||Last Updated: Feb 13, 2017 - 1:45:37 AM
On November 25, 2016, thousands of Bahamians participated in #WeMarch in Nassau, Bahamas. It is important to note that marches reportedly also took place in Grand Bahama, Abaco, Eleuthera, and Mayaguana. Weeks ago, Ranard Henfield — known for his work on Our Carmichael — announced a twelve hour protest march from Arawak Cay to Rawson Square, calling on the government to respond to 18 issues. They included VAT, Marco’s Law, public disclosure, and whistle blower protection. Any Bahamian paying moderate attention to current events in the country could stand behind a placard addressing at least one of the listed issues, and many brought new items such as life-saving resources on Family Islands, support for Junkanoo, and protection of marine resources. This contributed to both the large number of participants and general inability to clearly articulate the purpose of the march as related to direct outcomes. The march was an exciting endeavor that gave people a way to participate — a relatively quick start to a lengthy process.
Criticism and Competition
We March was the topic of much debate throughout the country in the days leading up to “Black Friday.” People voiced an array of opinions, largely on radio talk shows and social media. Many of the criticisms were absolutist and were based on logical fallacies.
“If you don’t march, you don’t care about the country.”
“It’s more important to vote than march.”
“Marching is better than voting.”
“Marching is pointless.”
While there is much room for criticism, it is necessary to be mindful of opposing views, personal biases, and the value of productive conversation over sensational commentary. It cannot be successfully argued that the march was successful in getting the desired response to any of the issues raised, but it is also untrue that it was without merit. The event drew a large number of people — unlike many protests held in The Bahamas — and gave people the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with various circumstances. Its deficiencies range from the lack of specific focus to absence of clear direction for the movement beyond the march, but it cannot be discounted as a fruitless exercise. It marked the first time many Bahamians publicly took a stand. It must be noted, however, that many of them stood against something without identifying or articulating their demands. There was a missed opportunity to engage communities in discussion about challenges the country faces and crowdsource solutions and plans of action. The major win, however, was the new energy it brought to participants and onlookers, driving them to, at the very least, engage in conversations about national issues and share ideas about the way forward. Galvanizing people is a great skill, and only one of the first steps in building a movement and creating change.
Many people who agree that change is needed chose to see one another as opponents. In a competition without winners, people set about discounting each other’s efforts and boasting about their own. Some postulated that their participation in marches and protests in their youth were enough. Others flaunted their proof of voter registration as though it evidenced their dedication to nation building. Some claimed they both vote and march. Very few people considered the other ways we exercise our rights and fulfill our duties as citizens. There is no way to measure one person’s intent to vote against another’s decision to march. Similarly, there is no way to measure one person’s decision to be a teacher against another’s decision to develop an after school program. The competitive nature of such discussions only served to create divisions in an exercise that could build community and consensus.
What is Civic Participation?
Civic participation is not a one-time event. It is the ongoing action we, as citizens, take to build a country that serves as well — or better than — it serves foreigners and visitors, and serves us equitably. It is the work we do for the common good. It encompasses the time, skills, and energy we give to existing initiatives, development of new programs, and execution of action plans to address the issues we can easily recognize and print on placards. Voting alone is not sufficient for creating change. Marching alone is not groundbreaking. Arguing about the merit of either, both, or other options is not producing results. There isn’t one path to The Bahamas we want to live in and leave for the generations behind us. There is a surplus of work to be done, and the more people step up to the plate, consistently and conscientiously, the sooner we will get there.
What is in our way?
The process will be faster and smoother when we learn to stop making blanket generalizations and comparisons, and accept that we all have different skill sets, responsibilities, and resources at our disposal, and this heavily impacts the ways we are able to participate. It is off-putting when a class-privileged person suggests that everyone should make the sacrifice and take the day off to march. It is unacceptable to pressure people into using their lunch hour to find parking and participate in the protest. It is offensive to tell people they don’t care enough or do not have the right to participate in conversations because they don’t have the same privileges some of us enjoy, enabling us to do what they can’t.
Too many people are quick to direct the lives of others with little knowledge of their physical, mental, emotional, and financial positions. Childcare, job security, invisible illnesses, and differences in abilities help determine what is reasonable, and no one can assess these factors better than the people living with them. Pretending to be experts in the lives of others and pressuring them to behave the way we think they should does nothing to move the conversation forward. In fact, it can lead to complete disengagement and prevent people from participating in more feasible ways. There is more than enough work and space for everyone, regardless of skill level, abilities, or time commitment. Organizers must create points of entry to their movements that can be easily recognized and accessed by potential participants, eliminating the perceived need for people to pressure and shame others into unreasonable actions.
Participation of Politicians
People were visibly and audibly upset by the presence of politicians at the protest. It is puzzling that people expect a march for citizens of The Bahamas to express their dissatisfaction would not attract the attention of politicians. Isn’t that an objective? The Opposition in this country has always been lackluster, but probably never as dismal as it has been in recent years. We have come to see that it simply exists to passively oppose most of the initiatives of the government. It is weak, and only shows up to pander to the people once the position of the majority is clear. Given this, it should have been expected for members of the Opposition to attend, and it might have been useful to have people in place to execute a well-developed plan of direct engagement. The Opposition’s presence provided a unique opportunity to set an agenda, onboard well-positioned people, and use their voices to deliver a message. For example, if public disclosure was a major issue of concern, Opposition members at the march could have been called in, invited to speak publicly — not necessarily at the march — about the issue, ensure that all its members disclosed by a specified date, and join Bahamian citizens in demanding the same of the members opposite before the break for the holidays. This could have been a small request of a party in need of good publicity, displays of unity, and connection to the public interest, not to mention an easy win for protest organizers and participants.
