The Art of Protest

~ Ciara Fitzgerald

 Photography: Isobel O'Halloran

Photography: Isobel O'Halloran

As divided as the world is these days, there are a few things that it seems most people can agree on. Trump is unfit to lead a conga line let along an entire country, 2017 is turning out to be worse than 2016 and regular protesting seems to be becoming the new normal. It’s not all that surprising really, considering the daily insanity we hear about in the news. Over the last six months alone, Americans have felt the need to come out in force against Nazis, climate change denial and a ban on Muslim immigration. A year ago, none of us would have believed there could be any disagreement on such issues and yet here we are. Organised movements like Black Lives Matter- resulting from the large number of unprovoked killings of black men by white police officers, and the Women’s March- a global event focused on women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and healthcare reform (to name a few), have showcased that there is power in numbers. Of course, protesting is by no means a new phenomenon. But it certainly has taken on a new significance in recently.

However, let’s not give America all the credit for re-energising the art of protesting. I won’t allow them the satisfaction. Yes, they do have a lot to be angry about right now, but nowadays every country, every major democracy has their own reasons for wanting to make their voices heard. Here in Ireland we certainly have not held back. After the same-sex marriage referendum in 2015 and the election of a gay Taoiseach this year, news outlets around the world have talked of Ireland moving away from its Catholic roots and becoming a more progressive and open society. To a certain extent, this is true. But I have a few major issues with this assumption. For starters, we didn’t vote for Leo and him being gay does not make him any more liberal than your average Irish politician so he doesn’t really represent a change in the general population. But also, and more importantly, being the first country to bring in same-sex marriage through a popular vote was only possible because the younger generations got out and voted. If there has been any change in thinking in this country, they are the cause of it. Hundreds, if not thousands made the effort to travel home from wherever the recession had sent them to cast their vote in the referendum. It was a movement in itself, led by the so called ‘millennials’.

I can’t stand that term. Like every other generational moniker, it aims to paint a very diverse group of people with the same dismissive brush. We all spend too much money eating out, then complain about not being able to afford a house. By identifying as feminists, we are saying we hate men. We don’t work hard enough, we do too many drugs and we are making too much fuss about this whole rape culture thing. I could go off on a rant dismantling each and every one of these criticisms, but I have a word count to stick to. So instead I’ll just say this: without millennials, the protests and political movements we’ve been seeing here at home and abroad would not be happening. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to diminish the importance of those over the the age of 30 who voted in the referendum and who go out and chant in the streets, because obviously every person plays an important role. And yet the significance of young people’s involvement cannot be overstated.

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Annoyingly I myself was unable to travel home to vote in 2015. At the time, it really bothered me so I promised myself that next time an issue that significant arose, I would be there. Cut to March 8th 2017, International Women’s Day and the day of the Strike to Repeal. Organised by a coalition of abortion rights groups, the protest took place at lunchtime on O’Connell Bridge. Thousands gathered wearing black and calling for the removal of the 8th Amendment, the law that currently makes abortion (except in very rare circumstances) illegal in Ireland. The amendment has been in place since the 1980’s and has led to thousands of Irish women having to travel abroad to terminate a pregnancy, not to mention women actually dying because doctors are unable to intervene if there is still a foetal heartbeat. The subject has been covered by major publications across the globe, including Time Magazine, CNN and the BBC. We have also come in for harsh criticism from the UN Human Rights Committee for our inhumane treatment of women. So much for the new progressive Ireland.

That day I left work on my lunchbreak with a colleague to join the strike. Many others had taken a day’s holidays or travelled from different parts of the country to be there. Women and men of all ages (as well as a few babies and dogs), brought traffic to a standstill in the heart of Dublin city. They held cleverly funny signs, chanted ‘WHOSE BODY? MY BODY!’ at the top of their lungs, beat pots with wooden spoons and blared songs by Beyoncé and the Spice Girls. All in all, it was quite a sight to behold. It was passionate and loud and heart-warming. The fact that we even had to do it was despicable, and yet there was something fundamentally human and life affirming about a group of people coming together in this way. We were standing against an injustice, making the government see us and hear us, telling them something had to change. Later, as I walked back to my office along the empty quays, I couldn’t help feeling optimistic.

There will always be cynics that say protesting never makes a difference or that it’s just a fad, like gourmet doughnuts and Zumba. But that’s not how I want to live because frankly, it’s a lazy way of thinking. The growth of protest movements around the world is something to be celebrated, not mocked. If perchance a cause is actually forwarded as a result, then that is a major victory and everyone involved should be very proud. If not though, that’s alright too because protests are not just about winning. They’re about the sense of unity and renewed faith in humanity that come from being among likeminded strangers at a time when there is not a lot of either going around.

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Geri Dempsey