Protesting is often maligned as being unconstructive, which stems from the fact that protesting is, by nature, oppositional. Even if you don’t like the idea of protest, it is unfair to describe protest as unconstructive, because protesters do often tend to propose an alternative vision to whatever they protest against. Indeed, it is through these alternative visions for society that some of the greatest changes have come about. Things that we take for granted like universal suffrage, civil rights and access to education have all been fought for on the streets.
Recently in Ireland, the Right2Water group organised the largest street demonstrations in the history of the state, mobilising more than 100,000 citizens. Similarly, the Home Sweet Home occupation of Apollo House captured the public’s imagination and forced the government’s hand in relation to homelessness. Common to both of these movements is that the change demanded was not handed down but actively fought for, with public support the catalyst for change. However, given that there are many forms of protest, it begs the question as to its legitimate extent and how far people should go in their fight for change.
Although the Apollo House occupation was illegal, it drew widespread sympathy due to the severity of homelessness, which people view as a pressing issue in modern Ireland
When protest involves breaking the law, many people draw the line. That concern is legitimate, since brazenly breaking the law undermines the authority of the state and threatens social upheaval. Nonetheless, social change in the past has often involved law-breaking as a means to seriously challenge a wrongful order. Although the Apollo House occupation was illegal, it drew widespread sympathy due to the severity of homelessness, which people view as a pressing issue in modern Ireland. Moreover, the fact that the building occupied had been paid for by taxpayers legitimised the occupation by showing a conscious level of thought on behalf of the organisers. It is clear that where breaking the law is concerned, measure is required. In this way, protest becomes a measured response to an extreme situation and retains public support.
The 2014, the Jobstown blockade was a protest that failed to capture the public’s hearts in the same way Apollo House did, and has led to figures involved being charged with the false imprisonment of former Tanaiste Joan Burton. Speaking to The University Times, Kieran Mahon, a spokesperson for the group “Jobstown Not Guilty”, described the action as “spontaneous…where people placed themselves in direct opposition to the political establishment”. The broad scope and lack of planning facilitated a media depiction of the protesters as thugs, despite the legitimate anger of those involved. As Right2Water and Apollo House show, addressing single issues with careful planning appeals to a wider public, whose support is essential, particularly when breaking the law is involved.
Moving on from issues of legality, more moderate action can be just as successful in bringing about change. In today’s financially dependent economy, divestment is an effective way to pressurise companies, institutions and even countries into changing their practices. Ciaran O’Rourke is the founder of Students for Justice in Palestine TCD, a group that is lobbying College and Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) to boycott the state of Israel on human rights grounds. Speaking to The University Times through Facebook, O’Rourke described the idea behind his movement and others like it as “an active kind of solidarity…coalitions of like-minded (or like-suffering) people coming together, particularly when the traditional channels of political expression are failing”.
An area from which Trinity has agreed to divest is that of fossil fuels. Fossil Free TCD, the student group that lobbied for divestment, used a combination of public meetings, workshops, petitions, and stalls to inform the college community and garner support. heir strategy differed from campaigners in Queen’s University Belfast, who staged a sit-in but failed to convince the management at Queen’s to divest from fossil fuels. In spite of that, student sit-ins are an appropriate form of protest in certain circumstances.
As examples have shown, for a movement to be successful it needs to gain public support
Perhaps the most famous student sit-in occurred in France in 1968, where students in the Paris University at Nanterre staged a sit-in against bureaucracy and class-discrimination at French universities. They were joined by students at the Sorbonne and supported by the national students’ union (UNEF). Following a heavy-handed response by the police, there ensued a two-week-long occupation and a general strike of workers, in which over a fifth of France’s workforce was on strike. By contrast to the issue of fossil fuels, which is a more niche issue, the focus of the French occupation was on an issue that affected all students. Similarly in 2013, students at Manhattan’s Cooper Union occupied the College President’s office for 65 days to protest tuition fee hikes. In terms of measure, it is more appropriate to take over a university building for an issue that affects all students.
Last October the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) organised a demonstration against proposed tuition hikes, at which over 10,000 students lined the streets of Dublin. As the time nears for the government to implement one of the three options outlined by the Cassell’s Report, any increase in tuition fees serves as a form of economic discrimination, providing barriers to education. This must be met with resistance. However, as examples have shown, for a movement to be successful it needs to gain public support. Therefore, planning is essential so that any actions are both coordinated and measured. In order that we successfully stand up for our rights, let us think nationally and act locally.