Why Protests Matter -- Blueboard by Miguel Paolo P. Rivera

September 26, 2017

I am often asked by my students on why protests matter, given that (based on what they’ve observed), these very rarely work at all. I wish to address this question, for it would be wise to remember, even in a general way, why dissent matters in the maintenance of a vibrant democratic polity and the creation of a more just and equal society.  
Protests are not simply the expressions of one’s disagreement with a piece of legislation or the policy direction of government. What a demonstration makes possible is a space where people can create and maintain the constitution of individuals as a political community, that is, as human beings acting in concert with one another, to borrow the words of 20th-century political theorist Hannah Arendt. It establishes and imagines another world, one that insists upon an alternative that falls outside of current configurations of political realities. It rethinks institutions and parliaments where, especially in the Philippine context, legislators and leaders are often more comfortable with wheeling-and-dealing to perpetuate themselves in power than in genuine forms of discourse and public service.
In the words of the contemporary political theorist Judith Butler in What is a People (2016), dissent today renders present the demonstration of “popular sovereignty understood as an extra-parliamentary power without which no parliament can function…It depends upon a set of bodies assembled and assembling, whose actions effectively constitute themselves as ‘the people’”. Furthermore, according to Butler: “to show up is both to be exposed and to be defiant, meaning precisely that we are crafted precisely in that disjunction, and that in crafting ourselves, we expose the bodies for which we make our demand. We do this for and with one another, without any necessary presumption of harmony or love. As a way of making a new body politic”.
Let us take the protests against the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani and the more recent protests on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law as examples. Those who subscribe to the illusion of some dictatorial golden age are baffled and confused as to why the youth so vibrantly and strongly condemn efforts to revise history and fight creeping forms of authoritarianism.
One can only imagine a country where the announcement of the burial was met with complete and total silence. Imagine if there had been no one to express dissent at the narrow-mindedness of our branches of government and its leaders. I, for one, would not have wanted to live in such a society. I would like to think that the protests then showed our leaders that there are those who would never accept their distorted interpretation of what constitutes history and how we should remember it. The protests show that the hope remains alive that our generation will work towards a society where those who fought against the dictatorship will be rightfully recompensed and remembered as the real heroes of our time.
For it is in the protests lead by the current generation of youth that established spaces where critiques of the past dictatorship and its creeping forms today are remembered and reimagined. Protesters from different generations (but most especially the youth) not only used the classic slogans of the movements during those times in the way that they had said it back then. Many old slogans, from many different traditions, have been re-inscribed into new mediums of communication, opening it up to new forms of artistic expression and a renewed appreciation of the meanings that these had previously presented. The protests of yesteryears are remembered and rendered present through the creation of novel ways that portray the fight against anti-democratic practices in the light of our present situation. Today’s media is replete with examples of images and memes that blend in novel and creative ways our popular culture and lingo with arguments against the dictatorship and historical revisionism. Today’s generation are creating a new language —  a language and method of protest that we can call our own. The various forms of youth-led dissent that we have seen the past months created a democratic space where human creativity flourishes. Totalitarian or authoritarian logic does not and cannot lend itself to any such forms of expression.

In this light, attempts to designate the forms of dissent or protest that are “right” or “proper” in our society today are similarly problematic. To subscribe only to specific forms of protest stifles the possibilities of the expression of dissensual human creativity and goes against the promise of our constitution as a body politic. The French political thinker Michel Foucault, in an interview in 1978, believes that it is not the place of any one individual to define and limit the political response. Foucault says that “if I don’t ever say what must be done, it isn’t because I believe that there’s nothing to be done; on the contrary, it is because I think that there are a thousand things to do, to invent, to forge, on the part of those who, recognizing the relations of power in which they’re implicated, have decided to resist or escape them”.

Dissent and protests have many forms, be they gatherings on city streets or nationwide marches on foot towards the country’s seat of power, or even students researching the causes and roots of our world’s predicaments with the aim of educating their fellow citizens. These forms of protests are essential and much needed in our democratic society. Indeed, protests fulfill its promise only when it attests to the fullness of humanity — when human beings in their individual rage, tiredness, meekness, and poverty choose to constitute themselves as a humanity acting in concert, imagining and fighting for a better world for each other. It is a rejection of the narrow-mindedness that our leaders or even we ourselves sometimes show.
To protest, therefore, is to refuse to accept that in our times, we have no other choice.
Miguel Paolo P. Rivera is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. He can be reached at mprivera@ateneo.edu.