If I were to ask you if you’d joined any protest in the past few weeks, chances are you’d answer in the affirmative. You’d have read the news, caught wind of demonstrations, packed up your banner, and joined the chanting crowds. What you may not have realised, however, is that these actions, simple as they are, may not be afforded to everyone equally.
Today, on the 19th of March, we celebrate the Day of Equality in Finland. Known commonly by its alternative name, Minna Canth’s Day, the Day of Equality both reminds us to celebrate our rights, yet also remember the myriad ways that we hold privileged. As activists and concerned citizens, today is a valuable chance to examine the rights we take with us to the streets.
Demonstrations are commonly organised around issues of human rights and social justice. Because we often fight for the rights of those who are socially oppressed, it’s common to see marginalised people at rallies and marches. However, the infrastructure of protests may not always be as accessible as it should, leaving many individuals in a vulnerable position.
People with disabilities are uniquely excluded from many on-street demonstrations. The loud noises of protests, their chaotic and unpredictable nature, and absence of support can make these events a daunting experience for many. Activists are often expected to stand or march for long periods of time without rest. Places to sit down or use the restroom might not be available at protest locations. At the same time, deaf people and people with hearing disabilities can face difficulty in following the crowd. Chants and speeches will be tough to catch without translation. In worst cases, situations of emergency might leave deaf people without instructions on how to protect themselves. In large crows of rushing people, those with mobility impairments can wind up injured by other demonstrators. For many disabled people, this makes protests an unattractive and unsafe method of activism.
People of colour can also encounter exacerbated violence and policing at protests. Although demonstrations are typically kept legal in Finland, civil disobedience is not an uncommon occurrence. Even lawful protests might turn out otherwise or be interpreted as hazardous by police. The potential for legal ambiguity can easily lead to racist intervention by law enforcement. While a knock on the shoulder by police might be a minor inconvenience for some, others can face grave consequences for their activism. At the same time, counter-protestors might target people of colour and minorities in particular, leaving them more vulnerable to violence. These threats can restrict the rights of ethnic minorities to join their fellow citizens in demonstrations.
Protesting, although a civil right, also comes with an air of privilege. While our marches and rallies may seem accessible in countries like Finland, joining them is not always effortless for everyone. When we take to the streets, we should consider ways to make our surroundings safe and welcoming for all. This might mean providing clear, visible instructions, acquiring seating for those who need it, and including interpreters and other support. We should also be aware of the diverse experiences of demonstrators, keeping in mind their rights and vulnerabilities. With this in mind, we can create activism that truly reflects the social justice that it stands for.
Text and illustration by Tulikukka Huovinen.