Protest Power

Rahman Mohamed
The secrets of powerful protesters

When people think of protests the first image is often people holding signs, chanting, and walking in a circle or just standing still.  Protesting is an art.  It’s used to fight the authorities (those who have more power than you) so you can get what you want.  Many protests are similar – chanting and holding signs, often in front of a place related to the authorities they’re challenging.  The most successful have had their own style and image.

If anyone wants proof that there really is a method in any field, you just have to find experts.  Experts are people in their field who know the best way to do something; expert protesters (aka activists) are people who have got what they want, made changes to better their lives and the lives of others.

One of the most known is Nelson Mandela.  Although he has passed away his legacy has lived on.  The words aren’t used but he’s an expert; he fought those above him using strong methods to get what he wanted.  In the end he changed his own life and the life of others.

Across the USA Martin Luther King Jr. is a household name.  He was good at speaking for what he wanted; he has a holiday named after him.  On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, the country shuts down and remembers him.  Whether it’s by reflecting on his life or just thanking him for giving them a holiday.

Mahatma Ghandi has the same.  Today he’s honoured in India like Martin Luther King Jr.  He’s known to all South Asians and most of the world.

Canada has its own share of activists.  The Famous Five are known among academics.  Although it is a nation that hasn’t seen or has had a need for many activists through its history, Canada its share of past and present activists.

As men in Canada fought overseas in World War 1, women took their place; many industries saw women working for the first time.  Post-WW1 the feminist/gender-equality movement began to rise.  At the time the Canadian Senate was comprised solely of men.  Although the British North America Act (BNA), then the Canadian constitution, stated only “qualified persons” could be appointed to the Senate, references were “he”.  To see more gender equality women asked for one of them to be appointed to the Senate, claiming they were “persons” too creating the “Persons Case”.  A dramatic shift from the Supreme Court of Canada today, on March 14, 1928 it was ruled that women were not “persons”, that women could not be appointed to the Senate.

Prior to partition of the Canadian constitution in 1982, Canada was technically a nation whose laws were governed by Britain.  The British Parliament could change Canadian laws; the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain outranked the Supreme Council of Canada.

The Famous 5 – Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Louise McKinney, and Irene Parlby – had begun the complaint; they had petitioned the Supreme Court to declare that women were persons too.  Since the Supreme Court of Canada had ruled against them they flew across the Atlantic.  On October 18, 1929, 88 years ago, the five ladies from Alberta heard the Privy Council rule that women were “qualified persons” too.

These activists used different methods but in the end they achieved their goals.  The Famous 5 and Martin Luther King Jr. used formal complaining.  The ladies took their case to court while Martin spoke to a crowd and ignited passion and a strong desire for change and action in his audience.  Both were seeking political action, the right to vote and be included government; the Famous 5 were speaking for women in Canada; Martin Luther King was speaking for minorities, specifically African-Americans, in USA.  Encouraging non-violent means King encouraged others to protest, lighting a fire that brought change.  His opening statement “I have a dream” has become embedded into American culture as a term related movements to bring societal change.

On the other hand Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi used unconventional methods.  Although the majority of his protests were non-violent Nelson Mandela was charged with treason because of plans to use violence.  He was seeking franchise, the right to vote, for Blacks in South Africa.  After a trial that received international attention Mandela chose to sit out his sentence.  During his time in prison he completed a degree with the University of London.  Rather that following the conventional and stereotypical methods of sitting out his sentence or planning retaliation Mandela chose to continue education and was able to publish an autobiography.

In 1980 a “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign was begun by Oliver Tambo.  Mandela denied an offer of freedom for political compromise.  In 1990 newly-elected President of South Africa, President F. W. de Klerk commissioned the release of Mandela.  Prior to imprisonment Mandela had joined the African National Congress (ANC), a political party.  Led by Mandela, the ANC negotiated with President de Klerk to provide all South Africans, Black and White with equal citizenship and the right to vote.  Together Mandela and de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize, December 1993.  In 1994, the first election in South Africa allowing Black Africans to vote led to Mandela being elected the nation’s first Black President; de Klerk became the deputy.

Although Mahatma Ghandi was fighting for national independence, freedom from being a British colony, his fundamental goal was similar to Mandela, the Famous Five, and Martin Luther King, equality and growth of self-governance.  At the time the South Asian sub-continent was governed as a British colony.  Ghandi protested for independence.  Failing regular political means he underwent his famous hunger strikes.  Utilizing only water and fruit juice Ghandi abstained from food as a protest against the British rejection of partition.  After time partition was granted; South Asia was divided into majority Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India; Ghandi was against division but accepted partition.  He later protested for peace between Muslims and Hindus.  Undertaking his hunger strike again to protest violence in Delhi, India.  He was killed after his fast ended by a fanatic opposed to his proposition of peace between Muslims and Hindus.

These protests received mass media attention; present protests are considered to be going viral across social media.  Why?

Since World War 2 people have been exposed to unprecedented actions of violence, not simply because of the number but the reach of mass media.  Protest exposure continues to grow today because of violent political based actions in states, violence between persons, and the growth of seeing this and their effects on social media.  Using non-violent methods that are unconventional – methods that do not include violence and do not fit the stereotype of protest (carrying signs and marching) – provides a chance for media to diversify its content and provide its audience with something new.

Many new unconventional protests are based on defiance and rooted against culture.  A women receiving an education rejected by extremist Muslims.  Worldwide there is support to bring more education to women, including support from Muslims.  In defiance of beliefs held by extremists Malala Yousafzai joined classes. She also spoke about her life under occupation of the Taliban in a blog, bringing the information to the world.  She did not face formal opposition from authorities but faced violence, shooting, from Taliban – extremist Muslims – who opposed her actions.  Using an unconventional method of protest that faced resistance she received attention by media, increased followers on Twitter, her own hashtag used to support increased education of women and support worldwide.  Today she is studying at Oxford, is an honorary Canadian citizen, and the youngest Nobel Prize Laureate.

Recently protests during the American National Anthem has been receiving media attention worldwide.  Championed by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, players have been taking to their knees during the national anthem to speak for racial equality, against racial violence and discrimination of Black Americans.  Similar to Hashtags, from one player defying status quo cultural behaviour the number of players continues to grow.  It includes both white and black players, protesting for unity and equality of races in America, defying influence from President Donald Trump for the NFL to bench players who protest in this manner against the national anthem.  Other players have taken to standing while linking arms to send a message of unity to fans.

This movement has moved to other sports leagues in North America.  Bruce Maxwell, catcher for the Oakland Athletics in MLB, knelt during the national anthem.  Right-wing J.T. Brown of the Tampa Bay Lightning was the first to bring the protest to the NHL.  Although he stood for the Anthem he raised his fist.  The NBA season is set to start on October 17.

Today Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, the Famous Five, and Martin Luther King have taken shape as role models.  Wanting to better lives people people find a cause and find a way to fight the cause or raise awareness of the problem.  Many join with each other as a community.  Unconventional methods are often sought.  Although status quo methods – signs and chants as a group receive attention from local media, unconventional methods, new modes of protesting, have received worldwide attention from traditional media and social media.  Similar to past protests they receive opposition but by finding loopholes in the law that prevent violent action and imprisonment they are credited with creativity, able to continue protesting and grow their support.  They provide an image the others can relate to and remember leading to growing unity and pressure on authorities, most often politicians.

The continuous question by protesters, authority, media and audience today: what will we see next?

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