Martin Luther King Jr is often cited as a shining example of civility, of benign agitation. His was the kind of allegedly meek, half-hearted protestation the liberal intelligentsia of the West nostalgically point to when confronted with today’s youthful, unabashedly disruptive activism. The world’s collective memory of King Jr has been shaped by this flawed narrative so much over the decades that few remember him for the unapologetic radical that he was.
The US civil rights movement has little to do with Sri Lanka, but this revisionist take on King Jr and his brand of activism seems to share some similarities with our own views on protest politics. If the number of ordinary citizens defending yesterday’s announcement of a designated space in Colombo for public protests is any indication, critics say, there has been a serious breakdown in our education of our democratic rights.
An elected government allocating a physical space for public protests that’s literally called Agitation Site, right next door to the ivory towers of a high-end apartment complex no less, may be a cruel Orwellian joke to some; but to many middle class self-styled liberals, no matter which side of the political divide they’re on, it couldn’t have come sooner.
So deeply entrenched is the narrative of the entitled protestor inconveniencing the public – a narrative that’s ably peddled by the mainstream as well as social media – that few would think twice before applauding such a questionable decision. Fewer still would wonder if government-enforced civility might be a handy tool of oppression.
How did this come to be the case? Social Studies Department Head of the Open University of Sri Lanka Dr Harini Amarasuriya believes that society must look inward to find the answer.
“Agitation cannot be confined to designated spaces because the whole idea of agitation is disruption. In a democratic society, there is obviously going to be a diversity of opinions. It is through the expression of those diverse views that people participate in the democratic process. That process is messy. It inconveniences people,” she told EconomyNext in a phone interview.
Dr Amarasuriya also offered an explanation for the urban elite’s predictable defence of yesterday’s decision.
“Very often, these agitations or demonstrations are also a display of resistance against power holders. Not just the ones who are ruling, but also those benefiting from the existing status quo,” she said.
When the existing status quo is challenged, said Dr Amarasuriya, it is discomforting and inconvenient, but a society that aspires to be democratic must accept those disruptions and inconveniences as part of that democratic process.
“Designating particular areas for agitation is a way of sanitising protest, of fixing protest in a way that makes it less effective and takes place outside of the power structures that exist in society,” she said, adding that the thinking behind designated spaces for protest is “very problematic and anti democratic.”
A perhaps unlikely defender of yesterday’s decision emerged in former Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) convenor Maheel Bandara Dehideniya who now heads the Api Seeruven movement.
Dehideniya told EconomyNext that allocating protestors their own space is a commendable idea that will benefit all stakeholders.
“The previous government also tried to implement this, but they failed to do so. Though we worked against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential election, what is commendable must be commended,” he said.
Echoing common complaints, particularly those aimed at the very student unions he once represented, Dehideniya said the state-approved agitation site will offer a solution to the traffic congestions and various disruptions caused by protest marches.
“The protestors too have the opportunity to attract the attention of the authorities and find solutions to their grievances,” he added.
This is a sentiment shared by co-cabinet spokesman Minister Bandula Gunawardena, who told reporters earlier today that those looking to agitate have been provided their own space to protest freely.
“This is a public space; it’s not in the jungle. It’s at Galle Face, in full view of the public,” he said.
Gunawardena, too, declared a laundry list of complaints at today’s cabinet press briefing in defence of the decision.
“If pedestrians can’t walk on the streets peacefully, if they can’t take a patient to a hospital, if their emergency travels are disrupted by these protests, it is bad for the well being of the country. It is also potentially a threat to national security,” he said.
These are not grievances limited to those with vested interests, however. Many ordinary citizens – a lot of whom profess to be liberal in their outlook – have expressed similar opinions on protest politics, and it is rare that the agitators are painted in a positive light – a phenomenon that Dr Amarasuriya finds disconcerting.
“People who consider themselves liberal are only liberal as long as they’re not inconvenienced. The minute they are challenged, the minute they’re inconvenienced or made uncomfortable, they’re no longer liberal. That too is a huge problem,” she said, adding that it is symptomatic of a society that has failed to understand what democracy is.
Dr Amarasuriya views the sections of society that support the Agitation Site and other enterprises like it as very much a part of the problem of “these very anti-democratic trends we’re beginning to see in our society.” The government, she said, is responding to that mindset.
“Democracy is messy. It can be chaotic. Unless we’re willing to accept that, we cannot claim to be for democracy. They have constructed the idea that protests are disruptive. But we really need to reflect on what all of this means and what it means to say we’re liberal and that we value democracy. We need to look within ourselves,” she said.