In December 2009, the United Nations climate change meetings took place in Copenhagen, Denmark. Around the world, people took to the streets, demanding action. In Canada, Greenpeace scaled the Parliament buildings to draw attention to Stephen Harper's stance on climate change. At the same time, peaceful acts of protest, large and small, took place across the country.
Reporting on the protests, CBC news took a playful tone, asking: does protesting change anything?
The broadcast seems to conclude that groups like Greenpeace protest because we don't have access to the corridors of power. We can't afford expensive lobbyists. We don't play golf. Our only alternative: climb buildings, put up banners. If only we could reach policy-makers by conventional means, the broadcast implies, we'd hang up our grappling hooks for good.
That's not exactly true. First, Greenpeace does lobby politicians. As implied, we don't use expensive lobbyists. Like other Canadian residents, we write letters, we circulate petitions, we comment on political platforms, we hold forums. In addition, we often develop relationships with our elected representatives, sharing our scientific research and policy expertise. Sometimes we hold meetings with them, attempting to influence their decisions. Sometimes it works.
At the same time, we engage in peaceful acts of civil disobedience. We do not do this because our efforts at lobbying have failed. We do this because the system has failed. Federal climate change policy in Canada is broken. Our Prime Minister is blocking international action. In this context, protest is not a last-resort lobbying technique. It is another way, a parellel track, a refutation of the current order and the path towards an alternative. It is conscious choice to stand by reality, and to stand outside.
Here's what mainstream media stories about protest often fail to understand (and take a look at recent coverage of the Olympics protests for more media dismissals of civil disobedience). Protesters are not failed lobbyists. Protesters are reacting to reality from where we sit. We see a system that is not working for us, and we want change. Our protests can be expressions of anger, expressions of inventiveness, expressions of hope. They can mark a way forward. They can draw attention away—if only for moment—from the fictions that surround us. Most importantly, protests are almost always expressions of reality. And reality—although it can be changed—is not going to go away. Neither are we.