Political and Social Justice activism is an important democratic duty we must never cast aside no matter what type of scrutiny is faced. We all know there is a division between protestors and non-protestors: those who physically take a stand, and those who think you must either ‘get into the system’ or simply vote if you want to change society, (and who therefore view protests, whether peaceful or forceful, as a nuisance.) This is an age old divide that is closely aligned with classism and right vs. left wing philosophies. It is something that one would think would unite everyone who is on the same ‘side’: the ones for democratic protest vs. those against it. But if you take a closer look, nothing is black and white.
It’s clear that those who engage in activism are also sometimes divided amongst themselves. Some are adamant that, for many of the world’s problems that have been ignored for years by the higher-ups, force is necessary to bring about change. That anger is the only way forward and the only way to start getting people in positions of power to realize the real threat of the majority who their policies affect. And this is not hard to understand. I’m sure everyone who has seen any documentary about the concentration of wealth, power and control of the media (and therefore much of public opinion) begins to feel the heat of rage overcome them. You begin to want to scream ‘Do something!’ to your peers as well as the officials at fault. This method of activism is surely effective in bringing attention to issues that matter, but the question comes when you start to look at the effectiveness of the way we carry out our message. How will people – from those in the streets to those in office towers – respond in an open and supportive manner? Is anger and sometimes the exclusion that come with this anger the best way to be heard and promote change? Does it turn people off and make them want to ignore your issue? Well yes, sometimes it does.
I’ve recently heard a simple analogy: You realize there is a pile of dishes in your kitchen and you feel that someone must clean them up. So you are about to go start filling the sink when your roommate comes along and screams at you about the dishes not being done. Are you more or less likely to clean them? It’s not a shock that most will be turned off from the intent of doing the dishes, feeling annoyance toward their roommate and wanting to ignore them and step away from them as well as what they seem to be concerned about.
I started to think about this when I was at an antiwar protest with the Toronto Coalition to End the War. Everyone involved was clearly passionate about the issue and most carried out their concerns in a very clear, straightforward manner, seeking to include others as much as possible by speaking to them in a positive tone to let them know about the issue. Then, while we were standing, a person who had never been to a protest came over and explained how he’d just watched the documentary ‘Why We Fight’ and he was furious. He exclaimed how he couldn’t believe this was happening and how the fact that it was all being executed without his prior knowledge made him deeply upset. He was mad that so much time, energy and so many of our resources were invested toward killing people. And he was right to be mad. So he took a sign and began to join in on the chants. It was a huge gathering and he must have felt in place, and that he was doing something to combat the power that the war industry has.
But then something happened. A man in a military uniform walked by and shook his head at the anti-military slogans. Not too loudly, but noticeably, our new counterpart began to yell in his direction about how he was killing people and how he was allowing this killing to happen. Again, I see why he was so mad, but here is where we can be divided, even when united for the same cause. Was this the correct way to go about changing the minds of those who are literally within the system? Or is this going to isolate people and make them feel attacked? Doesn’t feeling attacked automatically build up barriers and close minds? When someone yells at you, do you feel you want to listen to them about what they are so mad about, or do you want to close your mind to their cause?
Well, I’m on the side of the divide that thinks that anger certainly does result in exclusion and barriers between us and others we want to share our message with, and in this case it did exactly that. The man looked at him, said we had no respect for those ‘protecting us’ and began to walk away, clearly not happy with us and our anti-war statement. He felt personally offended and therefore was about to leave feeling even stronger against the message that we on the anti-war front are trying to convey with our demonstrations.
Here is when I, also being a new protestor and new to the whole scene, decided to change the outcome of this situation the best I could. I quietly put down my sign and walked over to catch up to this man in uniform. I thanked him for his service. He smiled a confused but appreciative smile.
Then I asked him: ‘You care about your men out there with you don’t you’?
His expression changed and he said in a low voice, ‘Yeah, if you knew what we’ve all been through together and what we’ve seen, you wouldn’t be there with your sign.’
I asked if he wanted to go back to Afghanistan. ‘It’s Hell over there.’ He responded.
‘So do you want to go back?’ I pressed.
