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This is what democracy looks like

Cameron Roberts, Opinions Contributor

Krum Dochev’s article last week, “You dirty activist sympathizers,” characterized G20 protesters and their goals as anti-democratic and illegitimate. With all the corporate media coverage of black-clad thugs destroying businesses, it’s easy to assume that G20 protesters were all as naïve as Krum supposes. When I attended the Environment March on the Wednesday before the summit, I did indeed see many such people in the crowd.

My goals, however, were far more modest. My interests in attending anti-G20 demonstrations had more to do with urging world leaders to work within existing political structures to avert the global catastrophe threatened by climate change. I was far from the only person who felt this way. While they were brought together by a common cause, the environmental protesters I encountered had views that ranged all over the left of the political spectrum.

As a general statement, Dochev’s characterization of the demonstrators as uninformed ‘utopians’ is little more than a caricature.

But what if, hypothetically, it wasn’t, and all the activists of the G20 did indeed await the back-to-the-land/guild-socialist/cradle-to-grave paradise inspired by Revolution? In addition to his factual error regarding the nature of the demonstrators’ views, Dochev makes a normative error when he suggests that the protests were somehow illegitimate. While I happen to agree with him that Utopianism is a failed project, I am not inclined to deny access to the public sphere to those who believe otherwise.

It is true that in a democracy, no minority has the right to force its views on the majority. For that reason, people do not have a mandate to unilaterally break up a system that they see as oppressive.

Dochev, however, misses another important facet of democracy. Democratic citizenship requires that we be willing to listen to ideas which we find ludicrous, so long as these ideas are expressed in a non-violent and non-hateful way. Polling data about the widespread appeal of free-market capitalism in developing nations are therefore irrelevant to the question of the legitimacy of the demonstrators at the G20.

The Canadian Charter of Freedoms guarantees us the right to say things that are wrong, even if we gather in groups of thousands to say them loudly and publicly. We can demonstrate in favour of unwise policy, even if the policy is so unwise that it could undermine the very democracy which allows us to demonstrate. Such is the paradoxical beauty of democracy.

Despite the supposedly anti-democratic ideals of the protesters, it merits mention that none of them actually managed to undermine any democratic process. The same thing, however, cannot be said of the actions of the Toronto police, who arrested 1105 people over the course of the weekend (most of whom were peaceful protesters, journalists or innocent bystanders) and assaulted countless others. Peaceful protests are important facet of any democracy, and the police’s use of violence to break up such protests should be condemned in the harshest possible terms.

At this point, I am unfortunately required to address a tiresome red herring about the black bloc, lest I be accused of supporting them. Their actions are deserving of contempt, not just from the residents of Toronto who had several blocks of their city ransacked, but also from the peaceful activists who saw their movements severely undermined by this display of violence. It is important to note, however, that the actions of the black bloc do not reflect those of the majority of the protesters.

At the time the black bloc was vandalizing Toronto, they were in a concentrated mass several blocks away from the much larger body of peaceful protesters. The police had a good opportunity to move in with thousands of officers in riot gear and not only stop the vandalism but also to arrest all those responsible. They opted instead to allow the vandals to run wild and then use the damage they caused as an excuse to rescind the right of peaceful assembly over the next two days. Black bloc violence does nothing to justify the antidemocratic actions of the police.

Criticism of the goals and methods of activism is a very useful and worthwhile activity from which any democracy can benefit, but applying the label of ‘illegitimacy’ to peaceful civic action is problematic because it can serve to justify irresponsible police behaviour. Regardless of their intended message, G20 protesters did not pose any actual threat to democracy. The police, on the other hand, succeeded in temporarily making peaceful protest illegal in downtown Toronto.

Even if every single one of the G20 protesters were a naïve antidemocratic utopian, I’m not sure it would be necessary to condemn their actions as illegitimate. Wouldn’t it be enough for their views to be wrong?

Correction: The piece by Krum Dochev, originally titled “You dirty activist sympathizers” was given a misleading headline that did not accurately convey the tone or views in Dochev’s opinion piece. The headline in the original piece has now been changed to “You wannabe revolutionaries.” We thank Cameron Roberts for his comments on the piece and welcome any reader comments in the future.


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