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Nov 23 / Great Apes

Protests Are Socially Disruptive And Unnecessary

I’ve been thinking a little bit about the Occupy protests and the language that’s used to describe them (and for that matter, similar protests like the one at the 2010 G20 conference in Toronto).  Many detractors of the movement claim that the sit-ins are disruptive and unnecessary.   I think that those claims can be responded to separately.  As to whether or not they’re necessary, well, it’s clear to me that the situation in Canada at the moment isn’t what it is in the U.S.  There’s a reason that the protests began by specifically targetting Wall Street, and it’s because people are angry about the massive fraud committed by financial institutions in the run-up to the current recession.  Just as much as that, many people are angry that the president who they voted for because they thought he would tackle those issues and prosecute potential wrongdoing has instead sat by while his Justice Department actively lobbies to ensure no one is prosecuted for financial crimes.  Related to that is the frustration over the burst of housing bubbles in many parts of the U.S., bubbles that economist Dean Baker estimates have resulted in the loss of $6 billion in housing wealth.  So it’s clear what Americans are targeting their anger at.

What about Canada, though?  I would argue that there are definitely housing bubbles, and that they will burst, but they haven’t yet.  And to the best of my knowledge there is no evidence that Canadian banks or other lenders have engaged in the kind of massive financial fraud that occurred in the U.S. (though the hugely under-reported $75 billion bailout of Canadian banks in the form of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation purchasing mortgages from them is a good indication that Canadian banks were not nearly as stable as the government and most mainstream media pundits frequently proclaimed).

If we look at the protests, at least in Canada, as being about inequality in general rather than about banking in particular, then there’s ample fuel for protesters to use.  There’s the aforementioned bank bailout.  700,000 people use foodbanks in Canada each month, including 90,000 people who have not used them before, and food bank usage has increased by 26% since the start of the recession.  The number of homeless people in Canada is estimated to be in the range of 150,000 to 300,000 peopleThe child poverty rate in Canada has risen since the mid 1990s, and is one of the highest in the First World.  There’s the dreadful problem with poverty and health currently ongoing in Attawapiskat, and other similar problems among many First Nations communities.  So I think there’s actually a lot of reasons for Canadians to be angry about inequality and the government’s inaction on those issues, and I’ve certainly not come close to listing all of them.

The other part of this, which is actually the reason I started writing this, is the claim that protests are socially disruptive.  The obvious answer to that is that of course they are, that’s kind of the point (as it also is with strikes).  Though, interestingly, the Occupy protests in Canada are actually far less disruptive than almost any other protest movement that I can think of in the past.  And thinking about protest movements in the past is what I find interesting here.  In particular, what I find interesting is that some of the main criticisms lobbed against the Occupy protests are virtually identical to criticisms made against protest movements in the past.

Other protest movements, like the women’s suffrage movement or the American civil rights movement, were criticised as being socially disruptive and unnecessary at the time that they occurred.  And, in fact, both were far more disruptive than the Occupy protests have been.  Women fighting for the right to vote in England committed acts of vandalism in the name of their cause, for example, and civil rights protesters engaged in sit-ins in locations that were intended to cause far more disruption than in public parks.

And yet, years later, virtually everyone acknowledges that not only were those movements acceptable, but that they were necessary and morally justified.  Those protests were widely criticised at the time, but are seen as being good things now.  And this is a fairly common theme that I’ve noticed in right-wing criticism of a whole host of progressive social causes; something along the lines of yes, in the past people really did have things to complain about, and people fighting for progressive causes really did have it right (though they maybe went too far).  But we live in a time now where those issues have been settled, and people fighting for progressive causes are misguided and fail to recognise that things are better now.

It’s an interesting point of view – social movements (women’s rights, workers’ rights, etc.) in the past were often right, but we have arrived at a magical historical moment in which all of society’s major problems have been solved!  And this moment, incredibly, just happens to line up with the time in which the person making the claims happens to be alive!

None of this is to suggest that because protests in the past have been vindicated by history that contemporary protests must necessarily be headed in the same direction, but I do think it’s worth keeping this historical perspective in mind.  If something was always (or at least mostly) true in the past, and just happens not to seem true in your own lifetime, odds are that your view of your own time and place are being affected by your closeness to them.  And in that case, it’s worth stepping back and trying to examine why exactly that might be.

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