‘Well, no, not exactly.’ There was a pause. ‘My friend was killed’ he continued. I started to listen. ‘He was killed in friendly fire. I hate how they call it that, as if firing a gun can be friendly. We didn’t know the other guy, but he was sent home. I’d known Chris since we were kids and I saw him save lives over there. He carried two civilian children out from a raid and their mother was killed. He never wanted anyone to get hurt.’
I asked why he didn’t want to go back. He responded with a stutter. ‘Well no I mean … I do, I want to make sure these innocent people aren’t being killed. But it takes a toll on you. I’ll never be the same.’
Not sure if I was about to lose him after this or not, I had to make a bold comment: I told him that his two stories sounded, to me, like the people he had seen get killed, lost their lives not because of the local combatants but because of our military presence.
At first he seemed mad. But then he stopped himself. ‘I never thought of that. You know, I didn’t even know why we were commissioned to go into that village. We were told there were rebels hiding out but we never found any evidence of that. We blew up houses – houses with innocent people in them. But I always held so strongly to the fact that maybe we would be getting rid of people who were going to kill even more people than we were killing.’
He seemed to be torn over his own words. I asked if he thought that maybe the anger of the few who are killing troops over there, or who claim they’ll come to North America and kill, that if maybe they do this because of events like the one he just told me about. If we are killing innocent people while we are over there, why do we seem so shocked and horrified that maybe they might not want to put their guns down when they see us, or even that they may want revenge? It’s not an excuse, but it certainly makes sense.
‘Well I mean, I’ve thought about that. If my mom and sister were at home in Virginia and someone from, Montana let’s say, came over and hurt them, I’d want to go find them in Montana and would likely want to hurt them too. Or at least see that they face some sort of justice after they’ve hurt people so close to me.’
I took this as a chance to keep turning the conversation. ‘The way I look at it is exactly that. We went over there with our bombing campaigns and indiscriminate killing of innocent families while we claimed we were there to ‘save the people’ from human rights abuses. As if killing unarmed people is not a human rights abuse.’
I went on: ‘If what were looking to do is save women from the abuses some are facing over there, we’ve got to empower them. We must give them freedom and stop our military presence from using up all of their resources to fight us out. What if we let the women of Afghanistan unite together and demand their own human rights? What if we stopped bombing them in the name of ‘protection’?
I shared every thought I had on why I didn’t think a military presence was doing what it claimed to be doing – we weren’t saving anyone. This time, instead of turning away he listened. He said it wasn’t his fault people were being killed. They didn’t want anyone to be killed.
This is a common statement. The people who have been on the front lines or have family or friends overseas fighting in the military usually take anti-war statements personally, like we’re saying it’s them who decided to go to war and them who gave the killing commands. We know this is far from the truth. I told him no one ever said it was his fault. ‘It’s the fault of the industry, and it’s an industry we need to get away from, to stop listening to their lies and letting them feed us their pro-war propaganda, and that’s why we protest the war. We’re not protesting the people who are trying to do good.’
With this, he agreed. It was a grim subject but a positive moment. We shared contact info and parted ways. A week later I got an email. This military man wanted to meet up for a beer and talk some more. When we finally did, he said he wrote a letter to his friends telling them ‘how we need to reframe our idea of duty’. He asked if there was anything else he could do to spread this perspective and for more information on resources that leaned toward an anti-war stance. Then, most importantly, he asked when the next anti-war meeting was.
So when you’re trying to share ideas, passions and the fight you have within, what’s the best way get your point across? Is it to yell and scream and exclude others who may not agree with you? Is anger and wall-building the answer? Or is openness and understanding the way to go? In my view, I think we should address the issues in an inclusive, compassionate and understanding manner. And this I think is the kind of discussion we need on the ‘pro-democracy’ and ‘pro-protest’ side of the fight. We need to accept each other and generate discussion instead of creating angry barriers between us and others who may not understand why we believe in a cause. It may not be the only way, but it’s the way I’ve experienced to be the most effective. It’s something I believe we should all consider if we want to create a more positive and compassionate world where social injustice, oppression and war are not agreed with in our future.
Read more about Peaceful Protesting and one of it’s most renowned advocates Gene Sharp:
A short video clip: ‘Why We Fight’:
If you’re in Toronto and want to join the Fight Against Fighting (as I call these movements) then sign the declaration or attend an antiwar protest: