Cardus Insights: Protest or Occupation

At what point does protest morph into occupation?
I covered the issue of the convoy protests last week, highlighting the culpability of leaders who have provoked those who follow with frustrations that are now boiling over. The biblical injunction not to provoke to anger applies to all leaders. The Prime Minister, among others, has shamefully exploited the protests to divide and for political gain. Refusing to acknowledge the reality of the protestor’s concerns, even if they disagreed, shows disrespect to the democratic dignity and is behaviour for which they are culpable. But while we can and should point out bad leadership, that does not excuse us from ducking difficult questions.
For the sake of argument, let’s take the most charitable interpretation of the protests by Christian participants. They, along with the significant majority of those protesting, have laudable and noble goals. They’re expressing genuine patriotism and a desire to contribute positively to society. They are voicing concerns that the past 23 months have eroded the foundations of democratic freedoms. They’re as disgusted by some of their fellow protestors and their misbehavior as are the rest of us and have done what can be done to distinguish themselves from the fringe minority that some politicians and the media have focused on to unfairly define the event. (And let’s acknowledge that much of this is rank hypocrisy, as the fringe elements of other protests and the disruption and desecration of civil monuments happens almost without comment in other protests). They see continued pandemic restrictions as unjustified and unconstitutional government-overreach doing worse damage than the virus in a mostly vaccinated population, something they feel they must oppose.
So far, so good. But the next question can’t be avoided. What happens when what starts as a noble protest morphs into an illegal occupation? Protesting is a democratic right. Shutting down a city by parking illegally and making passage impossible, preventing goods from crossing a border, and preventing many others from earning their livelihood – these are illegalities. While such tactics are understandable attempts to build political pressure and gain negotiating leverage, they reflect a loyalty to an authority other than the legitimate government under which we are citizens. And for those who blithely say that their loyalty is to freedom, I respectfully ask, “Where do you find the justification to break traffic laws, noise laws, and prevent others from earning a livelihood?” Don’t confuse your claim for freedom over your own body as justifying disobeying other laws. There is a logical leap you are taking there that, I suggest, is hard to justify from a biblical perspective.
While last week was the official start of an occupation, most thought of it as a protest. People showed up to wave banners, make noise, listen to speeches, and use their presence to tell the rest of society they cared about the issues in question. Tens of thousands lined up on overpasses, wanting governments to notice their concerns. For most of them, the process was therapeutic. “It felt like a patriotic street party,” one of them told me. Upset that I had lumped her in with extremists, she went out of her way to explain how upstanding but frustrated citizens were caring for each other, cleaning up their mess with garbage bags, and even standing guard at monuments to prevent others from disrespecting them. Fair point. Many came, waved their flags, and went home. Some came multiple times. (Rumour has it many will return and crowds will again swell this weekend.) Even so, protestors remain for a day or two to demonstrate they’re serious, but then they go. We can quibble, but I’m fine with that.
However, not everyone is going home.
Some stayed, having blocked the streets, shut down the businesses, and declared, “We are not leaving until ...” So now when the protesters come to encourage the occupiers, is it protest or occupation-support? Occupations have a history. The Occupy Wall Street movements have filled our downtown cores for over a decade. When COVID hit in early 2020, it interrupted various rail blockades expressing sympathy with the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. I wonder whether Christians involved in today’s protests applied the same standards to defending illegality then as they do now to rationalizing today’s actions.
There are a few important distinctions to make. Protestors are exercising a democratic right to speak out against what they perceive as injustice. Protests can happen without law-breaking. Occupiers generally engage in illegal activities by refusing to leave until their demands are met. As such, occupation is a form of civil disobedience. Within Christian social thought, there are rules regarding civil disobedience. Christian tradition acknowledges that there are times when a circumstance is so broken, that a government asks of its citizens behaviour so unjust, that they must disobey. When this happens, the Christian citizen acknowledges that what they are doing is disobedience. Because they recognize that the God-ordained civil authorities are asking for something (even if unjustly), out of respect for that authority (the fifth commandment), they willingly accept the consequences of not complying. Civil disobedience is an exceptional principle but it seeks to give balance to both the biblical principles of justice and office.
