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Reaching across the line

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Civil disobedience has a place, but as one expert says, “it’s not a free ride to break the law.” Jody Vance on finding the line between protests and blockades.

Protests and civil disobedience. Where is the line?

Talk about a question in need of clear answer in a time of great disinformation.

At some point, the undisputed and necessary right to peaceful protest has been used to justify occupations, blockades, and even targeted government insurrection. The bar seems to fall lower and lower from thought-provoking into intimidation and property damage, all the way down to societal hijacking.

With a want to understand, this week’s Middle asks a scholar to identify the line between peaceful protest and civil disobedience.

Enter UBC Professor of Philosophy Kimberlee Brownlee, Canada Research Chair for Ethics and Political and Social Philosophy. Professor Brownlee has, quite literally, written a book on civil disobedience: Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (Oxford University Press, 2012).

When interviewing Professor Brownlee, we touched upon many movements, protests, and occupations. We went from Truckers to Thunberg and many in between.

Here’s the question: do we know when legal protests become illegal? Is violence the turning point?

The point is less about violence and more about harm.

“There are legal protests and illegal protests and illegal protests can be peaceful. Violence can be very tricky to pin down. Violence can be a pinch, catapulting a teddy bear at a police officer, or breaking a chain link fence,” said Brownlee.

For example, an ambulance strike could do much more harm than cutting a chain-link fence on private property. A peaceful blockade that halts essential services can be much more harmful than another illegal non-peaceful protest.

Kimberlee Brownlee

What about the far right element seen in some protests, symbols of hate or racism?

“The lines get blurred quickly when symbols of hate and intolerance enter into a protest and for those who wish to be differentiated from those,” says Brownlee.

“It’s very important to make it very obvious that those not in agreement with the symbols clearly separate themselves from their presence.”

The quick headline grab that comes with using provocative or otherwise inappropriate signs, flags, or symbols can backfire.

“If the mechanism for attention is too loud, too distracting, if you do resort to violence – it often changes the conversation. Law enforcement will respond differently. If you want the ear of government, differentiate from the extremes, sit quietly, and have a clear and concise message.”

We looked at historic peaceful protests and the way they created movements.

“If we think of recent history, Nelson Mandela as an advocate, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and many other individual people, you could look at them and know that they were sincere, serious, conscientious and used very restrained methods.”

And if you suspect today’s much louder and disruptive tactics have an element of “career protestors,” Brownlee says those suspicions aren’t unfounded.

“Some are there for the camaraderie, they are career dissenters who take part as a feeling of community, there for the feeling of being a part of something, moreso than even being a part of the actual cause.”

This is kind of protester that has so many Canadians frustrated almost to the breaking point.

Brownlee’s advice to those looking to influence government policy or push back on social issues is quite specific: your reason or reasons for being there must be clear.

“Exercising the moral right to step outside the law, you need to be doing it in a way that you are doing it as an agent, where you can make your reasons clear. [Effective] civil disobedience, at its core, is not coercive but dialogic.”

Protests should be less about occupation, or closing down city streets and border crossings, and more about starting people to have difficult conversations.

“Committing to the democratic process. Not an improper arrogation of ‘I’m not going to follow the law.’ Rule of Law is an overused term that serves a democratic function. People trying to commit to the democratic process, to get to the heart of the public interest.”

“It is not a free ride to break the law.”

Dialogue is the vital piece missing from many of today’s standoffs, blockades, occupations, or rebellions. Rather than opposite sides horn honking or blocking government buildings, effective protests must start the conversation, be clear on next steps, even if those wants cannot be immediately met.

Only through conversation can you start walking a path closer to the middle.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.