The point of protest

The point of protest

I was involved in two protests over the last two weeks, one out of pure volition, the other out of pure necessity. The protests had similar themes: the victims were oppressed and being imprisoned by authorative States. The European Union and the international community were turning a blind eye to the indignity and lack of humanity. The protesters chanted, “Freedom! Dignity! Equality!” and “Wake up Europe!”

I was particularly committed to one of the protests, on slavery in Libya. We, the world, had known about the thriving slave trade in Libya since April when the International Organisation for Migration published accounts of migrants being bought and sold, for menial work, hard labour and for sex. Sub-saharan Africans were imprisoned in private and government-run detention facilities, and as well as being auctioned, many were tortured by smugglers, militia, or whoever was in authority if they failed to pay up extra money for their journey to Europe.

It had to take another seven months, this time thanks to a CNN documentary for we, the world, to react. This time, thankfully, we woke up. We took it seriously and we say that we are doing something about it.

I had never protested in my life. Yet, I had never felt so appalled and disgusted over something as much as I did over this issue. Not even Brexit, as gut-wrenchingly revolting as it is, did not stir up as much frustration, anger and passion as watching people being sold off did. On Saturday, 25 November, I joined 2 500 people in Brussels to protest against slavery in Libya.  That’s me in the picture saying no to slavery (courtesy of Camille Van Durme).

The second protest I was involved in concerned 45 000 Catalan nationalists protesting against the forced exile of the President of the Government of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont; the imprisoned members of his government; and against the EU’s stance on the supposed independence referendum. I unfortunately ended up in the melee as it was literally outside my flat and I had to walk through the masses streaming Catalan flags to get to work.

Like with the slavery protest, I was inflamed by the same passion. Yet this time, the anger and frustration was pointed at these nationalists. How can two protests, with the same chants, calling for almost the same thing be worlds apart from eachother? How can the voice of one set of oppressed people be equal to the other?

They can’t. I don’t pretend to understand the Catalan independence movement and the suffering of its people but I do understand this: there really are people on this earth who do not have the freedom to express themselves, who do not have a constitution that protects them, who ARE NOT FREE. The Catalan people, in the most basic sense of the word, ARE FREE. They can vote in elections, they can express their opinions, they can freely travel, they are NOT BOUGHT AND SOLD.

The freedom to protest is a precious and hard-fought freedom. I am thankful we can do so without risking our lives. But the chants and demands of one protest this week cannot equate with the other the week before. Protest without perspective is pointless.

 

 

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Do what you can, according to who you are

“First, we must ask ourselves who we are before we know what we can do.”

– Robert Bilheimer

October 18th is the European Union Anti-Trafficking Day. On this day, I attended a screening of the film documentary, Not My Life by Robert Bilheimer. This was an evocative yet distressing film mainly showing the lives of children who have been trafficked and coerced into labour in Nepal, Senegal and Ghana; prostitution in the United States, India and Cambodia; and into combat as rebel soldiers in Uganda.

The film showed the magnitude of what constitutes modern-day slavery and what it is used for: sex work, menial work and war. It is beyond belief what people can do to one another for money or power, and particularly abhorrent what grown adults can do to children: stashing them away under the floorboards or in the roofs of brothels to evade police raids; kidnapping them from schools to train them to kill; selling them into prostitution for the services of paedophiles.

According to Robert Bilheimer and Cecilia Malmström (the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs), there is no global anti-human trafficking movement. It is hard to detect and prevent human trafficking and it is even harder to know what it is –  the film gave varied examples of trafficking which was intertwined with slavery and child grooming. Also getting tough on slavery may be bad for business. In times of austerity, consumers are lured by even cheaper prices, companies are ever-pressed to be competitive yet profitable.

At the Q&A after the film, it was asked what young people can do to help tackle the issue. Robert Bilheimer used the example of the actress Glenn Close, the narrator of the film. Faced with the magnitude of this human rights violation (it has been conservatively estimated by the International Labour Organisation that 21 million people worldwide are exploited for labour and sexual services), she humbly said that what she can do to help this cause is to lend her voice to the film. He advised young people to take a small, first step in helping the cause: share the film through social media.

Slavery has existed for thousands of years. Aristotle was of the opinion that some people are born be slaves, since it is in their nature to be so. Although he was (unfortunately) a proponent of slavery, he was not a proponent of those who were forced to be slaves: anyone who was coerced into slavery suggested an unnatural fit and it was therefore unjust.  Today, all slaves are forcibly (not to mention illegally) coerced into work which is not suited to their nature. It is unjust.

All of us can have a role to play in fighting injustice. But as Robert Bilheimer said, we first need to know ourselves so as to know what we can do. We have to figure out what our qualities, talents and limitations are so that we can make the best use of them. Our role can be large, it can be absolutely negligible, but this is beside the point.

For a long time, I had struggled to work out what I could do to make the world a better place.  I realise that doing my bit is probably not going to be particularly remarkable: it might just be in telling the story and spreading the word.

I encourage you to watch the film (password: nml123) and spread the word.