When was the last time you were so frustrated or appalled by something, you took to the streets demanding change? In an age where we are more likely to take to social media to express outrage, Pulse.com.gh journalist Stacey Knott looks at the importance of physically protesting.
Opinion: Last week, a team of us here at pulse.com.gh covered the Organised Labour protest through the streets of Accra. It was the first protest I have covered in Ghana, though I have reported on many other similar ones across the world, from London’s Occupy movement to a march through New Orleans on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, where people expressed outrage on the slow development of their areas five years after the storm.
Generally, I find protesting an invigorating and important aspect of society, and I love covering them, whether or not I agree with the message the protesters are voicing, the act itself shows passion in a world where I sometimes think apathy is winning.
In saying that you will not see me personally taking to the streets with placards. As a journalist it's too easy to be accused of bias, and being linked to anything I may personally take a stance on could discredit my reporting. While some may call it a cop out, I feel I am far more effective giving coverage to causes than personally partaking in them.
And while I am a huge fan and advocate of social media, and agree that in recent years it has been a wonderful tool in organising protests around the world, as well as gaining support and attention for them, I think if we really care about something, more can and should be done.
I've seen a lot of apathy through the world, where people are too quick to accept the way things are going instead of trying, however small it may seem, to do something.
Rant on Facebook and get a few likes and solidarity comments, or condense that rant into a few key words on a placard and march with your equally frustrated compatriots? From this journalist's point of view, the second option is more powerful.
Last week's protest here in Ghana saw people rally together to show the Government their disapproval of the tariff hikes and fuel tax increases. We spoke to many of the protesters who said they were taking to the streets to show solidarity with their fellow workers, and that the increases were having serious effects on their livelihoods.
There were over 3000 people walking the streets of Accra, and across the country in other areas people did the same.
What other options are there? Sit at home and yell at the radio, or just grumble to colleagues?
Tweet furiously for a day and then forget about it? Write letters to the editor or angry Facebook posts?
While I don’t discredit any of those, they can be effective and cathartic in their own ways, there is a real strength in literally hitting the streets in frustration.
The way to get the attention of the media - and the government - is being loud and visual. Protests and demonstrations do exactly this.
While the outcome might not be immediate, it can set things in motion, and unite people in a shared frustration or a common goal.
The Orgainised Labour march was the first protest I have personally witnessed in Ghana and I was impressed with it. Our team arrived at Circle to people blowing horns, chanting and setting off on their route, with Ghana’s police flanking them on all sides.
It was a peaceful, incident free demonstration, unlike the previous one I have heard stories about, marred by police brutality.
While last week’s protest was approved by the police, in many parts of the world, protesting or demonstrating comes with huge risks.
Remember the Arab Spring? A wave of civil action rocked the Arab world, beginning in December 2010 which has resulted in the overthrow of leaders, riots and civil war.
By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and Syria is still a mess with people trying to oust Bashar al-Assad or flee the country as refugees.
Those in the Arab Spring uprisings were protesting a range of factors, including living under dictatorships, human rights violations and political corruption.
And the protests were happening in parts of the world where freedom is severely lacking. We can’t forget the horrifying images and headlines, showing what was inflicted on the protesters who were met with violence from those they rallied against.
But people believed so passionately in the need for change, they faced those risks, and raised their placards and voices, calling out governments or institutions they believed were not doing their jobs well. Tens of thousands lost their lives for these brave acts, or faced prison, or torture.
In western countries police or security forces have responded shockingly to protesters, I’ve witnessed some events myself, including a security person ramming his car into a protester in London.
That was the London Occupy movement which kicked off in 2011. I wrote about it from the first day the protesters set up camp in the central city, until their evictions. The movement brought together a wide range of people who shared frustrations with government austerity amongst other issues.
They got a lot of criticism with people saying they didn’t know what they wanted or didn’t have sensible solutions then and there. That wasn’t the point. It was a jumping off point and I’ve been following many people who were involved in it, and Occupy sparked them onto other important activist roles through the world.
Some have been involved in the USA’s Black Lives Matter movement. I feel chills when I see the international coverage of that, people marching with their hands raised campaigning against violence towards African Americans.
It began in 2013, with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin, from there it spread through the USA, used in demonstrations most notably after the deaths of Michael Brown and then Eric Garner, and too many more killed by police actions or while in police custody, including Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell,Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and Freddie Gray.
It's incredibly depressing these deaths happened in the first place, but there is a small comfort in people so enraged that they take to the streets. They don't accept the killings as a normal part of life and their actions are covered by international media, so international support and education on issues of racism and racial inequality follow.
For a local take on the importance of protest I called up OccupyGhana spokesperson Nana Sarpong Agyeman-Badu. OccupyGhana was officially launched in September 2014 but is not associated with the global occupy movements, Nana was also involved with last year’s dumsor march and vigil.
He’s a big fan of taking to the streets.
“Protest is important, first it is our constitutional right to do it, and it brings awareness that there is something going on to make people aware of situations happening within their country, and also it makes government stand on their toes. If the protest is actually successful and has huge numbers it does put some fear in government to work better and harder.”
However, he fears a certain level of apathy in Ghana, and wants to see more people take to the streets.
People may think if things are going okay in their own life, then there’s no need to worry about others, however, the act of mass protest should be of benefit to all, he argues.
“When the poor man gets hungry he will start feeding on the rich,” he says.
It’s about fighting for a better situation for everyone, not just those who are already stable.
“We in Ghana are not angry enough, during the military era, generals, lawyers and judges were killed for doing far less than what is happening now,” he said.
While Nana is not advocating these extreme measures, he does call for more passion and urgency for change, but he wonders if people are “giving up on the system”.
Or they fear for their jobs if they protest.
Nana himself felt targeted once he was seen associated with the Occupy Flagstaff protest and then the dumsor one, he ended up leaving his job, unfairly being tagged as “an enemy of the government ” he says.
For protests to be more effective, more people need to take part in them.
“We always want to encourage citizens to be active and have active participation in governance, we shouldn’t leave everything to the politicians...it's the citizens who put them there they are supposed to be serving the people, not the other way around...if they are making unwise decisions we have to shout at them.”
So go ahead and shout. And I’ll be there reporting what you have to say.