I remember the Kananaskis G8 summit in 2002 when I think about how to deal with protest. In Calgary, the scene of the most numerous protests (and where I was living at the time) the police response had a stark difference to police responses at other such events elsewhere in the world. Protests were mainly policed by lightly-clothed officers on bicycles. When an unplanned (and, effectively, illegal) snake march began in the downtown core, the police didn't attempt to stop it. They blocked intersections along the route and made certain it progressed safely. While Calgary's police may have been considered aloof by some of the protesters (they did decline to play a street soccer game with some anarchists), they cannot be considered non-responsive, and they certainly didn't escalate the tension level at any of the protest venues. In sum, they professionally protected the public peace, and showed restraint and discipline, just as they were supposed to do. This is, after all, a democracy, and people have a right to be heard... even if it means holding up traffic a bit. Blocking the progress of the protest would simply have fuelled greater demonstrations.
But what if we could harness that energy?
Harnessing the power of protest
The government is a giant system with its own series of feedbacks. As I have indicated in previous posts, it makes sense that the people be allowed to give feedback on important topics within set guidelines. It's equally important that the government react to that feedback automatically and uniformly, so that the populace has faith in the system. When I worked in Sri Lanka, I was in charge of an occasionally unruly line-up of clients. They would line up perfectly fine until someone managed to sweet-talk their way past the line-up. At that point, the system changed. I hesitate to use the word "broke down", though that is what appeared to have happened. No, the system changed to a less fair and equitable system. Once the fiction of the line-up was shattered, the line degraded into a crushing mob. This was not the fault of the people in line; it was the fault of the people who were rewarded for bucking the system. If people are not mechanistically provided with uniform feedback based on their inputs, the system changes. If the people do what they are supposed to do and they don't get the result they expect, they stop upholding the previous system.
Protest is feedback that hasn't got a channel. This type of feedback, too, must be heard - even if there is no extant process to deal with it. The unique problem that protest presents is that it is a form of feedback that has noplace to go - so it bursts out onto the street. Protest that is allowed to proceed - just as it did during the Calgary anti-G8 parade - can be dissipated before it meets resistance. Resistance amplifies protest because protest is, by definition, an aggressive reaction to resistance. The best reaction to protest, then, is to put it someplace.
While I don't think the police approach to protest should change that much from what I saw in Calgary way back when, there needs to be a general way to deal with protest. Protest is not a special case. It happens. Regularly. Just as the people should have expectations of how their feedback should be treated, they should also have expectations about how their protests will be treated. Opacity works for nobody when it comes to issues of the law. Police should be given rules of engagement that allow them to balance collective good against minor infractions. Though many people may think otherwise, especially after the most recent G8 issues, police are neither dumb nor unsympathetic. They don't actually want to ruin people's lives. Their interest is in preserving order, and when given the freedom to exercise their discretion to do so, they do. Just as police understand the occasional need to allow petty crime to go unpunished to facilitate a greater investigation, police are fully capable of comprehending the need to let obstructing traffic go unpunished in order to avoid a larger (and utterly preventable) confrontation. In the end, they understand that punishing a minor crime can lead to the commission of more serious crimes. When given the rules of engagement that allow them to make that judgement, I would have confidence in their ability to do so. Rigid rules of engagement do not take dynamic situations into account, as projections cannot take all possible futures into account. Delegation of greater power to ground level would potentially solve this problem. It's not like you want to congratulate people for mucking up traffic, but you don't want to muck up traffic worse by writing two jaywalking tickets and making two hundred people angry at you.
But I digress. Protests may happen, but the interest of the government is to stem the need to protest by allowing that energy to be put into a beneficial place. If we classify feedback as "public opinion that has a natural place to go" and protest as "public opinion that has no natural place to go", then what is protest, really? It's a kind of meta-feedback. It's feedback that tells the government that existing modes of feedback are not functioning properly. The mechanism for handling protest should be some form of tribunal with the executive power to request the implementation of changes in the way government feedback is administered (if it is a matter of changing an existing feedback mechanism), or to deliver a report to the House of Commons (if it is a matter of creating a new feedback mechanism). The perfect place for such a tribunal would be under the Office of the Auditor General. Based on the information provided by would-be protesters, the Auditor General would be able to provide a report either to Commons or to the Department in charge of the feedback system in question. Unless the tribunal itself was found to be insufficient to fulfil the needs of the people, protest itself would become redundant. Since the tribunal would be able to escalate matters directly to the Commons, there would be an established mechanism for attenuating its own mandate via Parliament. Protesters would instead become petitioners, and have full right to due process under the law.
The issue here is that protest, in and of itself, is a legitimate voicing of opinion that has nowhere else to go but the streets. The people shouldn't be congratulated for inconveniencing shopowners and commuters, but they should be given the right to due process with regard to their grievances. While being accepting of protest and dissent as a legitimate way in which to express dissatisfaction, I would rather know that the people have a way to avoid the need for protest by having a mechanism by which their needs can be expressed. By turning protesters into petitioners, the government can constantly adapt and improve is feedback mechanisms, and both improve governance while responding directly to the will of the people. What's more, you don't even have to get an MP out of bed for it... the police and bureaucrats can take care of the whole deal.
If we let them.