The Spring 2024 edition of ‘Vocation for Justice’ – the Columban newsletter for Justice, Peace and Ecology – focuses on the right to protest. On the cover are photos of Columbans and colleagues carrying banners, ‘Stand with the Pope, Stand up to Fossil Fuels’ and ‘Save our Earth’ at marches in London and Birmingham on 9 December 2023 to support Climate Action at the COP28 UN Climate talks.
Many of us have felt alarmed in recent months at the UK government’s response to protests regarding the conflict in the Holy Land, refugee policy and strikes by trade unionists. Confusion has been sown about the law, creating uncertainty about what consequences people might face for taking to the streets. Some are discouraged by fear of arrest.
Yet during a time of escalating global conflict and inequality at home and overseas, it is more important than ever that our decision-makers are accessible and accountable to the public. Undemocratic threats and the criminalisation of protest must be challenged. Campaigns suggested for support include the work of the Quaker Truth and Integrity Group and the Global Justice campaign ‘End Corporate Impunity’. Also, Liberty’s challenge to anti-protest legislation. Legislation – such as the Public Order Act 2023 – has clamped down on protest, giving the police new powers to restrict demonstrations and create new offences that specifically target types of protest.
We gather to mourn, express anger and demand change in response to national or world events. The ability to stand up for what we believe in is a fundamental right – one that all of us, no matter what causes us, hold dear. And it is essential to a healthy and functioning democracy, helping force politicians to listen … even though they often don’t appear to! Protest is also a vital safety valve, giving people an outlet for their emotions, whether about the UK government awarding new North Sea oil and gas licences, the cost-of-living crisis, UK refugee policy, or the killing of civilians in Gaza.
Faith groups – such as Religious Links and the National Justice and Peace Network – have long promoted integrity in public life, the value of hope and the importance of helping marginalised communities dream of a better future. And, of course, protest in all its forms – from signing petitions to lobbying our MPs to raising awareness of issues. We must sidestep misguided claims of “being too political”. For Catholics, there is plenty of Catholic Social Teaching to quote from. And in the latest papal exhortation, ‘Laudate Deum’ Pope Francis stressed the vital role of radical nonviolent action.
Democracy, along with human and environmental rights, is hard to win and easy to lose. Let us remember this as we plan for the next General Election later this year.
In Addition, the newsletter reminds us that our 2024 Schools Media Competition ‘Biodiversity Matters’ closes on 17 February. Please alert young people 13-18 that they are invited to submit a piece of writing or image.