That all feels quite different than the demands of the Ottawa occupiers. “We aren’t going anywhere until our demands are met!” They are going beyond civil disobedience, setting themselves up as an alternate authority to the civil government. Occupiers don’t accept the authority of the civil government (or else they’d follow the request to leave.) Instead, they are taking to themselves the authority to determine what the rules should be. This goes beyond whether they are obeying the laws of the land but rather is an expression of autonomy and effectively a declaration that they are not subject to the authority that God has placed over us.
So how will it all end? Probably the way most occupations do. At some point there will be a court injunction. The occupiers will start getting tickets. Then comes the stark reality of real personal liability, significant cash penalties, and potential arrest. Some will leave at that point. If that is your plan, then might I ask what warrants the behaviour today that would not morally obligate you to stay through the consequences of the action? Principled civil disobedience (if that is the justification for the present actions) means perseverance all the way to the jail cell, if necessary. Are the issues you are protesting so clearly defined that this is an acceptable consequence?
Others will dig in. A few may do so out of pure conviction and principle. I would expect most (as is almost always the case) will do so as an expression of a rebellious spirit that mobs almost always generate. A group sense of injustice sets in. And of course, some of what is said has elements of truth. “Our leaders are to blame for escalating the crisis beyond what is needed. We are standing up on behalf of oppressed children and grandchildren.” The arresting officers will, if they’re polite at that stage, counsel them to save their objections for the judge. History tells us that by the time the story gets to the arrest and forceful removal stage, the politeness and niceties are usually gone. The story almost always turns ugly. To those principally protesting and ready to engage in civil disobedience occupation, how will you distinguish yourselves from the unbiblical spirit of rebellion that generally accompanies these displays? There is a difference between the language of freedom biblically understood and the libertine language of autonomy and rebellion that insists on showing others that “no one is going to tell me what to do.”
This is a newsletter directed at Christian leaders. I know that there are some subscribers who have enthusiastically supported the protest. While we differ, I’m seeking to make my principled points with as much understanding for your case as I can, while asking you to consider the counter-case I provide.
Some years ago, I wrote a piece entitled "The Devil’s Advocate: Perfection Waits for Another World." In it I make the case for working for proximate justice, pragmatically justifying doing things that are less than ideal in hopes of making things incrementally better, and alongside others with whom we fundamentally disagree. I noted then that there are no foolproof guidelines. Today, I still can’t exactly define such a line. But I am quite certain that there is a line that needs definition. For those participating in Ottawa, it’s probably necessary to think about where that line is before getting to its edge.
I hope that these matters are clearer and more consistent for the Christians involved in the current truckers’ occupation of downtown Ottawa and that I just haven’t heard it clearly. But I’ve read their stuff, walked this week among the crowds, and asked many to help me understand at what point protest becomes improper. The responses have been unclear.
As a fellow Christian leader, my plea is that we articulate our lines clearly for the sake of our collective witness and for the credibility of the truth of the gospel. Can we say, “We’re not going until all of the mandates and restrictions are lifted,” with a clear conscience? Are we convinced the present state of affairs is not simply about unjust laws but tyrannical governments that we must resist out of principle (and there are clear guidelines in Christian social thought on why and how to do this)? Then make the case.
If, as I suspect for most, the principle is a little less black and white that the protest reflects legitimate frustration and anger that fall short of principled resistance to tyranny, then perhaps we need to take more care with our rhetoric and behaviour. Maybe the place to start is to be clear in our minds exactly where the line is between peaceful protest and unlawful occupation. Let’s also be very sure we don’t get so close to the edge that we accidentally trip over it.

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