It’s a tried and tested reality – politely asking for serious political change that disrupts the status quo has never worked and never will.
From opposing the Vietnam or Iraq wars, to the Extinction Rebellion protests sweeping the globe today, to demanding democratic rights in Hong Kong — genuine demonstrations of people power will generally cause some inconvenience to the public.
This might include blocking traffic, occupying public space or even rallying in a shopping mall — because political demonstrations can be a messy business, but their right to exist is an essential part of a healthy democracy.
One South African woman sobbed and complained that “I moved away from South Africa to move away from this… I don’t want this… this is not the Hong Kong I have learned to love… everybody in Hong Kong is so lovable and welcoming for all foreigners and then to experience this it hurts me, it really hurts me…”
Apparently comparing Hong Kong’s current pro-democracy push with the fallout from South African apartheid (which institutionalised racism until the early 1990s) is certainly crude. But surely the free, democratic city she claims she loves is precisely what the protesters are trying to protect.
Scenes at Hong Kong airport earlier this week included one man who stamped his foot and shouted at protesters that: “this is unfair, we are trying to get to our lives and you are giving us shit.”
In another video, an Australian man confronts protesters claiming they support independence from China and that the Hong Kong police should crack down harder on them. “You are angry because your flight was cancelled,” responds a protester, “but imagine if that was your daughter”, referring to a woman who reportedly had her eye injured in a confrontation with police.
Do these people have any sense of the political context they find themselves caught up in?
In Hong Kong, the protesters are fighting to protect the relative freedoms their city has enjoyed since the city left the British empire in 1997. After the handover, it became a special administrative zone operated by different laws and economic systems to mainland China — including for example, the right to a free press and access to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which are forbidden in China.
Surely any foreigners stuck in the dramas unfolding this week in Hong Kong should be able to put their own slight discomfort aside and realise that the rights the protesters are defending and more important than missing a flight home or the uncomfortable spectacle of witnessing protesters on the streets?
The reality is that real movements towards social change are often inconvenient to the status quo, because if they weren’t they would cease to be effective.
In Australia we have recently seen the rise of environmental groups such as Extinction Rebellion using the Gandhian principles of nonviolent direct action to draw attention to the climate and extinction crisis currently unfolding.
They’ve glued themselves to roads, blocked city intersections and even placed a canoe on Brisbane’s Victoria Bridge. And they planned an enormous protest in a stated effort to “immobilise” the heart of Brisbane on August 6th. While the response of the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was more measured than some commentators, she called on the protesters to stop, and said: “When you stop people going to and from their workplace, I don’t think people like that.”
Of course she is right -– people don’t like to be delayed, stopped or inconvenienced. Drivers in Brisbane vented their frustration on Twitter, with one man stating from his car that: “I just think they should go and get a proper bloody job.”
But for those of us who believe in democracy, we need to accept that political change only happens when we are taken out of our comfort zones and forced to confront uncomfortable realities like the fact that Hong Kong residents want to hold on to their democratic rights, or that we are currently in the midst of an extinction crisis in Australia.
As long as protesters remain non-violent in prosecuting their cases surely a little inconvenience is a small price to pay for long-lasting and necessary political change.