One of the very basic human rights is the right not to be oppressed. Too often people submit to this oppression, allowing those in power to do whatever they want, simply because they are in power. It is a natural assumption that those that hold power will use it for the greater good. But, it takes only the tiniest amount of cynicism (or maybe just a bit of common sense) to see that this is not how things actually work. In reality, those in control use it simply to maintain their position. Any concession to those below serves only to weaken their hold on the reins of power. So, the few rule the many, with both sides seemingly content to stay within the status quo. But, it does not have to be this way. Submission does not have to be the rule for the oppressed. They have the ability to stand up in defiance against those that try to keep them down. Not only can they fight, they even have a variety of ways in which to do so. The methods may vary, but the intentions are the same: to let it be known that they will not lie down in the face of unjust oppression. The news today is filled with three specific examples of people fighting for justice, each in their own way.
The most visible example can be seen in Libya, where rebel forces have marched into Tripoli, after months of fighting. These rebels are seeking to end the 42 year reign of Muammar Gaddafi. The reasons for their uprising are many, and include the execution of dissidents, a highly censored press, the banning of political parties (and execution of anyone who dared to form one), the oppression of the Berber people, and the government control of the nation’s wealth and natural resources. Following similar uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the time was ripe for action in Libya, and victory could have far-reaching effects across North Africa and the Middle East, and even the rest of the world. The protest began peacefully, but quickly escalated into violence after a brutal response from Libyan police. The fighting has continued for months, and what began as peaceful protest has escalated into a bloody civil war, with estimated total casualties up to 20,000 people (including thousands of civilians). Things appear to be reaching their climax over the last day or two as rebel soldiers have marched into the capital and captured most of Gaddafi’s family. But, even with these rebel forces on the cusp of victory, it is impossible to ignore the tremendous amount of death and destruction that has been left in their wake. If they do manage to topple Gaddafi’s regime, they will still be left with a country in need of rebuilding, and with thousands of deaths to mourn. A Pyrrhic victory is still a victory, and any successful attempt to overthrow tyranny and liberate people should be celebrated, but one has to wonder if there were other options. It can be difficult to argue for non-violence in the face of brutal retaliation, but the tragic results of violence are now evident in the streets of Tripoli, and across Libya.
Though it has not received nearly the attention of the events in Libya, there is an uprising here in the United States with an arguably similar global impact. Keystone XL is a proposed oil pipeline that would run from western Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. This proposal has angered environmental activists, as they argue that the potential effects to the environment would be catastrophic. This oil would be extracted from huge deposits called tar sands, where bitumen (a form of petroleum) is actually mixed with the sand in the ground. This differs greatly from traditional oil wells, and require a tremendous amount of additional processing and refining in order to produce usable oil. But, this processing comes at great cost to the surrounding environment. Trees and brush must be removed, and then the sand itself must be mined, with two tons of sand needed to produce a single barrel of oil. Huge amounts of greenhouse gases are released into the air (up to 45% more than traditional oil production), and a tremendous amount of water is needed for the extraction process. This water is then returned to rivers and lakes, but is now contaminated with a variety of toxins, causing further damage to an already ravaged ecosystem. Environmentalists claim that continued Tar Sands oil extraction in Canada could be extremely detrimental to the global climate, and could increase and accelerate the effects of Climate Change. All of this ignores the potential risks of leaks within the pipeline itself, as it travels almost 2,000 miles across the United States. Since this pipeline has to cross an international border, President Obama has the ability to deny a permit for its construction, though he has not yet given any indication that he will do so. Environmental activists have decided to stage protests in order to raise awareness of the potential risks, and to sway public opinion and force the President to deny the permit. They have planned daily non-violent demonstrations over a two-week period in front of the White House, risking arrest in order to make their voices heard. Today marks the third day of demonstrations, and over 200 arrests have already been made. But, their protest appears to be working, as their fight is slowly gaining the attention of the media. Every day that passes as they continue to protest brings them closer to their goal of stopping the construction of the pipeline. And, if they do reach their goal, they will have done it without any violence, and without any casualties.
Ohio residents have found an even easier way to protest: through the ballot box. Governor John Kasich signed State Bill 5 a few months ago, despite overwhelming public resistance. This bill is similar to the one in Wisconsin that forced recalls and put Governor Scott Walker on the hot seat. The bill stripped most collective bargaining rights from state workers and attempted to take power away from the unions by making it more difficult for them to collect dues. However Ohio has a law called a Citizen’s Veto, meaning that if enough signatures are collected, the bill will go on the ballot this fall and voters will have the opportunity to repeal it. In order for it to appear on the ballot, about 230,000 signatures needed to be collected. This sounds like a huge amount, but opponents of the bill were able to gather over 1.3 million signatures, more than five times as many as they needed. This, along with mass protests throughout Ohio, has caused the Governor to back off his stance, as his popularity decreases and backlash grows. He has now offered to meet with union leaders in order to discuss a compromise. The unions have rejected this offer, knowing that they have both power and public opinion on their side. The governor has until the end of the month to reconvene the legislature in order to repeal the bill, or the referendum will appear on the ballot this fall, where it will almost certainly succeed. This is another great example of successful public protest against oppression, and again it will be achieved with no bloodshed.
And, this is all without mentioning the BART protests in San Francisco, or the Verizon strike (or the looming grocery strike in Southern California). There are countless ways to be heard, to let those in power know that you will not submit, and that you will fight for what is right in whatever way you can. Violence is rarely (if ever) the best solution, but unfortunately it is sometimes the last resort. But, though the bloody uprisings dominate the news, there are countless examples of non-violent protest that succeed in empowering the masses against the powers that seek to keep them down. Submission is an option, not a way of life. It is just as easy to choose not to submit, to stand up for what you believe in and what is right. The real power is with the people.
- October2011 Movement Urges Solidarity with Oil Pipeline Tar Sands Protesters (edmortimer.wordpress.com)
- Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline Protest Enters Third Day (news.firedoglake.com)