No democracy can survive without dissent. Those who do not agree with the government must be able to exercise their right to be heard.
We are now inured to the fact that those who are elected give us access only if we have money. The upsurge of street democracy in the past few years, made clear in Seattle in late 1999, shows us that many people in our nation feel the need to take their message to the street because their voices are shut out in the halls of elected and corporate power. To be out on the street with a message – this is not sedition or an incitement to riot, but the hallmark of democratic dissent.
On Oct. 25, more than 200 marchers protesting U.S. military action in Afghanistan decided to take their message to the streets of Hartford, Connecticut. The media do not take the anti-war movement seriously, even though hundreds of thousands of people around the world and thousands in the United States have marched to the beat of peace each day since the war began Oct. 6.
Some 20,000 protesters took over the streets of London Oct. 13; 25,000 in Germany; 100,000 in Italy on Oct. 14 (the land that produced the first aerial bomber) and 70,000 in the city of my birth – Calcutta, India.
From San Francisco to New York City, the voices of peace gather but do not get any airtime. What did the police in Hartford do in response to dissent? As the young people marched and stopped traffic for a brief time, police cars blocked the streets decisively and went after the marchers with clubs and pepper spray for “conspiracy to incite a riot.”
They arrested 18 people and set bail for an extraordinary amount: between $15,000 and $50,000, with a court date for late November. Such penalties for speaking your mind are beyond belief. The protesters shouted: “This is not a police state; we have the right to demonstrate.” But, as a student e-mailed me, “I am rethinking that.”
Perhaps the right to demonstrate is not one that people should expect. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Berkeley, Calif., was the only member of Congress to vote against the war against Afghanistan. She joins the proud American tradition of Jeannette Rankin, two-time congresswoman from Montana and a Republican, who voted against both world wars and said, in 1929, that “there can be no compromise with war; it cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined with decency or codified into common sense; for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible.”
Lee justified her own vote against the current conflict by saying: “I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint.”
The young people in Hartford urged restraint, speaking out in that American tradition of Rankin and Lee against the slaughter of human beings and the destruction of people far away who had nothing to do with Sept. 11.
Many U.S. citizens are not beyond reasonable doubt that the Afghan people are in any way guilty of the heinous acts in New York, and our government disdains to release a white paper with whatever evidence there is against the Taliban in the conspiracy.
When our fellow citizens go forth to ask for the truth, they are met with police violence. Let us celebrate the fact that they put their bodies on the line to ask the difficult questions that elude us in emotionally charged times.
Vijay Prashad is an associate professor and director of the International Studies Program at Trinity College in Hartford.