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Why I Won’t Denounce Those Who Protest for Freedom of Movement

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While it’s undeniably stupid to gather in large crowds right now I won’t denounce those who protest through legitimate means for their freedom of movement.

Much has been written and said about the people protesting across the US for the loosening of shutdowns over the past few weeks. In the outlets I follow the protests have largely been met with objections and with mockery.

We all live in our own bubbles. I’ll be the first to admit that. Most of the protesters seem to exist in a different bubble than me. Yet the seemingly unified opposition to the protestors, their protests and what they protest for in my usually liberal bubble has come as a bit of shock to me. Not because I expected fellow liberals to take to the streets en masse at this particular moment in history, where assembly in itself poses a threat to public health, but because it shows an unsettling willingness to trade liberty for security in a way I find quite shocking. Furthermore the blatant disregard for the protestors, the unwillingness to even attempt to understand if they have a justifiable cause, the mockery – is something I find objectionable among people I thought would stand up for liberty.

 “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

Voltaire

A fairly common trope among the defenders of freedom is the idea that I might disagree with you, but would be willing to defend your right to free expression to death. This mindset should also apply to those who protest for freedom of movement these days if we initially saw ourselves as defenders of free expression. Freedom of expression is indeed a fundamental right, and one that should be protected even for those who express views we may disagree with.

Another couple of traditionally held fundamental rights is the right to free movement, and the right to assemble. If one looks past the somewhat silly banners about whishes’ for haircuts one should at least appreciate the value of these three rights in liberal democratic societies.

In my native Norway, the right to freedom of movement is protected by the constitution (Article 106). It’s further established both in the European Convention on Human Rights (Protocol 4 art. 2) and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 13). In the US this freedom has however traditionally been less protected, especially in light of pandemics. It is somewhat ironic that some of the loudest voices for freedom of movement in the current situation are some of the loudest opposers of freedom of movement when it comes to migrants – perhaps this could serve as an opportunity for those of us who believe in more liberal regulations on international freedom of movement to find unlikely allies on the opposite side of the conventional political aisle?

I get that the wish to move about right now and the right to gather in crowds is unpalatable to many. The fear of covid19 is real, the deaths are far too numerous and we don’t want to add to that. Yet this, as everything becomes a question of balance. While the freedoms to move and to gather should exist the same freedoms should protect our rights not to do so if we so choose. And as responsibility is an inevitable consequence of freedom the responsible choice at this particular time would, in my opinion, be to stay at a safe social distance from others. Others might disagree.

I would argue an additional premise for freedom here is access to information, and the ability to accurately assess the available information. My personal, and from my perspective, informed choice right now is to remain at social distance, if you feel otherwise you should feel free to submit your opposition and we might publish it here on the Activism Academy.

Naturally more is at play here than the fundamental principles upon which liberal democracy rests. For some the lockdown has led to losses of jobs, people despair as they fail to put food on the table for their families, people fear for their livelihoods, for their ability to pay for healthcare should the virus strike them or a more at-risk member of their family et cetera. To fully understand the complexities of motivations at a time like this is nearly impossible, yet we have designed our legislation, our rights, and our liberties to protect us, exactly at times like this – times of uncertainty.

It is also at times like this the principles upon which we have built our societies are put on trial by those who wish to trade liberty for security through the means of centralized authority. The freedoms both to move, express, and assemble are some of the pillars upon which democracy rests. Without it, it becomes impossible to pose a meaningful opposition to the ruling authorities.

In the spirit of freedom, of the ability to protest, to be an activist, and because I want the same freedoms to be extended to me when I see fit I will therefore not denounce those who wish to utilize their freedoms to protest in favour of their freedom of movement.

You might disagree, let us know if you do, and we will not only defend your right to do so, but might also publish your opposition on this very page.

Stay safe!

  • Bjørn Ihler is the founding Editor in Chief of Activism Academy and co-founder of The Khalifa-Ihler Institute, the organization behind the academy. Ihler has a long track record as a contributor to multiple international publications and is a well renowned activist working among others with the Kofi Annan Foundation to counter violent extremism.

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