Losing Our Right to Protest

You're far more likely to get arrested if you're protesting against neoliberal interests.

Losing Our Right to Protest

Amnesty International is organizing a Protect the Protest campaign. What an oxymoron, right? Protect the Protest.

It seems insane, absurd, but it is real.

We think the rights humanity fought for and upon which our current system of living is based will always count and be respected. And of course, if you're protesting against abortion or pandemic restrictions, you don't have to worry so much about your right to protest. The same goes for barging into department stores and harassing staff over yellow hoodies.

What if you're protesting against genocide or the destruction of the planet?

Your rights suddenly don't matter.

We think we will never go back to authoritarian governments and the lack of freedom, freedom of expression, for example. Then I invite you to observe and think again. We are losing the workers rights so hard won by years of strikes and workers protests; we are losing the right to protest, and not just in the “third world countries”, those faraway places where a bunch of poor people live, but also in the so called “first world”, in the rich north, here in Europe and the United States, where governments are imposing restrictions and arresting people massively just for expressing their opinions.

This piece, a chronicle of a sort, explores the latter aspect: we are losing the right to protest, slowly, imperceptibly, but surely.

Here where I live, in The Netherlands, it is not so absurd to think about a campaign like the one Amnesty is proposing. Recently, I went to a protest organized by Extinction Rebellion to stop the government’s subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Extinction Rebellion is known for organizing protests to mobilize governments and people to do more to avert climate change and the ultimate extinction of our species. This one, in The Hague, lasted around a month. Every day the protesters blocked the main freeway, the A12, to put pressure on the government. They started on September 9th, and ended on October 6th, because finally the parliament decided to listen and discuss the phasing out of the subsidies. A kind of victory, yes!

But in the meantime, each demonstration ended with thousands of arrests, hundreds in the smaller ones, and even, with parents being reported to the child protection services for bringing their kids to the protests. That latest tactic has been widely seen as a brutal way to deter people from participating. Even my Dutch husband remembers when he was a kid, eight years old or so, and his parents brought him and his sister to the protests against the American nuclear bases on Dutch soil. (Those protests didn’t work though. The bases are still here). Since when it is illegal or seen as a form of child abuse to bring a child to a protest for the future of the planet?

Also, if we compare the enormous number of arrests during the climate protest with the almost complete freedom that the farmers protesters were enjoying, we can see a clear form of bias. The farmers’ protests were mostly between 2020-2022. They were blocking freeways at peak rush-hour with hundreds of tractors, and almost nobody got arrested!

Well, I guess it's easier to go against a pacifist protester who is just sitting on a freeway with only his/her body (or a drum or a musical instrument) than going against a huge machine (a tractor) or a hooligan or a bunch of big guys. Here in this newspaper article (in Dutch) you can see a very good graphic comparing arrests at each of the demonstrations:

You can see the huge difference. If this is not biased, I don’t know what it would be. Why would the police or the politics that govern them be so biased against climate protesters? Is it because these kinds of movements are more on the left, and the farmers' protesters were more on the right, and the police are more on their side? What is that they, the police, the politicians, are defending so fiercely? These protests were declared illegal by the major, by the way.

The protest I went to happened on the 16th of September. First when I arrived, around 11 in the morning, I noticed little groups here and there, standing by in the Malieveld, the big open field close to the central station, where the A12 freeway ends. And I saw a lot of people with musical instruments. Interesting, I thought, maybe there will be a concert?

But later I heard from one of the first-aid workers that the musicians were not allowed to play because police had threatened to confiscate their instruments. Then, a moment later, I was surprised by the echoes of Mozart’s Requiem. I walked over where the sound was, by the side of the road where several protesters were already sitting, and I saw a big group singing, but also, musicians playing “air instruments” while singing their part with the choir, the sound of the magnificent Kyrie Eleison from the Requiem, a profoundly beautiful piece, with the background of police calling to clear out the freeway through the megaphones. It was surreal, like an unintended performance piece of our contemporary times. You can here my recording here.

Later, the water cannon came.

The police announced again that “violence will be used in the form of the water cannon” and they went full force against the crowd of around 50 people sitting peacefully, prepared with raincoats and umbrellas.

The protesters were actually excited when the police announced the arrival of the big rock star of the show (the water cannon). It meant that finally there was going to be some action. Then, as players in a rehearsed theater piece, the police took them one by one, walking or in stretchers, to the vans and buses, where they would be taken to the ADO football stadium and there, liberated.

But in the middle of all this celebration of free speech and the right to expression, I saw the police dragging drummers who were holding on to their drums, away from the scene. They were not even sitting on the road. They were sitting in the park, at the edge of the road on the “safe zone”, behind the police barricade. They were playing drums like in many protests or football matches. The police said that they didn’t want the drums because they couldn’t hear each other. And the woman that was dragged with her drum said that she was abused. Another drummer also told me about the “arrest” of his djembe drum. A musician without his/her instrument suffers separation anxiety. They were pretty shaken, really. Is this justice or just pure police intimidation? Is bringing a drum or an instrument to a protest illegal? (Here I found advice about drums and protest, but nowhere says that it is illegal, it depends on the country).

Most of the protesters I saw looked like the kind of people who normally don’t get in trouble with the law. People who pay their taxes, went to the university or got some kind of degree, got a job, pay their rent.

So why attack them, so heavily, every day?

There was another group of the population which was not happy about the protests. These are the people who need to use the road, people whose daily lives have been complicated by this. They don’t see climate change as something serious, something that will affect all of us.

They see it as something in the far future. In the present, there are other things more pressing, like making money to pay the bills. And I understand. I also cannot stop my work every day to go to protest. If I don’t work, I don’t eat! How can we make the climate a priority when we are trapped in a system that forces us to be constantly busy with our survival?

And what can we do about governments intimidating citizens to impede their rights to protest? In January, an actor who was also part of Extinction Rebellion, was arrested even before participating in a protest.

Police showed up at his place at 7 in the morning to arrest him for having posted on Twitter about the protests, calling people to participate. He was judged and accused of sedition. He was sentenced to 60 days of community work or 30 days of jail. Now he is appealing.

What do governments have to lose if we protest about climate change, or about their inaction? What are they defending so much.

Who are they protecting?

If you have any ideas, please let me know. And if you think that our right to protest is in danger, go and sign up for the Amnesty campaign, maybe we can do something to protect our rights before it’s too late. 

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