A Lesson in Effective Protest: Part One

2 February 2012 § Leave a comment

In Panama yesterday, the Ngobe shut down the longest motorable road in the world, the Interamericana (Panamerican Highway), in a protest effort to keep international mining companies from invading their lands. 

This is not the first time this group of indigenous people have blocked the road to make their point. A year ago around this time, and in 2010 also, they blocked traffic from moving to and from Panama City, which included tourist buses, supply trucks, and private vehicles. In 2011, international travel between Costa Rica and Panama was interrupted for four days. this year, they’re holding out for longer. 

Across the country, market owners are not receiving their goods. Vegetable and fruit shelves are virtually empty, and what’s left is rotting at higher prices than before. Fuel is not reaching gas stations – this morning, there were lines of vehicles at every fill-up station in Boquete, and by three o’ clock, all the petrol in town was gone. As I write this, there are far fewer cars cruising through town than usual. 

On the news, nearly every story has to do with how pissed off people are, and is full of images of truck drivers eating their transported goods, and selling them to fellow drivers. Tour buses are parked on the side of the road, and gringos with Panama hats and Gregory backpacks stand outside looking confused and slightly constipated. Some locals have taken to walking. Those in Panama City with a need to be elsewhere are reverting to flying. A plane ticket to David, as of this morning, was $125, much more than a tank of gas – for now. 

If there’s a distinct difference between the protests around the world which inspired Occupy in the United States to take off and the leaderless brainchild of fed-up twenty-somethings in the land of the free, it’s that in most of those other countries, the movements actually worked – that is, they gained national attention, for better or worse, for success or failure, in their homeland, and at least in Egypt and Panama, a certain group of people know that when they want something, they can occupy Tahrir Square, or the middle of the Panamerican highway, and even if the powers that be do not like their message, at least that message will be acknowledged. 

Occupy is supposed to be a peaceful movement. It is based on practicing the rights provided to the people in the Constitution – the right to peaceful assembly, for example – when other rights are being manipulated – corporations being acknowledged as human beings comes to mind. And the numbers seen in this massive, if haphazardly organized protest are impressive. However, the determination of the U.S. Media (seemingly a conglomerate all its own) is great, and easily ignores, if it is the will of those in power, groups of people camping in parks and others marching behind holiday parades with cardboard signs. 

Those intentions are noble but ineffective. Asking for permission (i.e. for the permits needed to camp in a public park) from a system one wishes to dismantle is counterproductive. It says that the 99% are still subject to the rules of the 1%. The now-famous photograph of Wall Street employees looking down at the protest from the top of the steps in New York with amused faces is a blatant insult to what needs to be accomplished: they’re saying ‘March all you want, you unemployed vagrants, just wait until the cops come. Meanwhile, we’re going to get a little more rich today – see you at lunch.’


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