Why People Protest

I wrote this three days ago, before the Hong Kong protests turned violent.

This morning I had a conversation with someone who, apropos of nothing, said, " What they're doing in Hong Kong is stupid and isn't going to work. You think China will give way?"* It's a comment that betrays that peculiarly Singaporean "pragmatic" approach to life, the universe and everything. It's also the kind of comment that pushes all my buttons.

What does it mean for a protest to "work"? Presumably, the protesters are protesting for a reason, and there are concrete demands that the protesters want to see met. So I suppose we can say that one view of it is that a protest "works" when the protesters get what they want.

This is an awfully utilitarian -- and awfully naive -- view of protest, in my opinion. The very nature of protest is that it is always directed by those without power against those with power. Anyone who has the power to effect change without protest would effect change without protest. Because of this, most protests always look like -- and feel like -- they are going to fail, at least in the beginning.

That is also why protests can feel like they skirt the edge of legality: precisely because by the time a protest happens, the protesters have already tried nearly all the institutional channels for change and failed to achieve their aims. Singaporeans, believing in the inerrancy of the government, might feel that this shows the illegitimacy of the protesters' objectives -- "if you asked for change and didn't get it, the change you wanted must have been a bad thing" -- but that is merely a symptom of our collective political illiteracy.

So why do people protest?

Think about what people risk to be part of a march, a sit-in, a strike, a picket line. They give up their time and energy and money. Often that time and energy and money is not trivial: it is the livelihood that their families depend on. They risk retaliation by the very powers that they protest against. No less significant is the fact that they risk the comfort and stability of known quantities for the mere hope of something better. Why? Because they are convinced that they or someone they identify with is suffering an injustice; because the present situation has become so intolerable that even the shadow of something better is worth fighting for.

And that, I think, is why people protest: to bear witness to an injustice.* Yes, protests always have stated political aims that are part of the "why" -- but people join protests even when they feel that the hope of actually effecting change is miniscule, so that cannot be the sole motivation. So perhaps the protest "fails", in the sense that the protesters don't get what they want. But what cannot be denied is that they drew attention to their cause and invited people to join it if they felt the same way; a protest says, "hey, this thing is happening, and we don't like it, and we want it to be known." That is the spirit that drives protest.

* God only knows what this person thinks of protests to show solidarity. To be fair: I used to think they were stupid too. I don't any more. ^

*** Somewhere in my files I have an essay that I wrote for class, arguing that the purpose of a documentary is to bear witness. ^