Stigmatizing Dissent


The city of Montreal served as host to the informal meeting of about 25 trade ministers from the World Trade Organisation last week. While international trade minister Pierre Pettigrew was given immense media coverage to proselytise about the virtues of “globalisation”, the mainstream media concomitantly ensured that those opposed to the WTO’s agenda were not only marginalised, but largely discredited for not having protested peacefully. Indeed, by opting to focus on the isolated vandalism of a few stores and luxury vehicles during one of the days of protest, the mainstream media failed to investigate the asymmetric reality which many anti-corporate-globalisation protesters (both “violent” and “non-violent”) oppose. It seems that whenever protestors engage in “violent” behaviour, media focus is readily shifted away from the issues which the demonstrators often seek to address, and instead devolves into a tacit glorification of the ostensible virtues of peaceful protest, which to this day remain largely unsubstantiated when implemented in exclusivity with the intent of effecting social change; for every Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi, there has been a Malcolm X and Bhagat Singh.

It can be readily observed that an obsession with “peaceful dissent” has become ingrained as normative discourse in our society, and is regrettably not exclusively a pre-occupation of the mainstream media. It may be postulated that acknowledging “peaceful” protest as the sole form of legitimate dissent while simultaneously stigmatising those employing more forceful tactics have proved to be an effective means of preventing the disturbance of the status quo. Indeed, the demonstrations against the WTO were repeatedly characterised as “degenerating into vandalism” following a few isolated incidents in which downtown stores and luxury vehicles were damaged. Of concern, however, is that there is never any attempt made to distinguish between the violence committed against symbols of the state (e.g. the vandalism of a Canadian Forces recruitment office) and of corporations (e.g. breaking windows at Gap and Burger King outlets) – which are legitimate targets for someone who reasonably believes that these entities engage in violent and immoral behaviour against vulnerable populations – and violence committed against civilians. All the while, the structural and systematic violence inflicted by states and corporations on these same vulnerable populations lamentably go on unquestioned and unchallenged. Undoubtedly, this violence is greater both in scope and degree when compared to the isolated broken window or spray-painted graffiti, and translates very palpably into the inexcusable degradation and loss of countless lives both here and abroad (although these insults to life are admittedly greater in scope and degree abroad than they are here). Given this reality, one may observe that protestors have paradoxically (given their ubiquitous portrayal as “violent” in the media) shown considerable restraint thus far in refraining from attacking these symbols of greed and unbridled power with great vigour.

 

If the protestors were involved in targeting civilians or homes, their tactics may legitimately be reproached. However, in a world where power only understands the language of force, it is fairly intuitive and appropriate for those opposed to entrenched mechanisms of domination and control over vulnerable populations to resort to more aggressive tactics in order to be heard. Only if Gap stores (i.e. corporate, not personal, property) are targeted here in the Western world will the Gap management think twice about maintaining the draconian policies which ensure the dependence and subjugation of workers in their sweatshops in poor countries. Similarly, when giant fast-food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s are targeted here, there is a very palpable message that is being sent to their policy-makers letting them know that many stand in opposition to their proliferating hegemonic expansion throughout the globe. Undoubtedly, the powerful show of dissent at the WTO meetings in Seattle in 1999 forced Western politicians to wake up to the groundswell of opposition to the current direction of trade policies as expressed by citizens within their own countries (of course, peoples suffering from the dictates of colonialism, imperialism, and now, neo-liberalism, have long been resisting such policies out of sheer necessity). Thus, while there is a role for boycott campaigns and more peaceful forms of protest to express one’s discontent with such entities, the elite managers of this society will not be inclined to address our concerns if there is no palpable threat posed to their day-to-day operations. The explicit anti-capitalist impetus driving the people’s movement opposed to corporate-led globalisation essentially mandates that bodies propagating and profiting from capitalist enterprise be resisted by force, if there is any sincere desire of overthrowing such an inequitable system of economic, political and social relations.

