Matt Leighninger: Learning from the drama in Ottawa: Protest should be the last resort, not the first | Opinion
MATT LEIGHNINGER The fulcrum
The blockade of Ottawa by Canadian truckers is finally over. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Federal Emergencies Act and Ottawa police moved in to evict the protesters, who were expressing their opposition to vaccination mandates. Truckers continued to wave the Canadian flag, but most left peacefully or were arrested.
In the United States and Canada, we often idealize protest — at least when we agree with the cause the protesters are supporting. Protesters go to great lengths, and sometimes their lives, to voice their opinions on important public issues. They exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly because they feel otherwise unheard. A notable history of the protest movements of the 1960s is entitled “Democracy is in the streets”.
Where is it? Nonviolent protesters may be brave, but they are not necessarily knowledgeable, unprincipled, or acting in the best interest of their communities and country. Even when peaceful, a protest is not a safe space for people who disagree to negotiate and find common ground. It is not an environment that helps people absorb information and distinguish fact from fiction. And protesting is dangerous, especially for people of color, Indigenous peoples, religious minorities, and members of other groups who already face discrimination and violence.
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Democracy works better indoors – at least it should. Unfortunately, while most of our “inner” democratic opportunities are safer than protest, they are generally not empowering, participatory, or collaborative. Most public meetings and hearings operate on a 100-year-old formula that gives citizens a few minutes at the microphone to voice their concerns. Even the layout of the room reinforces a sort of “parent-child” dynamic between officials and the public, with officials seated in comfortable chairs on a raised dais with nameplates while citizens swarm below. These official interactions tend to anger everyone and increase mistrust between citizens and the government.
There are, however, many proven ways to make democracy work better. Around the world, citizens and leaders have developed innovations that make governance more informed, equitable and deliberative. Many of these reforms and practices give people a greater voice in public decisions and inspire citizens to devote some of their time, energy and skills to their communities.
These reforms and practices include engagement commissions, large-scale deliberative processes, serious games, participatory budgets, citizens’ assemblies, text discussions, youth voice programs, crowdsourcing processes, and more. ‘others. Democratic innovations have been instituted in many countries, from Iceland to Taiwan to Colombia, as well as at the local level in some American cities. Asked in surveys and opinion polls, Americans are in favor of this type of innovation, even across party lines: support for these measures varies from 75% to nearly 90%, with no significant differences between Republicans and Democrats.
An interesting benefit of protest is that the experience tends to bind people together. Like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street protesters before them, Canadian truckers have strengthened their relationships and built trust with each other – for many this will prove to have been a formative political experience. But protests shouldn’t be the only opportunity to build connections: we can and must create more civic opportunities that have the same benefits in the functioning of our institutions and communities.
Polarization has become such a problem in America that many people can’t imagine having a reasonable conversation, let alone a productive encounter at a public meeting, with someone on “the other side.” And it’s true that not everyone is capable of being reasonable. But the vast majority of Americans and Canadians have enough decency to be able, especially if they find themselves in a safe environment conducive to deliberation, to listen to each other’s experiences, to analyze information together, to politely disagree on certain things and agree wholeheartedly on others. To overcome polarization and address common challenges, we need more such opportunities in public life.
Although the drama in Ottawa ended with more of a whimper than a bang, the conclusion likely won’t make either the truckers or their opponents happy (or the downtown businesses and tow truck companies that were taken between). This may make vaccine-hesitant Canadians more resistant. This can help extremists co-opt the Canadian flag and present their causes as patriotic.
Even in a more democratic society, there should always be room for protest. Many social movements have achieved great benefits for society, especially in the promotion of civil rights, by taking to the streets. Freedom of expression and assembly must be protected, as protest is the last resort for people who want a say in public decisions. But if that’s the only recourse, we’re all losers.
Matt Leighninger is the Democratic Innovation Lead for the National Citizenship Conference.