Three men just got arrested for protesting a planned hydro dam in Labrador. The men stand in good company.
The protests that overthrew East Germany’s vicious police state began as a gathering of a handful of scared people in a single church in a single city, but they soon grew to involve thousands of citizens right across the country.
At the start, no one expected a few quiet protesters to bring down the seemingly all-powerful Socialist Unity government.
No one expected the brutal
Soviet-led East German state to succumb not to NATO’s military might, but to the stubborn bravery of ordinary citizens. It was the same all through the Warsaw Pact. In every case, the protests started weak, but they led to the end of the Soviet Union itself.
What the first few lonely protesters expected in the Leipzig church was arrest, incarceration, social and economic ruin, probably physical and mental torture, and possibly death. Their fear alone could not stop them from gathering.
After 40 years in power, the Socialist Unity Party had taken everything else away from them: security of life and property, self-respect, their future, their voice. With nothing to lose, they could risk everything they had, even with little or no hope for success.
The church protesters were ready to be arrested because under their government, they already felt imprisoned.
Their government, in oppressing East Germans, created and nurtured the very opposition that brought it down.
Most protest movements start small, no matter how they end, and they all start for the same reasons. If disaffected citizens can still find redress for their grievances through institutional channels — by voting, appealing to their elected officials, bringing lawsuits to court or sending petitions to constituent assemblies — they won’t feel the need to take to the streets.
A citizen in a healthy democracy will rarely have nothing to lose. A person with a life worth living won’t normally risk losing his freedom for the sake of a frivolous cause, but by giving grievance and ignoring dissent, a government frees citizens to rebel.
Only by keeping citizens oblivious to their lack of democratic power are governments able to suppress disaffection before it grows into active dissent.
With full bellies and endless entertainment, people might not even notice the prison walls rise up around them. However, this strategy works better at home than in the colonies. Rome remained loyal to itself (more or less), but the empire revolted. The dictatorial Roman state managed for a time to appease the city populace with bread and circuses, but all the food and entertainment had to come from the fringes of the realm, leaving the colonized peoples with less of everything.
When East Germany and all the other Soviet satellites in the Warsaw Pact fell to the force of their own citizens, those citizens were revolting against a system that had taken away their best for four decades and given them nothing in return, except a promise of more of the same forever. They had nothing left to lose and so, again, they could risk everything to win: thanks to the state itself.
That is why the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric project has such deep implications for the political future of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s a “wedge issue,” as one of the recently arrested protesters calls it — meaning that it could split the province in two.
Ever since the Danny Williams and then the Kathy Dunderdale government dedicated itself wholly to building dams in Labrador, it has assumed the project does not need unanimous support. As long as enough stakeholders signed up for the plan to proceed, the government felt it could ignore anyone opposed. That could mean the downfall of the uneven union between Newfoundland and Labrador.
The protests being organized against the dams — the demonstrations, the arrests — are small, but even if hundreds get arrested instead of only three, that probably still wouldn’t stop the headlong rush to construction.
Even as the government dams the river, it should reflect that it is taking away one more thing, one more big thing, from people who already believe they’ve lost almost everything they had. It’s not wise to leave them with still less to lose.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.