To Speak One's Own Cause

On "Illegal Gatherings” and Organizing



The capacity to create real and durable change in efforts at democratisation is often forged through struggle. Even in countries that would call themselves democratic and where freedom of expression and association are guaranteed constitutionally and by international commitments, demonstrations are regularly dispersed by police and security and their participants arrested, tortured, and charged under vague legislation that sometimes makes little distinction between peaceful demonstrations and riots.

There’s an appropriate role for the police to prevent violence and protect the public; just as was true in Tahrir Square, there often are demonstrators who do resort to violence, throwing stones or worse. In some cases, it’s unclear whether violence by demonstrators is reified by a police presence or spontaneous. Brutality by police can never be condoned, but in cases where police are underpaid and lucky to have jobs in a non-independent institution, they may not feel they have a choice.

For example:

Uganda: the brilliance of the “walk to work” campaign which began in early April (and quickly sparked riots) was the improbability of distinguishing “political” walking vs. “regular walking;” hence, no need for permits. The birth of the mode of walking as political expression came from the government’s refusal to grant permits for other demonstrations; the one exception being a permit granted to the Pan African Movement, founded by Gadaffi and President Museveni, to hold a demonstration in solidarity with the Libyan people when the NATO campaign started. However, as Mahmoud Mamdani noted, “the government changed its mind at the last minute, most think because it realised the [demonstration] could be joined by opposition supporters, or for that matter anyone disgruntled with government policy, and so the government decided to teargas and disperse its own demonstration.”Sudan: Demonstrations calling for regime change and organised by the Youth for Change on 30 January and in the subsequent months led to mass arrests and torture. Other demonstrations held by youth movements unaffiliated with the Youth for Change and with far less controversial causes were also brutally dispersed by security forces, likely due to fears that the groups would unite. In Abu Shouk and Al Salaam IDP camp in North Darfur, demonstrations against a new aid distribution policy on 29 April led to mass arrests. Six (three of whom are under 18), were subjected to torture and charged with rioting, disturbance of the public peace, and undermining the constitutional system, amongst others. They remain in police custody.

In my view, arrests occurred where potential organising power threatened the status quo, even with fairly non-controversial causes. Why else teargas a demonstration organised by your own supporters, except for fear that it could be hijacked, or, in another example from the Sudanese context, prevent students from forming a union at their university simultaneous to protests by the broader Youth for Change Movement? Silencing demonstrators in the larger context paralyses many people from accessing their rights and being consulted on their futures and involved in larger dialogues. In the North Darfur incident, civil and political rights are so tightly circumscribed by the government that the crackdown is hardly surprising, especially in light of a push to domesticate the Darfur peace process by the government.

Both countries’ constitutional systems (as well as international commitments) protect the freedom of expression and association, yet they are often contradicted in places by older legislation or vague wording. In Uganda’s case, the freedom to assemble is protected under Article 29 of the Constitution, where people may “demonstrate with others peacefully and unarmed and to petition.” As the Walk to Work campaign began, the Police Commissioner stated almost immediately that any walking was bound to turn into a procession, and thus the route must be agreed on and a permit issued – despite the fact that permits are rarely granted.

In some cases, the rationale behind permits evoked (often by both sides) is that Western democracies also require permits. This is a whole separate blog post, but while permits in the West are often freely given they don’t necessarily signal support or guarantee the safety of participants; in the US, I once chatted on the subway with a police officer who explained to me the ethical dilemma of issuing a permit for the Ku Klux Klan in New York, and then assigning officers to protect them; Alfie Meadows, a 20-year old student demonstrating the budget cuts in the UK suffered brain damage when he was beaten by police. He was later charged with violent disorder.

At the end of the day, perhaps the clearest rationale for both governments seeking to stem potential organisation and human rights defenders seeking to support them is one and the same; an unclear understanding of the potential of social movements and what they can be. Maybe the organisers themselves don’t know yet. Again, Mamdani on Uganda’s demonstrations: “what does it say about the state of our knowledge that we can foretell a natural catastrophe – an earthquake, even a tsunami – but not a political shift of similar dimensions?”

The state has the responsibility to not rely too heavily on police and instead establish venues for inclusiveness and democratic openness. Citizens can and should be valuable agents of change, and possibilities for reform often do exist if they come from within. But that’s a long process and a catch-22; reform without full civil and political freedoms will likely just be building on a cracked foundation without changing the very core of what’s at stake.

Sudan, Uganda