In the days after Donald Trump’s shock victory in the U.S., I had a thought-provoking, somewhat comical conversation on one of my Whatsapp groups about the usefulness of anti-Trump protests in the U.S.
“Hey Americans?”, Hannah, my cousin in Toronto posted, in reference to our cousin, Shaan, and his wife, Mona, who had moved from Canada 21 years ago to settle in Virginia, D.C.
“It’s stupid that this Trump stuff is still going on. The protests, etc. WTF? It’s scary that Americans are acting like poor third-world nations.”
Shaan: “What? Americans have always loved protesting. It’s built into our constitution. Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and freedom to dissent!”
Hannah: “Yes, but not protesting about the presidency. He was fairly elected…by the electoral college.”
Shaan: “Yes he was. Protesters are not disputing that. They are expressing their discontent with who he is. You’ll see…Let them raise the price of poutine in Canada and you’ll see people out there protesting in the thousands.”
Hannah: “We are Canadian. We do not protest…We would say ‘Sorry.'”
Mona: “The purpose of the protests is not to refute the outcome of the election. That ship has sailed. The protestors are letting the new establishment know that we are a force to be reckoned with and that we will never tolerate laws that compromise our civil liberties.”
Sending messages, creating connections
I watched the conversation play out and felt a bit on the fence. While comparing U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to autocratic leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring protests in 2011 was a far stretch, I could see Hannah’s point in how futile the demonstrations seemed.
But there’s something about public protest. When thousands of people mobilize in one space, they’re doing so much more than just releasing their anger — they’re taking part in a healthy democracy. And in doing so, they’re sending a strong message to their children, their critics and to the rest of the world: “We will not tolerate injustice.”
Public protest also helps create new connections and allies at a time when more and more people feel isolated. You can “like” and follow all the human rights and social justice campaigns you want on social media, but nothing creates real, genuine alliances and a feeling of collective solidarity the way marching in a rally does.
13 years later
My cousin’s exchange reminded me of the massive anti-Iraq war protests that I witnessed as a graduate student in central London back in 2003. February 15 was described by researchers as “the largest march in human history” with an estimated six to 30 million people across 60 countries taking part.
After that day, New York Times writer Patrick Tyler claimed that the demonstrations showed there were two superpowers on the planet, the United States and worldwide public opinion. It definitely felt that way.
I had never really intended to join the protests, feeling like it would betray my impartiality as a journalist. But some societal injustices are too painstakingly black and white to stay “neutral” on.
So I allowed myself to be swept in the euphoria, one of millions across the world who screamed out in angst for the British government not to invade Iraq on the pretext of “removing weapons of mass destruction” and “freeing the Iraqi people.”
They went in anyway — wreaking blood, carnage and even more terrorism that led in large part to the eventual birth of the so-called Islamic State (an admission Blair himself made last year).
But I was there to call it out. I was witness to a pivotal moment in history that forever changed the way I viewed people and government. And while that may not count for much in the eyes of those Iraqi people who suffered immeasurably, it will make a difference in the decisions made by future generations.
How do I know this? Because of the conviction I see now in my seven-year-old son. There’s a reason why he almost decided to do his one-minute public speech assignment earlier this year to “Why I would not vote for Donald Trump.” (He instead opted for “Why I want to become the prime minister of Canada”).
Ali doesn’t know anything about public protest or the Iraq war — but he does know it’s our civic responsibility to speak out when something isn’t right.
So bring on the protests, America. The public rallies may have stopped, but there are many other effectual ways you can resist Trump — from supporting U.S. civil liberties organizations to establishing sanctuary cities (pushing local government to not report people’s immigration statuses to federal authorities). For the sake of our children and our families, stay active and engaged on every level.
If nothing else, it’s an important first lesson in standing up for what you believe in.
This article originally appeared in the Middle East Eye.
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Image: Flickr/Lorie Shaull