First, they came for the communists, and I did not speak up because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak up because I was
not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
And then they came for me, and by that time there was nobody left to speak up.
This chilling poem, written by Martin Niemoller to berate the cowardice of intellectuals in the face of Nazi tyranny, sums up why protests are useful. If we do not speak up, if we do not protest, who is to hold the authorities accountable? If we are afraid to exercise our freedom of speech and our freedom of thought, have we not already lost it? Protests are useful because in the face of unacceptable and immoral government policies, we have a duty to stand up and be counted, even if we ourselves are not citizens of the state in question.
The protest in St Andrews last week, while small and in an out-of-the-way location, was a start, but marching is not enough. If we really want to speak up, we have got to go further than just liking a post on Facebook and reading The Guardian. We need to act on our intuitions and oppose policies to which we ourselves are opposed. This means becoming politically active, joining the Democratic Party in the United States if you find yourself opposed to Trump, or maybe the Liberal Democrats if you are opposed to a hard Brexit here. However, let’s be honest with ourselves –– while the Democrats have a very good chance of one day regaining the presidency, the Liberal Democrats are effectively dead and gone. The Liberals, the party of John Stuart Mill, have ceased to be relevant, just as the party that came to replace them, Labour, is also becoming irrelevant.
It is not enough to fight for the brand name; what is needed now is a phoenix of a political party that is not tied down by the baggage of old. The Labour Party has in effect achieved everything it set out to achieve, just as the Liberals had, and if they do not change their tone, they will end up like them. The political hegemony of a small number of parties with little difference between them is something that we should protest.
Protests are useful and necessary when it comes to opposing something: how else are we meant to act? If the Republicans can silence a senator for reading out a letter written in opposition to Jeff Sessions’ appointment as a judge, what does that tell you about democracy? Irrespective of whether you agree with the appointment, this is worse than any campus “safe space” policy because it is not just the silencing of the opposition, but the silencing of one appointed democratically to represent the people. In effect, when the Republicans voted to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren, they were voting to silence the people of Massachusetts whom she represents. Who is to say that partisan acts of this nature are not repeated? At least in Britain parliamentary privilege means this is not an option.
The letter Ms Warren was reading out was written by Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr, who advocated for equal rights of American citizens irrespective of race. He advocated non-violent civil disobedience, which did, in the end, result in segregation being outlawed throughout the states.
What Mr King and his supporters were protesting against was something that needed to be protested against. Had there not been marches and speeches, had people not demonstrated their commitment to the cause, then it would have been very easy for those in power to just ignore him. When one person speaks up, they are being brave, but it is very easy for them to be ignored. When millions of people march, they too are being brave, and it is much harder to ignore them, especially if their cause is just.
Protests are indubitably useful. We live in much better times than when Niemoller wrote his poem, but the message rings true today. If you are opposed to something, speak up, because a passive opposition does not achieve anything. It is much better to protest something than to do nothing at all –– just think what protest has achieved: it has helped end slavery, give women the vote, and make citizens of America truly equal under the law. I think we can see therefore, that protest is useful and necessary.
Democracy is a fickle friend. It is sought after, the very essence of civilised society, and yet it often leaves a huge proportion of the population immensely dissatisfied. The controversial events of recent weeks have caused hundreds of thousands to hold marches, rallies, and protests. But, and forgive me for being “that guy,” are they really of any use at all?
Undoubtedly protests are an impressive display of democracy; indeed, the sheer volume of people who have taken to the streets to voice their opposition to President Trump is an awesome spectacle and really an advertisement for what democratic society is all about. After all, one of the greatest assets of a western society is that if we don’t like something that the governing body is doing, we can say so freely, without fear of being bundled away into a van. While protests are extremely widespread, however, to think they will cause any
real change to Trump’s presidency or policies is extremely naïve.
Firstly, it is important to remember is that protests can never be fully representative of the views of everyone. From the social media coverage of the recent anti-Trump protests, in which packed streets and bustling crowds were depicted, one would be lured into thinking that there cannot exist a person on earth who is supportive of the president.
These images present Trump as a tyrant who has seized control by force and without the will of the people. The reality is, however utterly saddening it may be, that Trump’s new role was the outcome of a fair and democratic system.
Moreover, however obvious it may seem, the people who we see out in the streets are always the ones who have a problem with what is currently being done. Of course, it is extremely rare to see the reverse of this; people don’t march against something that they agree with. Indeed, on the morning of 24 June, we didn’t see the houses of parliament swarmed with euphoric, rosy-cheeked Brexiteers, did we? Nor did Washington, DC become overrun with delirious Trumpians in jubilation at the news of the election.
In both of these cases, it was the losing side of the vote that took to the streets to oppose the result. The point here is that whilst protests themselves are not an inherently bad thing for westernised society, they do seem to obscure the reality that the decisions they are
opposing would not have been made if a majority had not voted for them. This is not to say that the UK leaving the European Union or Trump being president will be particularly good things, but it is simply incorrect to believe that these outcomes have somehow been the result of a grossly unfair exercise.
Where protests fail is in their inability to create any tangible resolution to what they oppose. There is no denying that protests are remarkably unifying, but they are ultimately flawed in their inability to deliver. Essentially, to achieve the change that protesters desire requires action from those in power, often through the means of legislation.
The case of Gina Miller demonstrates this. There are many who disagree with her actions –– perhaps she was challenging the will of the people by going to court over the Brexit result. But, whether one agrees with her decision or not, it cannot be denied that her challenge wasn’t just holding up a sign and chanting along with other people whilst standing out in the cold, but a concrete and decisive response to something that she opposed. Furthermore, she achieved what she wished for: that Parliament should have a say in whether Article 50 should be triggered.
Controversy arose even last week regarding comments by John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, who implied that he would be opposed to President Trump making a speech in Westminster Hall. Bercow stated that it was at the discretion of him and the speaker of the House of Lords to allow Trump to speak. Whether Trump actually ends up speaking is missing the point; the fact that Bercow could influence real change is crucial. It is not a crime to use one’s voice to challenge things that we disagree with; speaking up should never be discouraged, and protests are a way of expressing dissatisfaction. However, making a real change requires more than just words and signs, and this, is where protests fail to be of decisive use.