Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Quiet Protest (or 9 reasons people don't go to a demo)

Protests, demos and marches are everywhere right now, and for good reason. For many people the world has become a scary and unsafe place. For others there is anger and frustration over current affairs and politics. This is becoming a global issue, not isolated to the US or the UK but across the globe as people begin to take a stand against all manner of injustices.
This is big, it is powerful and many would argue necessary.

But there are many who don't take to the streets or twitter accounts. There is a temptation from those who do wave placards to label those who don't as uncaring, passive or even as tacitly supporting the very people with protest against. For those whose only engagement is through Facebook posts, the sharing of news stories and pictures or signing an online petition, there are terms thrown around like "slactivism" and "passactivism" often with a sneer. The implication of course is that you are only making a difference if you go on a march. You only care if you are at a demo. That social media posts don't count and are lazy or disingenuous. It labels the people who don't stand up as uncaring and shallow.

The problem is, of course, that those assumptions are often far from the truth and are a form of one-upmanship which can often slide into the dangerous territory of prejudice as we scorn those who are unable to do what we think is "proper". This is because the ability to be able to go to a protest or march is often due to certain privileges the person has. There are many reasons that somebody simply can't or choose not to do the type of visible active protests they would want to do.
So let's have a good old fashioned list.

1. Standing up is not an option

You may have noticed the above paragraphs are littered with words like "stand up" and "active". That's deliberate. A very common reason for not going to a protest id because you are simply not physically able to. There are dozens of physical impairments that mean standing outside in the cold or walking a mile down a road in a crowd is difficult or impossible.
Like me, people may get severe fatigue or pain from standing and walking for extended periods, or they may already be suffering pain and fatigue from their daily activities and not be able to leave the house for a march. Other's may have arthritis, mobility issues, or back pain.
Even those who use wheelchairs and scooters or crutches can struggle. Not all locations are wheelchair or crutch accessible. Plus, moving through crowds is difficult and dangerous when on wheels or crutches. It is easy to get knocked or trodden on and in a tight packed crowd crutches and sticks are too easily knocked or tripped over.

2. Fear of arrest or targeted attack

It is clear to most by now that authorities (in the UK and US at the very least) treat black demonstrators very differently to how they treat white (or white passing) demonstrators. This is obvious even in news reports when black protests are often described in violent terms or as devolving in to unrest compared to similar gatherings of white people being called demonstrations and protests, or in the case of violence, as "erupting in high spirits". It would seem fair then that there are many black people who can legitimately say they would rather not take to the street as they do not want to at best be labelled a rioter or at worst beaten and arrested or even, as has been the case at some US demos, shot and killed.
This extends to other visible minorities. Hijab wearing women fear being assaulted or forcefully deveiled. Brown skinned people from the Arabian peninsular (or who are assumed to be from there) fear assault and harassment, and those men with beards in particular fear being arrested under so called "anti-terror" laws.
It should be noted that these fears are not paranoia and there are many examples from a number of countries of people being assaulted for representing a minority. These fears may vary country to country depending on the local sociopolitical situation.
I'm referencing skin colour, ethnicity and religion here - other issues are covered in other points.

3. Being "outed" unwillingly.

People who are trans, gay, lesbian, bisexual intersex or queer are often selective in who they are out too, and for good reason. Even though we are solidly in to the 21st century attitudes toward LGBTQAI people are still astoundingly poor with people being denied basic rights, not being legally recognised, forceful conversion therapies still being legal in some places and outright abuse and hatred in others. If it was easy to be openly trans, gay or queer there wouldn't be the need to protest these issues.
The sad thing is that we do still need to campaign and protest these issues, but often the very people they are for do not feel safe attending. There is a very real threat of violence, harassment and assault, and it is not limited to the time and place of the protest. For those who are not out to everybody or indeed anybody, attending a protest risks outing yourself involuntarily. At the very least people may question why you were there leading to difficult questioning about who they are. While in the UK people may not legally be fired for being LGBTQ+ that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. In other countries the laws aren't even there. Attending a rally can put a person at risk of ongoing repercussion should homophobic or transphobic people see you there and make assumptions.
Physical risk at the time and the risk of lessened job security or losing housing is simply not a risk some people are able to take, nor should they be expected to.

4. The delights of misogyny 

Sexual harassment of women or people who present as female is a thing that happens. I cannot be denied or ignored. The reaction of authorities and other members of the public to the opinions of women is also frequently coloured by misogyny. At best this can mean biased reporting or the use of sexist remarks and language, that belittle the voices of female protest. At worst this can lead to sustained violence against female protesters and public outrage that women would dare to speak up about issues that have long been overlooked as has been the case at some Indian protests over rape laws.
On a more individual level many women or wary of going to protests for fear of sexual harassment or assault from other protesters. It is a sad truth that even in a large crowd of seemingly like minded people there are those that will take the opportunity of close proximity to grope and harass female presenting protesters.
With these risks in mind it is clear that many women or femme presenting people may hesitate before taking part in a public demonstration.

5. Socioeconomic, finances and class.

In some ways, many protests can be the privilege of people who have relative economic security. This may be buffered by other factors such as race and gender, which often go hand in hand with job security and wages. As noted above there are some people who fear losing their only source of income if they are spotted being at a demo their employer does not support or if it outs them as being an unwanted demographic.
Furthermore there are some people who simply can't take the time of work to go to a demo. They work night shifts, evenings weekends or have to accept the hours given to them. They may not be given sick pay or paid leave so taking the time off simply isn't financially viable. There are also people with families who may not want to take their entire family to a protest but can not afford the child care necessarily to be able to go, or value the time with their children, especially if they work long hours or multiple jobs. Additionally there are those who can not afford or do not have the transport needed to get to the demos. Many demos only happen in one or two cities in any given country, or only in larger cities. For those that live further away this just isn't practical.

