The Power and Peril of People in the Streets

Recent Events Remind Us of History’s Lessons


There is a line in a Mel Brooks movie wherein someone comes in to alert the king, “The peasants are revolting.” To which the king, completely misunderstanding the warning, says “They certainly are.”

Well, the peasants are revolting around the world of late, and “kings” must take note. This is how the Arab Spring started. That movement did not end well, but leaders were toppled.

You may have noticed of late that people are protesting. They often times do so in staggering numbers, around the world. They take to the streets, sometimes because no other outlet is open to them. Sometimes it is simply out of anger. Consider:

The World Has Taken to the Streets 

  • Protests in Puerto Rico grew daily for more than a week. At times it seemed the whole country was in the streets demanding the governor resign. He said he never would do so. A few days later, he was gone, his tenure unsustainable.
  • The Hong Kong protests have been breathtaking in their scope and passion. We have rarely seen anything like this. The proposed extradition law that started it all is no longer proposed, but a fuse was lit and continues to burn. China seems unsure what to do about this. Gangs have been deployed to beat people and law enforcement is doing heavy work. But the protests continue.
    • This may end as badly as did Tiananmen Square. This is an outcome more likely in the face of the US government’s complete silence on the matter. I hope protestors can coalesce around a set of demands to settle matters. I hope they can secure relative freedom in Hong Kong. I am not hopeful, but fingers crossed.
  • Massive demonstrations have returned to Moscow. They have been met, as usual, with brute force and the arrest, so far, of almost 2,000 Russians. Putin is, it appears, genuinely popular with many Russians. But there is a level of distrust and dissatisfaction that is easy to overlook. Thousands of people coming to openly protest says something in Russia. This is a high-risk thing to do on a personal level in Russia. So too is covering it in the ever-diminishing free press arena. And yet, they keep coming.
  • Protests over executions are occurring in Bahrain, again at great personal risk. People are dying as they protest. The US has long had a complex relationship here, with major military basing for the Middle East a factor. These people have no expectation of even verbal support from the Trump administration. Still, they fight on.
  • In France the “Yellow Jerseys” have made governing complicated for the Macron administration. They have done so on several grounds, mostly economic. Much of this movement has an odd mix of right-wing nationalists, anarchists, and others. Russian influence in social media is also at work, as is Steve Bannon and his minions. Overall, this seems a more destructive than constructive group. Still, they have some power to influence decisions and events.
  • Smaller but equally passionate demonstrations have occurred in recent months around the world. Look at Venezuela, Nicaragua, Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere.
  • On a much smaller scale, Americans are protesting ICE and border security operations. They are occupying buildings, marching, etc. So far these are mostly small, with minimum effect. But what is happening in our name has inflamed and shamed many Americans.
    • It is not unimaginable that at some point, regular citizens who have never marched in anything will show up to occupy camps and offices. They will dare authorities to remove them. This happened frequently in the civil rights marches that changed this country. It could do so again.

History Calls

 Some of the biggest changes in history have begun, or been nourished, by people taking to the streets, in spite of the odds against them. When people feel they have no other way to express themselves, to get their governments attention, they take to the streets. The potential for change is real. So, too, is the potential for suppression, violence, and chaos.

It is tragic that people often find themselves with no other options. It is impressive that they mount the courage to step into the maelstrom and demand better. I miss the times when America more often than not stood with them.

     Bill Clontz

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