Ottawa, September 2000: The flyer going around campus read “Protest March, Demonstration, and Street Party”. As a new university student fresh from the west, this struck me as odd. Was it a serious social change effort, or a kegger? Could it really be both?
Over the course of the next 4 years, I witnessed many, many protest marches during my time as a student in the national capital. It was rare, in fact, to see Parliament Hill without some sort of demonstration going on. They soon became just noise; no more remarkable than the traffic or the wind. When I did notice them, it was only to wonder whether there was any point to them – what could really be accomplished by camping out on Wellington street with signs?
I was reminded of this last Saturday here in Edmonton when I saw the anti-racism rally in Churchill Square. My fiance and I laughed a bit, to be honest, at the idea that any racist would change their ways based on 75-odd people marching around a concrete pad in downtown Edmonton on the weekend (when that area is relatively empty anyway):
“Well, I was planning to stay a bigot, but your sign is so compelling, I’m feeling more tolerant already!”
But then I heard that some neo-Nazis had come out as well, to oppose the anti-racism rally, sooo….maybe there’s a point to it? And certainly, there are cases where taking to the streets accomplishes something – historical examples abound, with the Arab Spring and (arguably) the Occupy movement being two of the most recent.
So where’s the line? When are demonstrations and protest marches a viable route to creating change; and when are they ineffective, sort of pointless, and even silly?
In the course of my research for this post, I discovered that Edmonton has a resident “citizen engagement” archivist, Paula E. Kirman, who documents all sorts of demonstrations on her website, here. The photo in this post is hers. Take a look – it’s interesting.