The local media gave good coverage to the anti-war protest and march going on in Downtown Toronto yesterday. Estimates suggest that as many as 50,000 people descended upon Toronto, gathered at the new Dundas Square and marched a few kilometres to Metro Hall, where speeches were made, people cheered, and everything went smoothly and orderly.
This protest also represents a coming of age for a special place. Dundas Square, built by bulldozing a city block next to Toronto's Yonge/Dundas intersection, was hyped as Toronto's new Times' Square. Opened late in 2002, it had yet to host a major demonstration. It didn't even host a New Year's Eve celebration. This peace protest represents the square's christening as a public place -- Dundas Square has now been formally welcomed by the community.
You may not be opposed to this war, or you may find protests in general annoying, but I believe that such demonstrations are a sign of a healthy community. The fact that people care enough about themselves, their country, and each other, to stand up, to gather in whatever weather (and temperatures hovered around the old Farenheit zero for most of the protest), suggests that these people care enough about themselves, their country and each other to work in other ways for the improvement of their community. They need to be given space for this.
Protest is communication, and it's no coincidence that the word communication has the same roots as the word community. Our cities are not conglomerates of individuals, rattling around like marbles in a pail. Individuals have individual opinions, but they have to interact with hundreds of people daily in the wider city -- hundreds of people who may share different opinions. Being allowed to express those differences of opinions shows that, as individuals with their own thoughts, they're still welcomed by the community in which they live. More often than not, they will respect our right to be an individual within the community in return.
I am not one for protest myself, but I don't begrudge my neighbours' rights to do so. The last protest march I attended was the Kitchener Day of Action organized by labour groups against the new Harris Conservative government. Premier Harris was handily re-elected three years later, so do I regret wasting my time? Not a bit. The march itself may have done little to change policy directly, but it showed me that I was not alone in my opinions, that there were people willing to stand up and be counted. It showed me that I was part of a valid community of ordinary people.
The Day of Action was also, significantly, one of the first major protests hosted by Kitchener's Civic Square since the new City Hall opened, replacing a faceless, characterless office block. The City of Kitchener did not have a significant public space since the late 1960s, when its gorgeous city hall and civic square was bulldozed to make room for a failed shopping mall. Kitchener's downtown core went into a period of severe decline after that, and it was only after Kitchener built a new city hall with a public square that a sense of community pride returned to the city's downtown. Without that community space, it was harder to dispell the notion that there was no community.
A few months ago, I heard comments from about a dozen Americans who had misgivings about the drive for the war against Iraq, but who felt afraid to voice those opinions for fear of being labelled unpatriotic, or anti-American. They felt as though they were unwelcome in their own country. We may still go to war in Iraq, but these protests show that there are people in the community out there who share these individuals' misgivings. These individuals probably feel more a part of America, or whatever country they hail from, than ever before. They know now that they can still speak out and oppose and yet be a member of their community in good standing. Our tolerance, our granting of space for these events, fosters these connections, even between people who disagree with each other.
People should always retain the right to peaceful protest. It's good for democracy, and it's good for a city's sense of community. For all the fears about war, and about the erosion of our civil liberties, there is still room for hope as long as we can protest. These events across the world may not stop the war, but they show that we are not isolated individuals in a sea of opposition; we are members of a diverse community, and that we belong where we live.