This post is all about standing up for yourself, knowing your rights and doing what it takes to protect and preserve them. I will start with a disclaimer and that is, I am a Union guy. I have belonged to Unions throughout my teaching career. I have borne witness to the power of collective bargaining when it comes to establishing humane working conditions, levels of professional autonomy, as well as, reasonable income levels. Thanks to Unionism, the middle class of our society has had the opportunity to grow and thrive for many generations. Although I am now retired, I still consider myself an interested observer in Union matters; especially, when it pertains to Education. In today’s post, I want to focus on one aspect of Unionism that I have experienced several times over the course of my career and that is, the right to protest. So, if you think that Unions are awful things and you are against their mere existence then, you might as well sign off now because you won’t care for what this post has to say. But, if you are like me and find the current state of world affairs have your knickers in a knot (whether it be Trump, Brexit, Wiki-Leaks, Russian hacking, abortion clampdowns, alt-right extremism, the cutting of social safety nets, etc.) then, this post is for you. Please read on and enjoy.
The impetus for this post happened last week in my town of Cobourg, Ontario. It, also, happened on the same day throughout my province of Ontario, Canada. The short strokes of this incident revolve around a series of fiscal cuts to things like Education, Healthcare, the Environment and so on by the provincial Conservative Government of Premier Doug Ford. I am not here today to debate the nature of the government’s decisions but, suffice to say, the relentless onslaught of cuts to services that many ordinary people depend on has gotten citizens riled up. In addition to the fact that the government is cutting back on funding important services, what many people find most difficult to swallow is how the members of the Conservative Party are conducting themselves. The old saying used be that “all politics are local”. But now, all politics appear to be highly centralized. Members of the Conservative party speak in unison, using centralized talking points given to them by Party officials. They applaud every utterance of the Premier, as if he were God-like. Their social media accounts are all often synchronized to promote political spin. It is, almost, as if they don’t even control the words posted under their images on social media. It is very difficult to even book an appointment in the local constituency office to see any of these members of the legislature. So, not unexpectedly, citizens are growing frustrated and protests near MPP Constituency offices are becoming more frequent.
Of all the groups around the world who have become politically active in the past few years, one of the most vocal have been young people of High School or University age. These young people realize that the world is burning while our politicians most often fiddle about. So, around the world, with examples such as those striking for Climate Change, those fighting against gun violence in the US, in particular and those fighting against sexism and racism, the kids of today are motivated, educated and highly organized. Which brings us to the incident in question from above. A small group of local high school students….members of their school’s Amnesty International Club (a club that deals with issues of social justice) decided to protest recent cuts to High School education by holding a peaceful sit-in in the constituency office of our local member of the legislature. The date of the sit-in was well-advertised in the hope that our Member of the Legislature would make himself available to hear an airing of their concerns. When the students arrived at the constituency office, they were met with locked doors and a note that included the line, “Sit-ins are not permitted within any constituency office.”
That line, “Sit-ins are not permitted within any constituency office” killed me. It raised my hackles. It ruffled my feathers. It certainly got my dander up. To me, it said that the government won’t be inconvenienced by those who are being inconvenienced by them. They are trying to thwart public protests by simply refusing to acknowledge the protesters or their grievances. Last time I checked, we were still living in a democratic society and, one of the hallmarks of living in a democratic society is the Right to Lawful Assembly and to peaceful protest. It is something that is enshrined in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is something worth fighting to protect. It is, certainly, something to get angry over.
To their credit, the students met the appearance of locked doors with civility and politeness. They did not attempt to break down the doors or trash the office in outraged indignation. Instead, they spoke with the Member of the Legislature via the phone and arranged to meet at a time convenient to his schedule. How mannerly of them to do so. I hope when that meeting does take place that he actually converses with them instead of reciting lines from the provincial script.
I’m a calm fellow 95% of the time but, I recognize the value and power of anger. When used selectively, great change can come about because of righteous anger. When I read the sentence about sit-ins not being permitted, my first thought was how ridiculous a proposition that was to make. Essentially, anyone with a beef against the actions of this government is being told to schedule their protest at a time and place convenient to the government. Well folks, that is not what protest is all about. There is an anger and an energy and an urgency to a protest that gives the protest its strength. So, as I read that line, I thought about how the government and their backers are trying to discredit the notion that protesting is a credible response to feeling aggrieved. And why wouldn’t they? History has shown the power of mass movements such as those during the Vietnam War, the US Civil Rights marches, the Solidarity demonstrations in Poland at the Gdansk Shipyards, the Black Lives Matter folks and the hundreds of thousands who marched for Women’s Rights a year or so ago around the world.
