How public protests keep tyranny in check

The visible sight of dissent is vital — and street demonstrations do matter

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It is easy to assume in the digital age that protests in the streets are obsolete and have no impact. Yet many of us have been deplatformed and censored online, leaving a false impression of consensus with the ideology of tyrants. There is a cost to committing to appear in public — I driven over 200 miles to be in London for the protest march today — which socially proves commitment to the cause. Presenting the message in popular public areas also reaches an audience that may not hang out online, or do so in venues that are not suitable for messages of dissent.

Today’s march was against the new Public Order bill, which attempts to further limit the right to protest in the UK, and does it in arbitrary and easily abused ways. That makes it all the more poignant and relevant; freedoms that are not used and defended are easily stolen by despots. I have now been on nearly 20 different freedom marches, and am learning a lot about protesting by observation. In particular, I have come to pay attention more and more to the onlookers and their reaction. Many record the protest with their phones, so they are sharing and amplifying the message.

Tyranny relies on the immoral becoming widely accepted, so that “going along to get along” is condoned and even encouraged. Protests have a powerful positive psychological impact on participants who resist this normalisation, who otherwise my experience isolation when subjected to injustice and repression. They are also barometers of public reaction, and I am noticing a drift in sentiment — hard to prove or quantify. There general public awareness that something isn’t right with the continued drive to inject people with only risk and no benefit. Protest marches dispel the impression of normality to things which the conscience ought to reject, like poisoning children.

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