6. Religion

Some difficulties faced by Muslim protesters have already come up in other points: fear of arrest or attack, fear of unveiling etc but there are other concerns. There are other religious groups that may encounter difficulty protesting. Many planned demos in the UK and US are scheduled for Saturdays, on the assumption that less people are working (though not everybody is off, see the above point). However for practicing Jews Saturday is Shabbat, a day of rest and prayer. This may not restrict some Jewish people from protesting but depending on how orthodox or traditional the person is they may not be able to join a protest or will have other commitments such as attending temple. Similarly Friday protests may be difficult for Muslim people to attend if they take part in Friday Prayer and may be counted as a day of rest for some groups. Consider also the period of Ramadan or the day of Yom Kippur and other fast days in Judaism and how that may impact on a person's ability to fast. During fast days people are generally recommended not to take part in any activity that causes exertion: standing for hours or walking with a large crowd can be surprisingly taxing on the body especially in particularly hot or cold weather and would not be recommended for a person who is fasting. A person may choose to break fast for a particularly important demo but they should not be judged for carefully balancing their religious obligations with the priorities of a demo, especially not when there are other ways of showing support to a cause.
I have to admit here that I don't know enough about other religious such as Hinduism, Sikhism,  Buddhism other world religions and various indigenous beliefs to say if there are any aspects which may make attending a demo difficult. However we should probably understand that there may well be and we shouldn't judge.

7. Neurodivergance and Mental Health

I hesitated initially to group these together however in my experience there is sufficient overlap to make it work. Protests, demos, rallies and marches tend to be busy, crowded, loud and a bit chaotic overlaid with a whole host of emotions and energy. For anybody with an anxiety disorder or with sensory processing issues this is a nightmare. They simply can not cope with these situations without experiencing severe stress, anxiety or meltdown. Other people may not be able to attend without a trusted individual to act as support or a carer who isn't available for that day or isn't willing or able (in the case of an employed carer) to attend. Protests tend to be highly emotional affairs on difficult issues which can cause a lot of distress to people. Many people simply can not cope with the emotions and mental fortitude required of in-person demos. Especially now in many western countries, people are feeling ground down by a long series of negative world and national events and it would be damaging to their mental health and wellbeing to attend. Smaller more controlled methods of activism are better suited.
There is also the issue of executive function - that is, the ability to plan, carry out tasks and follow through on activities and daily tasks - which can be impaired for a number of reasons including Autistic Spectrum Disorders, dyslexia and dyspraxia, ADD, bipolar disorder, depression, and a number of other issues. Going to a demo involves finding out the time, date and place, checking you are available, scheduling it, remembering it, organising your day accordingly, organising transport,making or arranging any placards or other things you are taking, dressing appropriately, packing snacks and water, meeting friends and getting home. That's a lot to deal with for anybody but can be an insurmountable list of tasks for somebody with executive dysfunction. Even those who want to and plan to  go to a demo may not be able to make it on the day if they are struggling with what is needed. Often prioritising basic self care is more important.

8. Employment obligations and status

There are a number of individuals who do not feel that they can attend a protest or who may be contractually obliged not to visibly attend political rallies. This is particularly apparent in anything which directly shows support for or protests against political parties or representatives. Those who may need to show neutrality include civil servants, especially those who work in the House of Commons; people in the armed forces, especially those who are more senior; police, teachers and doctors, who need to maintain a professional and unbiased working relationship with the public. Certainly there are people from all these professions who can and do attend rallies however, they must all personally weigh up the pros and cons of attending at each individual demo and consider if it is suitable for them or if it will jeopardise their career, safety, their influence or the protest itself. Consider example a senior policeman who attends a demo about racism. It is a strong message and something that is good to see, however, if they are recognised by a member of the public, either at the demo or a counter-demo , who later needs to be questioned by the police it could compromise investigations or make the interview more difficult.
Often when we see police in uniform on the side of a protest, or legal professionals, or military personnel holding a banner, it is a very strong message because those individuals have to be willing and able to defend their personal beliefs and reconcile them with their professional duty and reputation.

9. Seeing and hearing

Those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing often struggle at demos and rallies as the vast majority of the information being shared is audio. Even for those with hearing in the normal range it can be difficult to hear what is going on over crowd noise, traffic and through poor quality amps and megaphones. If you are hearing impaired it can become impossible to hear what is being said and to engage fully with the protest. It can even become painful and disorienting. It is rare that speakers are accompanied by a sign interpreter or that a closed caption system is available (requiring monitors) and even if they are they may not be visible from in the crowd. 
Those who are vision impaired can find being at crowded rallies extremely difficult as there is often no clear path as people mill about. It can become hazerdous or disorienting without a guide and guide dogs may not be suited to the conditions. They may not be able to provide banners or signs and can not read or see other visual aspects of the demo thus not feeling they can fully engage. 
There may be other methods of demonstration suited to those who are hearing or vision impaired. 

The quiet protest

Keep in mind that every voice that speaks out on an issue whether online or down the pub is contributing to protest. Every signature on a petition is a voice made clear. Projects like Millions Missing that used empty shoes to represent those who couldn't attend and organised simultaneous timed Twitter posts provide creative ways for people to get involved. People are writing to their MPs and attending local meetings. There is even the notion that, for those who really struggle to get involved in activism, that merely existing and being in anyway visible if you are part of a minority or targeted group is a form of protest. And that's awesome. 
Standing in front of a town hall is just one way of pushing back. Support and hold up every fight no matter how small and quiet. They add up to a rebellion.

If you are organising a demo or other activism and want to make it more accessible, especially to disabled people, then you can read my post on Accessible Activism

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