Mass protest is one of the few tools ordinary workers and/or citizens have to stand up to authority. Collective action is often more powerful than individual action. Anger is ok, when channelled properly. So, this lead me to thoughts that I often have when times seem dire in our society and that is, that music and poetry and literature are often the way that the masses are informed and aroused and called to action. Artists play such an important role in helping to motivate citizens. Immediately, I began thinking of protest songs and the circumstances that led to their creation. As I began thinking about this, the first person that sprang to mind was a man named Henry Rollins.
Henry Rollins came to prominence in America as lead singer of seminal hardcore punk band, Black Flag. His schtick was anger. He railed against injustice everywhere he saw it. As a result, Black Flag shows were known for the intensity of the energy Rollins and his bandmates exuded. At his shows, you sweated, learned lessons and were challenged to stand up and fight back out in the real world in which we all lived. Henry Rollins has morphed into middle age and now, tours the world giving spoken word lectures. Still angry. Still intelligent. Rollins is able to readily articulate what is on his mind and, as result, I have a lot of respect for him. Recently, he was on the Stephen Colbert show and was asked about whether being angry was “part of the problem” in our society. Rollin’s response was perfect and can be found here.
So, I thought, who better to talk about the importance of “protest songs” as a means of unifying and focussing the energy of anger in a protest, than Rollins. Here is another video of him. This time, he is in a record store…..remember those…….talking about influential protest songs. The teacher in me wishes I could share this with every person, young and old, who is fed up with what is going on in our world. It is ok to get up and stand up for your rights. Please watch Rollin’s video before going on. Once done, come back and I will play every song he mentions and give you a bit of information to put each group/song in context. His video can be accessed here.
The first group Rollins mentions is his own, Black Flag. That is a much younger Rollins in the photograph, just given’r. He mentioned a song called Revenge. The lyrics are raw and begin, “It’s not my imagination, I’ve got a gun at my back” and goes on from there. To listen to it, click here.
Rollins next mentions a group called Bikini Kill. They were a powerful feminist band and one of the best of all the grunge and punk bands that came out of the “Seattle” scene in the late 80s/early 90s. They were led by a singer named Kathleen Hanna who, in addition to doing her own thing with Bikini Kill, served as muse for Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in their formative years. Anyway, Bikini Kill sang about things still on the minds of women today; objectification, rape culture, female empowerment and so on. Their music continues to inspire and empower many women, a full generation later. You can get a taste of their music from this video for Rebel Girl, from the soundtrack of the cult classic movie, Ghost World. The video is here.
The Clash are fairly well known. They exploded on to the music scene in England during the rise of Punk Rock. As Rollins noted, they often spoke of the hardships and frustrations of working class folks and/or about the political scene at the time. They are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a reason. This song, “Guns of Brixton” is about a series of race riots in Brixton, England. The video is a live recording and can be found here.
Jimi Hendrix, like The Clash, is well-known. He was a guitar virtuoso, the likes of which we have rarely seen since. Like Bob Marley, with his song “Buffalo Soldiers”, Hendrix was angry about how the government was using US soldiers against its own people and, more specifically, how soldiers of colour were being given the dirtiest of jobs in War. Rollins mentioned his song, “Machine Gun”. The video is here.
In the early days of Hip-Hop, many of the artists and the songs they sang reflected the politics of their lives on the mean streets of America. Race was, and continues to be, such an issue. So, it was no surprise that racially-charged tunes began gaining in popularity during the mid-80s. One of the most forceful of Hip-Hop’s early groups was Public Enemy. Led by Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, Public Enemy blew the roof off of the simmering unrest that characterized life for so many people of colour during that time with battle cries such as “Don’t Believe the Hype”, “911 is a Joke” and their biggest hit, “Fight the Power”. The video for “Fight the Power” can be found here.
All throughout recent history, protests have been held to oppose injustice. There is power to collective action and, as it turns out, there is good music, too. The best thing about a good protest is that you don’t need an appointment, all you need is a just cause.
Here are some more powerful protest songs and singers. Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Midnight Oil, U2, GrandMaster Flash and the Furious Five, Macklemore/Lewis/Lambert, Alanis Morissette, Bob Marley and the Wailers. There are many other great songs, too, that all have something important to say. Do you have a favourite protest song that helps fuel your fire? If so, feel free to post the link in the comments.