 

Observers should also take note of the double-bind in which protestors are incessantly put. For example, after theMontreal police arrested protestors for allegedly being violent at the recent WTO protests, peaceful demonstrators established a “Green Zone” many blocks away. This somehow still constituted participating in an illegal demonstration according to the police who arrested all of the people in the Green Zone (bringing the total number of protestors arrested at the WTO protests to approximately 240), even though the gathering was on private property with permission of the owners of that property. Some of the protestors who were arrested were subsequently released without charge after spending a whole night in jail.  However, in a recent personal correspondence with one of the protestors who was arrested, it was revealed that many arrestees had charges such as “unlawful assembly” laid against them, and were also required to agree to conditions limiting their freedom of speech and right to assembly prior to their release. The message sent by the authorities was clear: the form of the protest doesn’t matter, it is simply the fact of protesting that is found to be offensive. With such flagrant abuse of police power and violation of people’s basic rights to liberty and free expression, it is quite unfair to focus exclusively on the violence of protestors.
 
International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew has opportunistically used the mobilisation against the WTO meetings inMontreal as a stage from which to pontificate about the spurious merits of international trade. In sharp contrast to his assertions, however, there are numerous sources which detail the mechanisms and effects suggesting how and why the neo-liberal trade agenda is detrimental to the vulnerable and marginalised that constitute a great majority of the world’s population. For example, from a health-based perspective, Jim Yong Kim, Joyce Millen, Alec Irwin and many others at the Partners in Health organisation at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, have done illuminating work on the detrimental effects of such trading policies on the health of the poor. In “Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor”1, they convey the bleak facts and figures which provide evidence against the unfounded doctrine that international trade betters the lot of everyone involved; to the contrary, while it allows for a select few to prosper, it does so at the expense of a great many.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pettigrew goes so far as to chastise the protestors in doublespeak that would make Orwell turn in his grave by suggesting that “the stubborn opposition to globalization by some protesters is only hurting poor people in developing countries”2. His preposterous claim that protestors are somehow trying to “screw the African cotton farmers and the African HIV victims as well” is a salient example of what in the field of psychiatry is referred to as “projection”, whereby an individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by falsely attributing to another his or her own unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts. It is not the protestors who are preventing people with HIV from gaining free access to essential anti-retroviral medications through international trade agreements like the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, nor is it the protestors who forced African cotton farmers into cash-crop agriculture; these are products of a neo-liberal trade agenda which ensures the dependence – not the prosperity – of entire peoples living in poorer countries on the whimsical dictates of wealthy men in power. As someone vehemently opposed to this neo-liberal trade agenda, I do not seek to imperil the lives of those being forced to work in deplorable conditions in the Gap’s sweatshops or the cotton fields inAfrica as Mr. Pettigrew simplistically suggests; however, I do want to hold to account those who facilitate and profit from this exploitation and subjugation. The pernicious ideologies espoused by people like Mr. Pettigrew can never be reformed as they are predicated on the perpetual existence of economic disparities; it is only the slight reduction of this disparity that such men seek. This is the reality of a capitalist mode of economy. The discussions at the WTO focus around how to make the lives of the poor somewhat better, while the principled goals of many in the protest movement is the categorical demand that people not be made poor in the first place.

The purpose of this writing is not to advocate the idea of a carte blanche for violent actions in demonstrations per se; indeed, the effectiveness of such actions can only be weighed over a longer time period while concurrently being evaluated against the successes and failures of non-violent dissent over the years, and is worthy of investigation on its own merits3. What serves as a significant motivating factor for this particular piece, however, is the notion that “violence” – when employed by protestors in conjunction with other forms of direct action (including non-violent and pacifist) – should not be regarded as prima facie wrong. By choosing to engage in tactics which will predictably land these protestors in trouble with the Canadian legal system, they are making a conscious and informed decision consistent with their laudable convictions for a better and more just world. This decision is often made in spite of the fact that many of these protestors already find themselves in precarious legal and financial situations. These are not the impulsive acts that politicians and mainstream media would like for us to believe by preying upon sensationalist sound bytes and video clips. Consequently, instead of caricaturising these protestors as simplistic zealots who lack an understanding of how economic and political systems operate, it behooves society to delve into the well-formulated motivations of such protestors and precipitously bear witness to their concerns and demands.


Endnotes:

1. Kim, Jim Yong, et al (eds.). Dying for Growth: Global inequality and the health of the poor. Common Courage Press:Monroe, 2000, p. 3-61.
2. “Pettigrew chides anti-globalisation protestors”, Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail, online edition,July 25, 2003.
3. One is directed to Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the role of armed struggle inNorth America (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 1998) for a particularly important exploration of this theme.

Samir Hussain is an independent writer and social justice advocate. He is trained as a medical doctor, and is currently enrolled in a pediatrics residency training program. He can be reached [email protected]

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