When you hear the word activism, what do you see? Most likely strikes, with people showing up with signs at Parliament or tying themselves to a tree. Protesting is just one form of activism.
A Brief History of Protesting
The first major protest in the US was in 1919 during high tensions regarding human rights after World War I. These earlier protests were violent, initiated by white supremacists. The ’60s were also filled with protests. These country-wide civil rights protests showcased the reality of police brutality in the face of peaceful protests against war, hate crimes, environmentalism, and racism. Recognition of human impact on the planet began as early as five thousand years ago, and activism in this area really began in the early 1900s, while something as familiar as “Earth Day” was invented by youth in 1970 as an awareness campaign for environmental damage caused by humans. Today, police continue to use excessive force against peaceful protesters, often made up of young activists.
What do protests achieve?
So what do protests do other than getting media attention and, sometimes, involving the deployment of thousands of law enforcement vehicles?
- They create greater participation in the community in fighting to be heard.
- They bring visibility to issues so that others may be moved to help promote change can be a source of comfort and empowerment in the community.
- Met with opposition, protesters are often the kinds of people who take things further and mobilize for change.
A very recent and inspiring example comes to mind: The Fairy Creek Blockade. The continued persistence of the Fairy Creek protesters led to two significant leads:
- The cedar logging company, Teal Cedar Products Ltd., was denied by the court to extend the deployment of RCMP to stop protesters in the area.
- The ruling judge also ruled on the side of a number of media groups that advocate for proper coverage of the sites.
These two developments mean that it will be much harder for the company to continue its logging efforts and that the disregard of human rights and lack of accountability of the RCMP is being taken seriously in the court of law.
Marginalized communities, like many of those protesting at the Fairy Creek Blockades, tend to be silenced more, and their protests are less likely to be met with curiosity and helpful action. Marginalized protesters also experience more police brutality. Yet, they still manage to make significant changes.
Climate and environmental protests, in general, involve a wide variety of tactics that will be discussed later and can lead to changes in policy and increased public awareness. Unfortunately, this only works if the people observing activism already recognize that climate change is directly linked to human activity (aka not climate deniers).
Combined with “non-violent direct action, political lobbying, multimedia, divestment, and other tactics (Indigenous Resistance Against Carbon),” protesting can lead to a significant decrease in CO2 emissions, for example, “nearly 1.6 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year.”
Even when governments fail to listen, protests still raise collective awareness about issues.
Types of protesting
Playful and peaceful
This can involve making clever signs, inviting conversation with lawn signs, putting messages in places people may see them, and it can even involve clown noses and absurdly large glasses. You just have to find your style.
Disruptive and nonviolent:
Movements like critical mass and acts like student strikes are methods of protest that disrupt the usual flow of things in order to command attention to an issue. Climate strikes involve students opting out of school for a day in order to make a statement in favour of stopping carbon emissions.
Even though these protests are peaceful in nature, they are often met with excessive force. For example, Fairy Creek Blockade, which is recognized as the biggest display of civil disobedience in Canadian history, has been met with unlawful RCMP enforcement. The Fairy Creek Blockades are an example of civil disobedience, a type of non-violent protesting.
Chaotic and violent:
White supremacist rallies (remember Charlettotsville? These are still happening) tend to be more violent since these “ideals” are based on hate. The goal is to violate rights, not fight for them.
Generally speaking, protests are done in ways that reflect the values they are standing for; although that isn’t always true. Even if people claim to stand for the values you share, they may not have the kind of plan in mind you were on board with. Know the people you intend to protest with!
Who does it and how they are impacted by it?
Indigenous climate activist voices have been drowned out by white settlers, and attention has mainly been given to settlers about these issues. Think of Greta Thunberg. Indigenous climate activists have been advocating for water and land protection and reduction of carbon emissions long before her. Marginalized communities are more heavily impacted by climate change and therefore, have been leaders in protesting. However, they experience the most legal action against them for advocating for their communities.
Dos and don’ts
Don’t: wear something that makes you stand out. Protesting is legal in a democratic society, but it can get people into trouble if things get intense or you live in a province with strict laws around it, especially if you are a minority. It’s best not to draw attention to yourself or be recognized clearly. Counter-protesters can dox you if they find you were at a protest. Unfortunately, this is a common practice among white nationalists and nazis.
Do: come with a group and make a clear plan of where to meet up before and after in case you get separated.
Don’t: engage aggressively with cops.
Do: look out for one another, especially marginalized folks and protest leaders being targeted by police and/or counter-protesters.
Don’t: punch anyone.
Do: bring snacks!
Don’t: drown out marginalized voices with your own agenda, even if it’s the same. It is an ally’s role to amplify marginalized voices, while also listening and seeking to understand more all the time, not to speak on their behalf.
Do: prepare for the weather.
Protesting is only one way that we can show solidarity. For folks who aren’t able to engage directly, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that is essential to keeping a cause going, such as writing and communicating with government representatives, fundraising, voting consciously, spreading the word, and more. Beyond that, learn and act on your knowledge of how to live more sustainably and in line with your values. It makes a difference in your life and inspires others. Ultimately, the best ways to advocate for change require a combination of tactics like protesting, lobbying, building awareness, and communicating directly with members of Parliament and the Legislative Assembly, to name a few. And if you are stumped, the best way to do something about an issue is to do what you are most passionate about and most skilled in. There is a lot that each of us can do if we open our minds and believe in our communities.