Human Rights & Democracy

May 15, 2024: Protests: The Bellwether of Democracy

Posted on May 24, 2024 at 12:00 AM

By Cynthia Efird, Member, Foreign Policy and National Security Task Force

This May, we have seen extensive media coverage of three distinct kinds of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations: protests in Israel during its Memorial Day holiday, pro- and anti-Palestinian protests on U.S. college campuses, and protests against a repressive law against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Georgia. A quick glance at the tactics of the protesters and the government responses for each offers a clear validation of the importance of civil disobedience in the democratic process. We should welcome the commitment of all citizens to important causes, whether we support their views or not.

In Israel, on May 13, protestors disrupted several ceremonies during the national day of mourning to demand that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do more to secure the release of the hostages captured by Hamas on October 7. Critics heckled the Prime Minister, shouting that he had killed their children by not preventing the Hamas attacks that killed 1,200 people and then prolonging the ensuing war that has killed tens of thousands. On May 12, Israeli peace activists broadcast their annual Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day Ceremony, held since 2006, to 200 venues in Israel, with parallel events in London, Los Angeles, and New York. Pro-government supporters countered the protests with shouts of their own, trying to drown out the heckling. Local news media covered both the protestors and the government ministers’ responses, and social media was active on both sides.

The middle of May is the traditional time for universities to hold graduation exercises across the U.S. Many of this year’s graduates were unable to celebrate their high school graduations four years ago because of COVID and were especially looking forward to celebrating this milestone. However, ceremonies in some places were cancelled due to fears of potential violence resulting from ongoing civil disobedience and encampments on campuses to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza, as well as counter-protests against anti-Semitism. Many university leaders negotiated with the protestors, trying creatively to balance their free-speech rights against the rights of other college seniors to celebrate their graduations. Most negotiations succeeded in permitting ceremonies to be held. Police were occasionally called in to enforce free movement on campus. Media pundits criticized both the negotiations and the policing.

Georgia is a country struggling to move away from a Russian-ruled authoritarian past and create a true democracy in a difficult neighborhood. The target of a Russian invasion in 2008 and the victim of Russian subversion since then, Georgia is now governed by an increasingly pro-Putin populist party. On May 14, the Georgian Parliament passed a law, proposed by the governing “Dream” party, that parrots a Russian act that has drastically undermined dissent in that country. The regulation requires that organizations—including

in the news media—that receive 20% or more of their funding from foreign sources to register as agents of foreign powers and submit to intrusive reporting and harassment.

The Act was intended, according to the opposition, to preserve the power of the Dream party and stymie the likely victory of pro-Western powers in the upcoming October elections. In response, pro-Western political parties brought thousands of people into the streets of cities across Georgia to protest; the police reacted with tear gas, pepper spray, and beatings. Those injured included Ted Jonas, an American Georgian lawyer, and opposition parliamentarians. Many were arrested.

In both the United States and in Israel, the messy democratic process was on full display, with mistakes, lots of transparency, and—as yet unknown—political fallout. Georgia is likely to fall more and more under the authoritarian rule of pro-Russian populism. It is important that those of us lucky enough to be living in democracies, however flawed and sometimes chaotic, never forget that balancing competing interests is the only way that self-rule in pluralistic societies is possible.

In his 2020 book, “First Principles,” the historian Thomas Ricks provides 10 things Americans should do to preserve our democracy. “Political freedom begins with the freedoms of conscience, assembly, and speech, “Ricks writes. “A congressional candidate slugging a reporter is un-American. So is preventing a controversial speaker from appearing at a university. So speak out on behalf of our rights, and remember that doing so begins by protecting the rights of others, even when we disagree with them. Especially protect repugnant speech, no matter how ugly. When in doubt, remember that someone might one day try to label your own views as too offensive to be allowed public expression.”

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