When the dust settles from the rowdy global uproar of early 2017, I don’t know how kind historians will be to the political leadership around the world. What I know is that street protest has become a core feature of how individuals of every imaginable identity and set of interests understand their rights as citizens. Starting with the historic women’s marches of January 21st, an unprecedented global event, and continuing with the daily protests in various places, people living in the U.S. are acting with hope and audacity in the face of intimidation.
At U.C. Berkeley a speaker representing the views of Breibart News was invited by the campus College Republican organization and was met with a large peaceful protest, two forms of free speech in the agora. When violent instigators began to disrupt this peaceful expression of dissent, the campus police, in accordance with their duty to protect the safety of all individuals on campus, placed the university on lockdown. Standard procedure. From his bully twitter pulpit, President Trump threatened the university with cutting their federal funds, despite no evidence that censorship had happened or that it is even legal for him to make such threats.
Around the same time, in Bucharest over 100,000 people took to the streets when the recently formed government passed an emergency order to protect members of Parliament, many of them colleagues from the same parties as the government, from being effectively prosecuted for corruption and from losing their place in Parliament. In short, the Social Democrats are closing their ranks against the anti-corruption campaign that has been extremely popular with the citizenry. During the peaceful protest, a small group of instigators started a violent scuffle with the cops, leading to allegations on the part of the government that widespread violence was afoot and security measures were necessary.
The citizens of Romania responded to this sort of bullying and outright lying on the part of the government by showing up in much larger numbers two evenings later (300,000) in freezing weather, families with kids in strollers, in the most peaceful and largest street march since December 1989. Children were carrying placards that read “thieves go home” and “the police is with us”, handing out flowers and treats to the police. People broke out in song and dance, bringing the cops into this flow of energy.
We are living in a historic moment of great contrasts and it is worth thinking about these street protests as instances of a new ethos in our midst: politics is no longer about just the ballot box, and political leaders need to start paying greater attention to what people are saying and doing in these repeated occurrences of participatory citizenship. So long as speech and peaceful marches do not turn into violence, we have a great opportunity to shape the direction of oppositional politics into the future.