When protestors refused to ride the buses during the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott of 1955 and 1956, they struck a blow against one of the many institutions that upheld segregation.
When suffragettes disrupted Britain’s House of Commons in 1908, they targeted a body that was determined to deny them the right to vote.
Protest–steadfast, prolonged, sometimes violent–has played a part in these and many other hard-won triumphs. Too often, the traditions and institutions that are held up as sacrosanct are merely an excuse for the powerful to maintain their hold on the oppressed. But there is a time, and a place, and, even for the most noble of causes, some arenas that must remain sacred and some ground that protestors should never walk.
On a recent episode of CBC Radio’s Sounds Like Canada, (1) panel members discussed the power of protest. One participant questioned whether, as a way to object to Canada’s presence in Afghanistan, it would be appropriate for protestors to appear at a fallen soldier’s funeral.
To one panellist, Carolina Echeverria, the answer was a resounding yes. ?Why not?? she argued. ?It’s the only time the media is there.?
This wasn’t only a weak argument; it also showed a remarkable lack of regard for the basic human right to mourn a loved one’s death.
Ms. Echevarria’s stance hinged on the fact that, because soldiers are involved in the violence of combat, because they are shooting at, and possibly taking the lives of, others, their own funerals are fair ground to protest these acts. But Ms. Echavarria forgets one important thing: War, even if It’s a fight you believe in, strips away human dignity and makes a mockery of the value of life. Our basic human rituals–especially those surrounding birth and death–defy that. To politicize a funeral, to deny mourners the dignity of this final rite, demonstrates the same lack of respect for the nobler side of humanity that war does.
It also assumes that a soldier’s family supported the war that their son or daughter, husband or wife, chose to take part in. It fails to realize that, along with the pain of losing a loved one, friends and family may be torn apart by the belief that it was an unjust or unnecessary cause; that the soldier being laid to rest has died for no good reason at all.
We can, and must, question the status quo. In the face of injustice, we must raise our voices and refuse to be silenced. Nonviolent civil protest has proven to be a powerful tool in the gains against racism, sexism, and other discrimination.
As Ms. Echevarria asked in the panel discussion, ?How far will you go?? In reply I would say that, even with the best of intentions, there’s such a thing as going too far.
(1) CBC Radio, 2007. Sounds Like Canada. ?The Thursday Think Tank.? Originally aired May 24, 2007. Audio file available at http://www.cbc.ca/soundslikecanada/