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What the Protesters Demonstrate

Roy Esaki

This past weekend, negotiations for a hemispheric free trade agreement were held at the third Summit of the Americas in Quebec. At stake was the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would have removed trade barriers to unite the 800 million consumers of the democratic countries in the West Hemisphere. The 34 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean -- every country except the pariah Cuba -- ended up agreeing on a framework to establish the largest free-trade bloc in the world. As often happens when enough world leaders congregate to discuss prospective agreements, a motley crowd of 30,000 assorted young activists and 6,000 riot police decorated the city.

The enthusiastically angry demonstrators included leftist, anti-capitalist, labor, human rights and environmental groups, brought together to protest. Labor is concerned that jobs will be taken from Americans and Canadians, social activists are concerned that the new jobs will exploit the poverty of South Americans, and environmentalists are concerned about the lack of environmental regulations. For the most part the protestors, supervised by the 6,000 riot policemen, peacefully marched, but some skirmishes occurred involving Molotov cocktails, water cannons, tear gas, and other devices.

Considering the fact that leaders at the first summit, held in Miami in 1994, agreed to establish a free-trade pact by 2005, and the general reluctance of heads of state to kowtow to mob rule, it’s not surprising that the only measurable impact of such great expense and injury was a 90-minute delay of the opening ceremony. What was the protest intended to affect, and were the 403 arrests and 91 injuries worth it?

Hopes to actually end the talks, or to influence the decisions of the heads of state, would have been unreasonable in this context. Protesting to satisfy one’s conscience, to have some Lady Dulcinea cause to quixotically crusade for, is self-indulgent, especially at such great public inconvenience.

Protesting to gain public exposure can be legitimate, especially for really significant causes, but the instigation of violence is still excessive. CNN reports the sentiments of an anonymous demonstrator, who was probably speaking for a large number of comrades in explaining that “people are really angry about what’s going on. They’re feeling powerless, and so they’re looking for opportunities to join with other people who feel the same way and to do some action and try to get collectively some voice heard within the government.” Of course, with news headlines such as CNN’s “Americas Summit ‘under control’ despite protests,” the actual content of the clichÉd and predictable protests are marginalized, and the hue and cry of the activists are reduced to a pesky inconvenience.

It seems, then, that sticks and stones really don’t make that much of a difference, especially compared to the amount of time invested -- a realization that MIT students may come to, judging from the relative paucity of passionate physical activism on campus. As with many public-policy cases (such as the death of the freshman grading policy delay), the authorities ultimately get to choose whether to humor the protestors.

So how do we change large-scale, institutionalized inprudences or injustices? Especially in America, violent, or even vocal, protests are easily quieted by the powers that be. The civil rights movement -- a great victory of activism against an unjust system -- was a rare triumph. In most other cases, one must play the game to change the system from within, to become someone with enough power and influence to really make a difference. It’s unfortunate that idealistic anti-globalization protests in Quebec (both of the peaceful and violent variety) won’t amount to more than a hill of beans, but c’est la vie.