to find in this sea of dark images. While the internet was indispensable in organizing the mass protest movement over the summer of 2020 across the US and abroad, it was still real-life marches which showed the widespread and profound desire for change.

But movements and civil disobedience like this, that gave life to revolution and civil progress in the 20th century are dying out. The first in-person protests after the COVID-19 shutdowns were those of anti-lockdown and anti-maskers, not too dissimilar from the groups that now compose the Freedom Convoy. These were, and continue to be, fuelled by misinformation, conspiracy theories and sometimes even harm those involved by spreading the very disease many of the participants did not believe in. Black Lives Matter protests too became deadly, though often due to clashes with those who opposed them. After months, years now of isolation, our pent-up anger has found a way to spill over. 

Yet, another worrying answer to this question of protest in 2022 is that protests may decrease. The Police and Crime Bill, which carries some truly worrying clauses, like the ability for police to search anyone “without suspicion” at a protest, elicited little public outcry in the UK. Right here in Oxford, last month’s demonstration against the Immigration and Borders bill was fiery and well-publicized, but the crowd never exceeded 60 or so people. Oxford is no stranger to student protests going back to the St Scholastica Day riots of 1355 to the NUS demonstrations against tuition rises in 2010. Yet it is not a hotbed of student activism akin to American universities such as Columbia and Berkeley of the 1960s. Still, a growing apathy or fear of protest seems to be taking root here and around the world. 

The very increase in a certain kind of bombastic and newsworthy public dissent over the past three years is to blame for this. Groups like the Freedom Convoy have given rise to the myth that protest is inherently extreme, destructive and selfish. At the same time, social media, the pandemic and political dysfunction have catalysed the polarization of Europe and North America. So, only the most desperate or angered among us go out. 

But as the Black Lives Matter protests showed us in 2020, protest movements can only have success when they are supported by large, diverse groups. With this in mind, I come to the answer to my question of what protests should look like in 2022: there need to be more of them. Back in Canada, we have already seen proof of this approach. Opposing the Freedom Convoy in Toronto were a group of healthcare workers, who staged a counter-protest in order to escort staff and patients safely to hospitals. This public display of solidarity coupled with general growing pressure pushed Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, to issue a state of emergency on February 11 which could finally force the convoy to stop disrupting trade and travel. Only by showing each other and ourselves that we can make our voices heard in a peaceful, yet forceful manner can we save our right to dissent. 

Image credit: StockSnap via Pixabay

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