Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Copenhagen - Protesters or Hooligans?

During my regular dose of the nightly news this evening, coverage of Copenhagen and the protests brought to mind something that has bothered me for years. Where is the line line drawn between the democratic right to free demonstration and criminal hooliganism? This is an issue where I have a very strong view of where that line exists and cannot even begin to understand those that support the other side of that line.

Being a big proponent of freedom, democracy and free speech, I believe any group has the right to publically and openly demonstrate its opposition to governments, policies, issues and whatever else is troubling them. The only area where I believe free speech needs to be censored is regarding any expression that promotes hatred or violence towards an ethnic group. The major question here is what constitutes an acceptable demonstration?

In my view a demonstration constitutes a peaceful march or protest, organized in advance with the local authorities. Should the issue compel people to "go to the streets", this should be done in an orderly fashion where local law enforcement is respected. These demonstrations should not result in any disruption to commerce or an individual's ability to earn a living. My view here pertains only to demonstrations in democratic and free countries as countries such as Iran do not permit any type of demonstration. Further they utilize law enforcement to viciously suppress demonstration, resulting in no alternative outcome to violent clashes.

When I see protesters at Copenhagen, G7, G20 and other summits violently assaulting police officers, rushing barricades, blocking local traffic and vandalizing property, I cannot understand the relation here to freedom of speech. These actions are premeditated, as these goons come equipped with sticks, body armor and gas masks. Do these violent protest events continue as a result of public apathy, with no one speaking out against this? I believe the "silent majority" is as repulsed as myself by these actions. These actions most probably damage the causes behind which the protest was originally organized in the first place due to association of the cause with these thugs.

This anarchist approach to protest is not confined to international summits. I have seen it during labor disputes and local demonstrations against international events. One example was the recent defeat of the Tamil Tiger terrorist organization by the Sri Lankan government. During these events, local Tamils wanted to voice their opposition to government methods used in this rout. They demonstrated peacefully for a while on sidewalks with signs. I noted their lawful protest and actually felt a tinge of sympathy for their cause. This abruptly ended for me and many others when these protesters decided to walk onto a major freeway, block traffic and have their young children alongside them during this. This act sickened me and elicited feelings of contempt towards this group. The result, my sentiment turned in the other direction, leaving me with a perceived "understanding" of the behaviour of this group which somewhat rationalized the Sri Lankan government's harsh methods. Not only are these types of methods dangerous, they destroy the message being delivered.

Why do we tolerate these protests. In my example above, the police negotiated for hours with the crowd and refused to physically move them, even for the safety of those children. While I stand against repression, I do not stand against the use of force when required to combat illegal, dangerous and violent protest activity which is completely unnecessary in free and democratic societies. Those protesters above should have been physically moved off that highway and the children should have been placed in protective custody. On the same thought, while not as extreme, unions should not be allowed to physically block those who wish to go to work. In many cases, they threaten and intimidate scabs and therefore should be dealt with in a similar fashion to those accused of organized crime related offenses. This does not usually happen, why? Why do we take a pacifist approach to many of these illegal and disruptive actions but yet do not hesitate to crack down on sports hooliganism?

As always, I am very open to your thoughts and views. If you can help me understand the other side of this debate, I would very much like to hear from you.


Stephen Kaufman said...

The tragedy of all of it is how a minority who think it's ok to use violence or destruction, or just go overboard, end up discrediting the larger movement, which is there in Copenhagen to tell world leaders that climate change demands a real binding solution now, and not just more empty promises.

I think protest groups should police themselves since they have a better chance of nipping bad behavior in the bud before it gets out of hand. In the worst case, they should shun those who are prone to hooliganism. I know it's not something they want to take on, given the larger cause they are mobilized for, but the reputation of their cause is at stake here, so it's very much in their interest.

I've seen self-policing in action in protests I've been involved with here in DC, and it has helped avoid needless confrontations with the police. Sometimes all it takes is one demonstrator telling another, 'hey, you can't climb that tree/hang your sign there/go on that side of the street.' I think sometimes the nastiness starts just because one person gets carried away and then others notice and join in.

World Affairs Guy said...

Thank you for your insightful comments Stephen. I completely agree with your assessment of self policing. I would go further to expand this to ethnic groups that have fringe elements committing violent acts. These acts discredit the groups and their messages.
The only challenge with self policing is that sometimes these hooligans consist of individuals who are more about the anarchy than the cause. In this case, engagement by law enforcement is necessary to as these individuals are ambivalent to the actual cause.

Stephen Kaufman said...

Yeah, I agree. If they are assembling primarily for the purpose of getting into a fight, rather than peacefully bringing attention to their cause, there's not much else you can do but call in the cops.

I just saw this link - you and your other readers might find it interesting:

"What do Copenhagen protestors want?"

World Affairs Guy said...

Stephen: Thanks again for your comments and input, always good to have multiple perspectives.

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