Protests a Healthy Part of Democracy

DC Tea Party Protests

When there is interesting news from just down the road, most people focus on that, largely ignoring events in other countries.  But in our globalized world, a few keystrokes put us in touch with London, Paris, Rome or New York.  Google is marvelous.  A few hops around cyber space yield two observations.   First, almost everyone in England, France, Italy and America is paying attention to their own news.  Second, much of that news is about protests, which are normal democratic phenomena.


In London, Parameswaran Subramaniyan, an ethnic Tamil, is on a hunger strike to persuade the British Government to press for a ceasefire in the battle between Sri Lankan government forces and the rebel Tamil Tigers.  Tamil protestors have surrounded his tent in Parliament Square.  Police have blocked access to nearby Westminster Bridge to stop protestors from hurling themselves into the Thames River.

Across the Channel, French universities are paralyzed.  Students and staff have barricaded university buildings with desks and chairs to protest poor conditions, dim job prospects and President Nicolas Sarkozy’s alleged contempt for intellectuals.

Beyond the Alps in Italy, AS Roma fans are picketing the team’s training ground in the Roman suburb of Trigoria to protest the rumored sale of star defender Philippe Mexes to Juventus or AC Milan.

The most interesting recent demonstrations, however, have been in America.  The April 15 deadline for Americans to pay their taxes sparked protests throughout the country.  This year, protestors organized “Tea Parties” to recall the 1773 “Boston Tea Party” in which American colonists tossed tons of tea into Boston Harbor to protest the taxes of King George III.

About 1,000 people gathered near New York City Hall.  Some donned 18th Century Colonial costumes.  Others wore modern military garb to symbolize…who knows what?

One demonstrator, Roy Delduco, told CBS News, “I don’t like Republicans. I don’t like liberals either.”  Delduco dislikes both former US President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.   “I feel like we have to do something,” Kathy O’Hara told CBS.  Her fellow protestors in Washington planned to dump a million tea bags in front of the White House.  However, police turned the tea-laden truck away because they had no permit to dump anything in front of the White House.  Then the protestors tried to erect a stage in front of the Treasury Department.  The police turned them away because their protest permit did not include that location.  They ended up in Lafayette Park, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, where they had a permit to demonstrate.  Looking out his window, Obama no doubt understood their point.

A week later, things were nastier as anti-globalization protestors disturbed the spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.  Police arrested vandals who allegedly broke windows and tossed red paint.  Protestors gathered in front of the financial institutions and tried to close 19th Street.  Police used pepper spray and batons to confine them to the sidewalk.

This brief Google-gallup around the democratic world leads to six conclusions.

  • First, protests are normal and frequent in democracies. 
  • Second, because democracy breeds individuality, people demonstrate their views on many disparate matters. 
  • Third, democracy breeds creativity.  French students hew to traditional barricades; Americans dress as Colonists.  Raymond Kwai, a protestor in New York, held a sign, “If I wanted to be a Commie, I’d stay in China.” 
  • Fourth, some demonstrations persist for long periods.  The Tamils in London began on April 6.  French students have been aux barricades since February—they may lose the entire academic year.  And middle class tax protestors may have left Washington’s Lafayette Park, but they left behind a persistent bunch that has been protesting this or that continuously since the Vietnam War, which ended 34 years ago.  Democratic societies live with reasonable protests. 
  • Fifth, sometimes protests become dangerous, and even in democratic societies, the police must act.  In London, they are preventing people from hurling themselves into a river of swift currents and undertows.  In Washington, they are protecting the majority of citizens going about their daily lives from the minority that resorts to violence. 
  • Sixth, democratic countries have rules about demonstrations.

The Washington Metropolitan Police had to get tough in front of the World Bank.  But were they a tad too punctilious with the playful Tea Party protest?  No.  They enforced laws that exist to balance the rights of all citizens.

In America, people have a right to protest high taxes.  President Obama has a right to security.  Others have a right to work at the Treasury Department, or to cross 15th Street to dine at the Old Ebbitt Grill.  The people who work in that restaurant also have a right to make their living there each day.

In the end, democracy really depends on each citizen respecting the rights of all others.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.  This column appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper. Photo by Flickr user Daquella Manera, used under Creative Commons license.

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