The protest organized against Israel’s actions in Gaza by University of Calgary students last Friday drew an interesting mix of people.
A group of young men paced up and down Macleod Trail, stopping only to say their evening prayers. Parents held children with one hand and signs reading “Free Palestine” in the other. Academics and human-rights activists spoke through a loudspeaker as a Communist Party organizer, standing to the side, quietly handed out pamphlets. And like most protests, there were a few ignorant, vulgar and short-tempered people.
Students from Solidarity for Palestine Human Rights managed to attract over 1,000 people to protest Israel’s invasion and bombing of Gaza, twice the number of people that showed up to a similar protest a week prior. A larger protest is planned for July 25.
The problem is that, by itself, a protest accomplishes nothing. A crowd in front of city hall might bring people together, but it won’t further a cause. Until the group is organized to take action in some way, it won’t accomplish anything.
At their best, protests are a well to draw from. They’re a chance to organize people who share common goals or complaints. Activists work best in organized and disciplined groups. A large crowd is where the work starts, not where it ends.
Students have a long history of political organizing. Conservative populists like Preston Manning couldn’t win a seat in the 1988 federal election. But through the activism of University of Calgary students like Stephen Harper, western populism is now part of the national mainstream. Students pushed for divestment of apartheid South Africa in the 1970s when criticism of systemic white supremacy was considered impolite among the upper crust. And Canada’s student unions used to be a ragtag bunch. Now they’re a force in provincial politics.
If you have a captive audience, show them a course of action they can believe and take part in. A lot of people came out on Friday, but only the wormy man from the Communist Party offered me a plan.
The worst thing you can do is gather a crowd and then leave them to their own devices. Angry unguided groups become mobs, and it doesn’t take much to embolden a thousand people mad about the same thing. A few people can spoil the day.
For ten minutes of Friday’s otherwise tame protest, counter-protesters holding an Israeli flag stood across the street. Within minutes, a couple of hot heads were nose-to-nose with them, starting a fight. Local media snapped some photos and got their story for the day: Gaza protests devolve into violence.
I think protests are great. Nothing’s more boring than apolitical people, and a lively and diverse civil society comes before good government. I encourage more students to commit to political causes, take themselves seriously and take on the challenge of effective political organizing.
But it’s not enough to gather the mob. You have to show them where to go or you’ll just end up running alongside them.