Dare to protest – dare to change

Mass protest, public action, objecting and lots of other words recently became for us quite usual and commonly used. In fact, in last 20 years they (serious guys in parliaments, governments, councils etc.) managed “to climb” so high from youth, that our voice can only be heard when it is counted in thousands of people, or when youth does something outstanding against all principles. Young people are tired to stay silent, they want their voice to be heard and they start using all possible methods for this. Thus we start to hear about more and more public actions.

However, every time seeing public action it seems so far away and totally not connected to you, that you barely pay attention. What would you say knowing that in one of the last protests shown in media took part same AEGEE member as you?

The Council of Europe Ministerial Conference on Youth on 24th September, 2012 in St. Petersburg

The Council of Europe Ministerial Conference on Youth on 24th September, 2012 in St. Petersburg

Behind every mass action there are people who do it. How they manage to organise it? What did they think while protesting? Were they afraid or maybe proud? And one of the most important questions – how did they feel afterwards and which feedback they received?

Luis Alvarado Martinez, the President of AEGEE-Europe, told us about one of the latest silent protests during the opening of the Council of Europe Ministerial Conference on Youth on 24th September, 2012 in Saint-Petersburg, which caused lots of fuss in the AEGEE network and beyond: “The idea came up because of many violations which Russia carried out towards human rights, freedom of speech and rights of young people”.

The reason of fuss was the “Pussy Riot style” hats the protesters wore while silently standing up at the conference. “We never referred to the Pussy Riot band as such, but used the hats as a symbol for freedom of speech, youth rights and human rights which are being violated by some governments in our continent. If we don’t send clear messages to these governments, things will not change by themselves” points out Luis.

Some blamed protesters for such methods of protest, more supported, but needless to say that whatever the reaction was – the method to attract attention to the issue was chosen brilliant. People started to talk. Luis recalls: “Yes, that day we pissed off a lot of people. But we also made a lot of people proud, they think now that AEGEE can really be different”.

Was it scaring for those young people to protest in this way? Oh yes, it was. “You know that you are exposing yourself and your own security. But it is then when you remember that you have been elected by people to defend certain core values and rights. If you want your organisation to change for better and get more involved in the political happenings in Europe, you must act as an example. Of course, together with the feeling of fear comes the enormous boost of adrenaline and satisfaction. That day we did influence politicians” recalls Luis.

“Listen to what young people have to say!” in Strasbourg

The next youth protest didn’t force us to wait long. Opening of the World Forum for Democracy of the Council of Europe on the 5th October in Strasbourg where AEGEE representative as well participated in the protest of Youth Delegates calling for youth rights – young people standing during the opening and keeping hands of each other with tapes sticking the mouth, which clearly says “Listen to what young people have to say!”

Amandine Scocard from AEGEE-Paris, acting as Youth Delegate, speaking on the World Forum for Democracy of the Council of Europe, had to face certain problems before youth voice could finally be heard at the Forum.

Amandine Scocard making the speech at the World Forum for Democracy of the Council of Europe

It was communicated to young people that they would have three minutes for speech from youth, which was of course frustrating for them as all the politicians there had hours to give their speeches. Nevertheless, youth representatives decided to use at least those three minutes to make people to hear them. How surprising was to know the night before opening of the Forum, that youth speech was canceled due to some “misunderstanding”. “Maybe another time…” they said to young people.

The next day trying to clarify the issue the youth got to know that initially they were not allowed to speak officially at the forum and that maybe they could ask additionally to allow them to have a two minutes speech. Amandine recalls: “The Forum started 20 minutes late. Already 10 speeches could be done during that time..”

Therefore youth delegates had decided that after the second speaker, during the opening session, they would put tape on the mouth, stand up and hold hands. “One of us, Joanna, bravely stood up the first one and then we stood up with her”. They didn’t say anything or make any noise, standing there to denounce the silencing of youth voice with tape on the mouth.

There was another group of youth delegates working on distributing flyers, which was decided to make on the night they got to know about cancellation of youth speech. “Missing democracy, when found, please bring it back to youth” was written at the flyer.

“We were not forcing people to take them, just distributing, but immediately a security guy started to take them all back, even from the people who accepted them. Then he started chasing one of us telling her to sit down and took all papers so she couldn’t distribute them anymore” recalls Amandine.

At the same time in the plenary hall after the opening speech and key speakers, youth was finally given the right to speak: “In the end the speech was made, but not during the time when we wanted to do it. When we finally did it, most of the media and lots of people had already left”.

“I felt pissed off, thinking about all those important people who didn’t care at all what we had to say. I felt pissed off because the security was getting close to us. But at the same time I felt glad and proud to be there, standing to denounce that young people all over the world needed to be heard and that youth didn’t want to compromise anymore on their freedom of speech” says Amandine.

The reaction of people

Most of the young people having the wish to protest against some issues are more afraid of the reaction and misunderstanding, than the protest itself. However, the reaction is something that really motivates the protesters.

“I think the message was partially misunderstood as a single protest against the minister of France or the organisation of the MFD” supposes Amandine, as the young protesters stood up during the speech of Bernard Cazeneuve, the French Minister of European and Foreign Affairs. “We got approached during the Forum by a few people who wanted to know more about this protest to understand it better. Most of them understood our point, but a few still had the idea that it was a protest against the organisation, for example, showing the huge intergenerational gap that exists nowadays between young people and our deciders” she says. However, according to Amandine the positive feedback anyway prevaluated: “In the end a lot of people congratulated us and I think it was really motivating for some of them. The picture of the protest became the Facebook cover of many of us”.

The reaction on protest in Saint-Petersbrug was also quite positive by Luis’ memories. Most of the ministers congratulated young protesters in many different ways – they were approached personally by many of them in the corridors, secret messages thanking activists for putting important statements back on the table written on business cards, emails, Facebook messages etc.

“It is in these moments, when politicians really feel thankful to have young activists who will dare to do what they cannot do (because they represent national governments and their economical and diplomatic interests). This made us realise the power which youth organisations and youth activists really have!” says Luis.

Still hesitating if it’s worth protesting and if your voice could be heard? I think these words from Luis Alvarado Martinez, the President of our organisation, will ruin last pieces of hesitation in your mind: “We can really influence and shape Europe step by step, and this is something which all the money in the world cannot pay. We must dare to change because together we can!”

Written by Olga Iatsyna, AEGEE-Dnipropetrovsk

Photos: Facebook archives of Luis Alvarado Martinez & Amandine Scocard