The Limit to the Right of Protest

right to protest

The right to protest is not a human right per se and no constitution insofar as I am aware grants it to its’ people as a fundamental right. Rather, we view the right to protest as an extension and amalgamation of the freedom of assembly and the freedom of speech.

But although as basic human rights, both the freedom of assembly and the freedom of speech are limitless in their scope, there is a limit to the right to protest. There is only so much leeway the state provides to the protesters until it resorts to the use of physical force. In most cases, the room that the state provides is not enough to force the desired change.

This is not an abstract generalization about despotic regimes, there is strong empirical evidence for it even in the so-called democracies of today that place interests of a minority over the wishes of the majority.

When years of activism fail to bring about the desired change, people finally take it to the streets to protest. For all the years that the activists worked tirelessly, the media does not give them the coverage they deserve. Due to the lack of media coverage that keeps the masses from organizing, the state can safely ignore them.

As long as the politics of government is not threatened, it is not a ‘law and order situation’. People can protest all they want. They can hold signs, chant slogans, and sleep on the streets. The right to protest only begins to be a problem when it makes the government look weak or when it threatens the interests of the minority of the opulent.

Take the Occupy Movement for example. For years, activists talked about the growing income inequality. Many protested against it as well to get the state’s attention but nothing transpired. From the Reagan years when the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich began to NAFTA to Bush Jr’s tax cuts, there weren’t ‘law and order situations’ because the people were largely quiet and submissive.

But after the 2008 crisis, that changed. Millions of people around the world took to streets to protest. Even though the aims of each group varied, I will talk about the Occupy Wall Street Movement here. There was no outrage by the government when it legislated the theft of the poor by the rich but when the masses came to take what was truly theirs; it quickly became a ‘law and order situation’.

The people reached a tipping point when the taxes they had paid were used by the government to bail out the same banks and other financial institutions that had caused the 2008 collapse. People lost their homes, jobs, businesses, and savings while those responsible for the market crash got a bailout with no repercussions whatsoever.

So the will of the people was clear; the 99% did not want to pay for the mistakes of the 1%. In a true democracy, they would have gotten their wish. But the United States is a polyarchy. There were mass arrests, assaults on the protesters, and suppression of the news reporters by the Police.

As long as protesters were few and unorganized, the state let them exercise their rights to assembly and free speech but when they joined together, it became a ‘law and order situation’.

James Madison, the main framer of the Constitution, during the Constitution Convention, said that the main task of the government was to protect the minority of the opulent. The opulent is what we would call the bankers, industrialists, corporate executives etc. today. He was wholly against democracy.

Speaking about democracy, he said that the majority wishes for a more equitable distribution of the fruits of their labor and if they had a choice, they would vote for the agrarian reform. His arguments used England as an example and agrarian reform meant the breakup of lands, which obviously would hurt the minority of the opulent.

Yes, you have the right to assemble and speak freely but only so long as it does not interfere with the primary responsibility of the government, which is to protect the minority of the opulent.

Following the 2008 crash, Pakistan also witnessed the Occupy Movements albeit in a couple of cities only. So what is the status of the right to protest there?

The current Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, basically protested his way into power. The issue that rocketed his popularity among the public was his stand against corruption. He threatened the state with citywide and later countrywide lockdowns unless the Supreme Court tried then PM Nawaz Sharif. The Supreme Court registrar first rejected his petition, calling it frivolous but after his threats of a lockdown, accepted it.

Fast-forward 2 years; he is Prime Minister of a coalition government after exceeding expectations in the general elections. After the Supreme Court acquitted a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, of blasphemy charges, religious zealots all across Pakistan have locked the state down.

PM Khan addressed them and appealed to them to back off less the state exercised its’ power. But despite their unjustifiable demands, are they really to blame for resorting to a countrywide shutdown as their first course of action? Why didn’t they organize a soft protest to get the government’s attention?

Governments do not take the protesters seriously unless they stand to damage them politically. If protesters lock the motorways and highways down, it makes the government look weak, which results in a political crisis.

Over a decade ago, K-Electric, an electric corporation in the biggest city of Pakistan went private. A few years later, they laid off half their workforce. As a protest, all of their labor force organized a protest and refused to work. They didn’t shut down highways and motorways. The protest lasted for almost 4 months but did not invite the level of state engagement that we have seen in the first 2 days of the protests by the Islamists.

This is exactly why Islamists resorted to the desperate means right from the start. Even they know that harmless and non-irritant protests do not get the government’s attention. As a result, the government is negotiating with them while the last government opened fire on pregnant women protecting the house of their leader.

Around the time when religious zealots took to streets, medical staff from a children’s hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, walked out of their shifts in protest. They held signs, called for justice, but remained within the hospital premises. Since they didn’t block the roads and acted with civility, the state ignored them and so did the media even though their demands were legitimate. I couldn’t find one update on their protest in the media today.

Here lies the core reality of the right to protest; the state would allow a protest to go on as long as it doesn’t interfere with their political ambitions. In the case of Occupy Wall Street Movement, the protesters began threatening the minority of the opulent. In Asia Bibi’s case, the Islamists threaten the image of the government at a time when Khan is trying to prove to the world that religious extremism in Pakistan remains contained.

Both cases show that where it matters to them politically, the governments spring into action no matter how ridiculous the demands of the zealots.

But where there are legitimate demands as in the case of Occupy Movement, governments exercise their force at the first sign of danger.

If the governments did address the concerns of the protesters at infancy, they might not spiral out of control and begin to threaten the rights of others. In a true democracy, that ought to be the primary responsibility of the state, not the task to protect a specific class.

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