Protestors, Rights and Social Justice

By Jim Silver

Much critical commentary has been directed at Aboriginal students and others who disrupted a recent talk by Phil Fontaine. I would like to offer a response that is different, but that nevertheless agrees that the right to speak and to be heard is essential in a democratic society.

I believe that it is too easy simply to criticize the protestors for not allowing Mr. Fontaine to speak. I think we also need to ask: who is being heard, and who is not, on the great issues of our times? And certainly the issue about which Mr. Fontaine was to speak, namely the oil sands and its associated long-term financial and environmental consequences, is one of the most challenging issues that we face today.

The protestors have been told—for the most part by those who have much more access to the media, and therefore much more chance to be heard—that they should have entered into a dialogue. They should have engaged in a respectful discussion.

It is worth noting that this approach has been largely ineffective to date, with respect to other issues that are extremely important to Aboriginal people, and ought to deeply concern all of us. For example, recent research now reveals that 824 Aboriginal women have gone missing or been murdered in Canada, 111 of them in Manitoba. Many Aboriginal people have respectfully and repeatedly called for a public enquiry into these appalling occurrences. At least two of the protestors that I know of have been creatively and energetically involved in this work for years. They continue their peaceful vigils for the murdered and missing women and their families. Yet Aboriginal women continue to go missing and to be murdered, while calls for a public enquiry go unheeded. Similarly, significant numbers of those Aboriginal people displaced by the flood of 2011 have spent months and even years living in Winnipeg hotel rooms, their lives completely disrupted, their children placed at risk in the city. Some have told us, in occasional media stories, how they are suffering. Apparently we do not hear them.

I expect, therefore, that the protestors understand the fundamental importance of the right to be heard, since Aboriginal people—not necessarily the leadership, but most Aboriginal people—have largely been denied that right, for many decades.

Those who have criticized the protestors have said that by preventing Phil Fontaine from speaking about his role in the oil sands, they acted in a way that is inconsistent with traditional Aboriginal values, namely that all have the right to speak. I agree. But on the other hand, the protestors spoke to another important Aboriginal value, one that the rest of us might do well to consider, namely that the decisions that we make today ought to take into account their effect on the seventh generation. That way of thinking is completely at odds with how our current economic system works. Yet the decisions we make now and in the near future will surely affect the seventh generation. What reasonable person would trust the oil companies—whose legal obligation is to maximize profits for shareholders—to make decisions based on the effects they might have seven generations into the future? That would be naïve. And if that is naïve, then one can understand the protestors’ concerns about Mr. Fontaine’s having been hired by the oil companies. The protestors’ concern is a concern about the seventh generation into the future, and that is a crucially important Aboriginal value.

The protestors were also criticized for being disruptive. But any informed reading of history shows that those who are the weakest and most disadvantaged are most likely to be able to make gains when they are disruptive. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., to take but two examples, were disruptive in their attempts to promote justice in their racially divided societies. Today we honour them. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a classic defense of the right to peaceful protest, even when it is disruptive, and is also a sharp rebuke to those who criticize disruptive actions as being somehow inappropriate. A very strong case can be made that, as long as they are non-violent, disruptive activities are an important part of a free and democratic society, because they make it possible for those who have no formal access to the halls of power to make their voices heard. And if they do not make their voices heard, the injustices from which they suffer will persist.
Phil Fontaine should have been allowed to speak. He should have been heard. That is a fundamental right in our society. But precisely because that right is so important, we should not simply say to the protestors, “tsk, tsk, you have been bad by not respecting others’ right to be heard.”  If that is all we do, the effect will be to silence protestors who, for the most part, are representative of people whose voices have been largely silenced for decades. Their legitimate concerns will not be heard, again, while the oil companies, and Phil Fontaine, will continue to have multiple opportunities to make their case to the media.

I look forward to hearing Phil Fontaine in the near future, and to hearing his answers to what I expect will be some tough questions. I strongly support his right to be heard. But I also look forward—and in fact even more so—to hearing more from those Aboriginal people in our midst who have for so long been silenced. And I support their right to be disruptive—as long as it is non-violent—every bit as much as I support Phil Fontaine’s right to speak.

Jim Silver is Professor and Chair, Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies, at UW, and an active Board member of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba.

0 Comments on “Protestors, Rights and Social Justice

  1. “A very strong case can be made that, as long as they are non-violent, disruptive activities are an important part of a free and democratic society, because they make it possible for those who have no formal access to the halls of power to make their voices heard.”

    Why the sharp divide between non-violent disruption which is good and pure and in line with the values of democracy and freedom, on the one hand, and violent disruption on the other?

    The civil rights movement succeeded to the extent that it did in part because of widespread property destruction, violence, and the preparedness for self defence on behalf of militant groups like the Black Panthers.

    Nelson Mandela was the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress. It was only with the help of that faction that gains were won for black South Africans.

    There is plenty of violence happening in Ukraine right now in the fight for freedom and democracy. Men, women, and children are working on assembly lines to produce as many molotov cocktails as possible for the purpose of throwing at the squads of riot police. Catapults have been constructed to deliver payloads of molotovs or rocks more effectively.

    If these three cases involved violence, then are they illegitimate? Do you honestly believe they would have succeeded to the same degree or more if the pacifists involved would have militantly enforced a regime of dogmatic non-violence?