Members of the sitting government, of course, received a hostile reception as well. This event was designed, at least in part, to get the attention of the people who were shunned both formally and informally by the organizers. Refusing to have a conversation has never led to a productive conversation, much less a resolution. Unless the march was about gaining notoriety for the organizers, this decision was a misstep. There is no way for any government to look at a protest with so many disparate issues and give a satisfactory response to them all. One of the most important parts of this action is direct engagement with the government. Unless the plan is to overthrow the government, there is no way to get around that critical step, and it is of the utmost importance that suitable people are identified to facilitate and participate in the conversation, even if the march organizers lack the patience, focus, time, or skill to do it. A critical component of any negotiation is the open line of communication.
What is a protest? Is it revolutionary?
Peaceful protests like the march have a specific purpose — publicity. A protest is not, in and of itself, a vehicle for substantive change. It does not, on its own, cause for governments to take action to acquiesce the demands of the people. It draws attention, particularly of the media, which allows for the amplification of the voices delivering a message. For such a protest to be effective, this message must be clear and concise, and participants need to be on one accord. Mixed messages only serve to weaken the effect, dilute the cause, and give the impression of chaos — even where none exists.
Many people used words like “occupy,” “shut down,” and “revolution” in describing the march and protest, receiving criticism from others who both agree and disagree that people-driven action is necessary, but believe it necessary to provide criticism. To occupy is to be in a space without permission. A shut down is a disruption of service. A revolution is an undeniable change in system. None of these things happened on “Black Friday” as the law was followed, necessary permits were granted, and the events unfolded as expected. There was nothing forced about it, and no power was disrupted. This is not discredit, but a fact. It is new, to this generation, to see the masses turn out like they did, but it cannot (yet) be said that it has spurred a revolution. If there is to be a revolution, it requires a shared vision, consistent action, and both less warning and less permission.
What is required of leadership?
As is often stated, this country is being led by an ill-prepared person with charisma. In 2012, we chose to put The Bahamas in the hands of someone who told us — did not show us — that he believed in us. It was the charisma and clever messaging that got the vote of the majority, and it is not much different in the case of political action. People are prepared to follow someone with a good speech and tagline, but they can only take us so far.
To move beyond the first post — for example, the protest — we need a shared vision. We need to know where we are going, buy into that destination, and work together to get there with motivation and guidance from the leadership. This may mean leadership must change hands because the visionary is not always the doer. Today, in The Bahamas, we ought to demand more of our leaders. It is not enough to sell us on a future we had no part in visioning, or to pave a path we have not agreed to walk. Participatory methods are necessary, and while this is challenging, it is a non-negotiable requirement.
What do we need to do differently?
When we protest, it must be with respect for the thousands who have protested before us; not erasing history in order to self-aggrandize. When we speak of revolution, we must be able to point to the dramatic change being made, and detail the innovative approach. We must be able to think about the Burma Road Riot of 1942, the General Strike of 1958, women’s Suffrage in 1962, and Majority Rule in 1967 — where they came from, how they were effective, what we can learn from them, and how we can use new ideas and technology to increase the impact of proven tactics.
It is critical for leaders to remember their responsibility to their constituents — to be completely honest with them, to listen to them, to empower them, and to move them forward. Marches and protests are not inherently radical. They are new to some participants, and may be growing in national popularity as we grow in the spirit of civic participation, but they are not novel or out of the ordinary in The Bahamas. It is up to us to change the face of the protest, to escalate our actions, and make room in the movements we build for everyone, regardless of their stations in life. It is on us to bring forth the revolution if that is what we want, and to recognize that there is a cost to bear, and every participant cannot carry the same weight.
In and of itself, the march is of little consequence. The change we want to see is dependent on what we do next. As we cast our votes, hold our placards high, volunteer with service organizations, and donate to worthy causes, it must be with the understanding that each of us is one person, but together we are a nation. With over 700 islands and cays and more than 18 issues we want to address, there is room for everyone. Let’s call our efforts what they are, accept criticism with grace, and commit to learning throughout the process. Our concerns are many, and may diverge at some points, but a collective vision is the thread that can hold us together. These are requirements, not only for a revolution, but for any citizen-led change.
Wallace is a Bahamian writer, blogger, and social and political commentator. She
holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from St. Mary's University,
Halifax, NS. She is a women's rights activist, passionate about public
education, community engagement, and the empowerment of women and girls.
Alicia is the Director of Hollaback! Bahamas- part of a global movement to end street harassment - and Co-founder of the Coalition to End Gender-based Violence & Discrimination. She serves
as the Youth Ambassador for The Bahamas to End Sexual Violence, and is one of 60 recipients of the Queen's Young Leaders Award in 2015. Alicia lives in Nassau, Bahamas. Connect with her on Facebook.
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