The right to peaceful protest is a core tenet of a healthy society — the inherent human right to stand up and be counted, to challenge unjust laws, and sometimes, when the system has failed, to put our bodies in the way of destruction and give voice to the voiceless.
It’s been one year now since our peaceful action was intercepted by armed Russian FSB agents; nearly one year since we were unlawfully charged with piracy and sent to jail for more than two months. Not a day goes by that we don’t think of the time we spent in jail in Murmansk and St. Petersburg, or about the fact that we did not see justice — we are free, yes, but we were granted amnesty for a crime we did not commit. But at least we are home with our families, which is more than we can say for the thousands of other activists around the world who continue to be persecuted or imprisoned for standing up for what they believe in.
Our fellow activists in India, Spain, the US and of course Russia are still in the crossfires of governments and industries that feel threatened by civil society and determined to silence opposition any way they can. Unfortunately this is taking the shape of a criminalisation of peaceful protest and a shrinking of democratic space all over the world.
In Russia, 40-year-old activist Yevgeny Vitishko — a member of NGO Environmental Watch for North Caucasus — was protesting the environmental footprint of the Sochi Winter Olympics when he was arrested. His so-called “crime”: painting a fence with the words, “the forest is for everybody.” He was initially given a suspended sentence, but a judge overturned that, and in February of this year, he was sentenced to three years in a penal colony. More information and help.
In Spain, the government is about to pass a law that will arbitrarily penalise peaceful protest with extreme fines. This is in direct response to the many peaceful citizen demonstrations of discontent towards the government’s reforms such as huge spending cuts in health and education. More information about No Somos Delito (We are not crime). Act!
In India, the people of Mahan are facing extreme pressure and environmental activists are being harassed and smeared, all because of their efforts to stop a new coal mine being development by Essar and Hindalco, who are after the coal reserves below these forests. Roughly 55,000 lives and livelihoods depend on the Mahan forests. Their culture, community and very lives are intertwined with the forests that the corporations are threatening to destroy. If the companies get their way, these local communities will be completely displaced.
They are not going quietly. The people of Mahan have come together to garner widespread support, organising rallies and public meetings to raise awareness of their rights in the region. But authorities are steamrolling the protesters on all fronts. On July 29, the police seized a mobile phone booster and solar panels that Greenpeace India had set up in the village of Amelia. The same day, in the middle of the night, two Greenpeace India activists were arrested without a warrant. Know more and help.
In the US, basic rights are being unravelled faster than we can keep up. On top of the horrifying breaches of human rights happening in Ferguson, several environmental activists are facing significant jail time. Eight individuals who participated in a peaceful banner hang to call out Procter & Gamble’s role in deforestation are about to face trial in October. They’ve been charged with disproportionate and very serious felony charges of burglary and vandalism, which carry a total maximum sentence of nine and a half years in prison and $20,000 in fines for each activist. These are terrifying and unreasonable consequences for an entirely peaceful action that didn’t hurt a fly. If convicted of a felony offense, these would be the first such convictions in Greenpeace USA’s long history of peaceful action.
It is impossible to look at these examples — and there are many, many more — as separate from the broader debate around right to protest, free speech, freedom of assembly, and in some cases like in Russia or in Ferguson, freedom of the press. There is a growing trend globally that favours the powers of corporations and oppressive governments over the rights of individuals. It is an alarming and dangerous trend that, left unchecked, could lead to the complete unravelling of the rights that we have fought so hard for.
What would Martin Luther King say if he could see Ferguson now? How would Gandhi feel to see his life’s work unravelling in the modern day? What would’ve happened to Rosa Parks if she rebuffed unjust laws in today’s America
We must not rest on our laurels or think for a moment that those battles belong to someone else, in some other place. When faced with this kind of repression, the only possible solution is to fight back and fight harder with people power, calm arguments, and above all, hope that we will prevail.
The Arctic 30
Peter, Miguel, Camila, Colin, Ana Paula, Phil, Kieron, Alexandra, Frank, Anthony, Iain, Alexandre, Paul, Faiza, Mannes, Anne Mie, Sini, Francesco, Cristian, Jonathan, David J, Tomasz, Roman, Denis, Dima, Marco, Gizem, Ruslan, Andrey and Ekaterina.
The Arctic 30 spent more than three months in a Russian detention centre, despite the fact that the seizure of their ship and the imprisonment of the activists were deemed illegal by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. As one activist said, “They didn’t lock us up for what we did. They locked us up for what we stood for.” Their act of civil disobedience was a courageous stand against destructive Arctic oil drilling and the onslaught of climate change. From peaceful action to dramatic seizure — click here for a timeline of events since the Arctic Sunrise took action on 18 September 2013.