    And if you are so opposed to violence, why do you not realize that often the only way to reduce greater violence is by responding with lesser violence. When it comes to the indigenous peoples of so-called Canada we can talk about the immensely incalculable violence of colonialism, residential schools, poverty, mass-incarceration, etc. etc. etc. Are these forms of violence not worth discussing? Are they somehow in line with a democratic and free society whereas shooting back at the cops at Oka wasn’t?

    Dogmatic non-violence is one of the greatest impediments to transformative social change. I desperately hope that extremely privileged academics like yourself will recognize that fact and stop trying to police social struggles in which you have no stake.

  2. Debra White Plume:
    “Interesting article, several perspectives by the author. in my humble opinion, this is a water war. fontaine wants the stage to earn his paycheck from transcanada to persuade or coerce the bands into signing onto the deal to let more pipelines run thru their territory and waters so the FAT TAKER corporations can keep profitting off the rape of Mother Earth, the destruction and waste of sacred water, and the displacement of these ancient peoples from their ancestral lands that they have every RIGHT and OBLIGATION to fight for. academics and investors want fontaine to have the right to speak, he is being backed by BIG BUCKS and the courage and humility and fearlessness of the water protectors and land defenders had shut him down from one of his paid performances and the big bucks guys just cant handle that so they are spinning this into a freedom of speech deal, trying to convince folks that this direct action was wrong. i disagree, i think direct action has to be taken at every opportunity to fight for water and Mother Earth. water wars are ON and our Earth’s Army will not be silenced by the big bucks guys and FAT TAKERs and academics who want to engage in an intellectual scenario. this is real, it is our world being destroyed by FAT TAKER and we will continue to speak up, speak out, stand up, and defend our waters and lands. we have the HUMAN RIGHT to water and it has been made obvious that if we want these rights, we have to fight for them.”

  3. My thoughts about violence are complex. I believe that it can be simultaneously tragic, and at times necessary and even essentially ethical. I imagine that it can sometimes be empowering and liberating to people who have made the radical realization that they deserve to live in freedom and with access to what they need and cherish, and that perhaps sometimes it can also become a crutch and cloud the mind. But (likely) you and (certainly) I wouldn’t know too much about these things apart from the accounts of others.

    I don’t claim to have everything worked out considering my relatively sheltered life and experience, but I will unequivocally state that strict, dogmatic non-violence is an absurd position, at least when it is being prescribed to others rather than oneself. I can do this with a reasoning mind and some simple arguments which I will get to.

    I also see such a position to be one of privilege and ignorance. I find it to be built upon the assumption that violence is not already occurring. I recall an article from a few years ago that stated “violence erupted when protesters began throwing tear gas canisters back at the police”. As I
    understand it, much of the conversation during the civil rights struggles in the 60s centered around whether or not blacks were violent, should be violent, and predictably it was argued that they should not be, without naming the violence of exploding churches, police brutality, or a myriad of other issues related to segregation.

    Just as we do not define genocide only in terms of gas chambers and firing squads, we can’t discuss violence only in simple terms of shocking visuals of physical action. When you are corralled, isolated, have your essential resources destroyed and/or taken away, and generally put into situations of great danger, then alternatively ignored and brutalized in the arena of public opinion to keep you in place, how is this not violent? If I drive you ten miles out of town and leave you there in the dead of winter, is that non-violent? What is violence? Blunt trauma? Is the end result not the same? But for those of us who are not (or believe we are not) tied to the same fate it is easier to think abstractly. “Maybe their fate isn’t that dire.” “Maybe they’ll be OK,” When the choice is some kind of “violent” action or a quiet death, should others choose to die for your ideals?

    One might argue that this is a false dichotomy, and perhaps it is at times. Yet, when others have shown over and over again that they will go to any length to take what they want with no regard for your life, does it matter whether you’re being bludgeoned to death or starved to death? How much risk should someone take to avoid violence, when failure this time might mean there is no next time? Academic discussion by people who are not directly effected have the advantage of tidier scenarios based on assumptions that aren’t necessarily reflected in the real world. People in general tend to be the experts of their own experience. This is something that you and I will generally be granted barring other kinds of oppression, yet casually overlooked for others who might be subconsciously view as less… “civilized.”

    It might be tempting for us given our elevated opinions to think we ought to be the gatekeepers of propriety and pass judgement on how others should best conduct their own advocacy. While you may be quite satisfied with yourself for standing up for these people, I dare say you are as much an advocate as you are a scold, going out of your way to shun violence more than once in this article even though violence was, as I am to understand, not even hinted at during the whole encounter.

    To be honest, I actually sat on this for a bit before writing it. I asked myself whether it was important enough to me to try to engage with. “Do I really care enough about the issue of violence to bother?”, I asked myself. You’ll be happy to know by the way, that most people involved in direct action have a legacy of thought behind them that realizes the importance of efficacy of tactics and that it usually it involves creative, “non-violent” action at it’s heart. The thing is that I’m not a *fan* of violence. I am not an advocate for violence. I can’t even imagine what I would be capable of doing that would qualify.

    But the discourse about violence is something relatively easily controlled for those with the power to do so. More than just a floating signifier, with enough spin doctoring, the definition of violence becomes a wild card. Flattened tires and exploding buses bear little to no distinction. As such, this distorted framing around of the subject, and the willingness of people to ignore the pain, suffering and disenfranchisement of others at the first indication of their “violence” is a huge liability which will play into the hands of tyranny.

    When those who seek to pillage and destroy will stop at no end, one is faced with the question: at what ends will I stop? Will you accept a soft tyranny with nice, open dialogs as long as there is no violence?

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