Protest movements across the world seemed to have gained a new dimension in the wake of the self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010, in response to the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides. His desperate act became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring against autocratic regimes. The jury is still out as to whether an Arab spring actually came to be.
However, subsequently copycat protest movements took place from time to time in other countries by the spontaneous mobilization of citizens marching to make themselves heard about issues of national concern and hoping to be heard by the authorities with actions to follow. Thus we had the Gilets Jaunes movement in Paris which lasted several weeks and then died a natural death, with indeterminate outcomes. Then we have witnessed the protests in Hong Kong against mainland China’s policies – and the result has been the enactment of even more repressive laws against the island’s residents.
More recently is the Black Lives Matter or BLM movement which started in the US after the death in police hands of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Starting there, BLM protests soon spread to many other American cities, and then across the world, with the participation of matching numbers of non-Black participants. All of us were horrified by the repeatedly played scene of the policeman’s knee choking the victim’s neck until he became unconscious and died. And the BLM resonated because it concerned a human being who did not deserve such brutality.
By the same token, we felt that the protest that was held on 11 July in Port Louis to express public anger and exasperation against the recent measures announced by the government was justified, more so as it was peaceful one and the list of proposals submitted to the authorities concerned citizens of all categories, though the hardest lot are of course workers and the vulnerable groups. Our editorial of 14 July welcomed the protest as a hopeful new beginning ‘for it is quite a long time that we have not seen something like this. Most of the trade unions and NGOs had come together to put a strong defence of the rights of workers and citizens’. Another contributor lamented the decline of union clout and the rise of individual and egoistic interests by citizens consumed by materialism, but nevertheless commended the submissions made by the protesters.
Unfortunately, one of the risks attending these large scale protests is that opportunists with their own narrow interests join in to get free and wider publicity, or to carry out acts of vandalism that then evoke public disgust and reactions, not least at times from those who at the outset were supportive. This is what happened when the BLM protests were infiltrated by vandals, and violence marred the peaceful marches as people broke shop windows and started openly looting. It was a repeat of scenes that had taken place in London a few years ago. And it’s not as if the vandals were all from the poorer sections of society. In fact, in New York in the very first week of protests, a Black woman was seen stopping her… Porsche as she was driving past a high end shop that had been broken into, coolly walking in and shortly afterwards walking out with a bagful of items!
And since such protests are called via social media and there is no identifiable leader, nobody can intervene to stop such dilution of the primary purpose of the protests and thereby tarnishing the image and credibility.
This is what happened too in our local solidarity march. Some people were seen carrying a banner alluding to RSS-M, mercenaries, Modi. Any right-thinking Mauritian will and should condemn such a conflation because it deflects attention from the core contention of the march, namely the deemed unjust measures that impact EVERY citizen, not just one group or one community. What did the banner have to do with the substantive issues being flagged?
And if then there is a reaction on the part of people who feel offended, the mainstream media will make the offenders become the victims and the accuse those who have felt aggrieved. The banner had no place in this protest march, and could even be perceived as an incitement to hatred and violence. That is the sort of danger that such irresponsible and provoking acts represent.
We must not allow genuine, peaceful protests for just causes to be hijacked by opportunists and potential pyromaniacs.
* Published in print edition on 17 July 2010