Demonstrating on a Sleepy Sunday in Lithuania

Listen to John reading this essay on CBC Radio 1’s The Sunday Edition, Nov.17 2013

A demo I attended recently in the sleepy capital of Lithuania reminded me of my long and conflicted relationship with public protest. I know that some demonstrations have changed the course of history. But with a few notable exceptions, the protests I’ve attended have been less Tahrir or Taksim and more Toronto. Less Tiananmen and more… just Tiresome.

I started protesting young, tagging along with my mother to abortion rights rallies, peace marches, gatherings to decry violence against women. These were mostly in Canada, the land of small demos and vast spaces, the vast spaces making small demos look even smaller. But I learned early on that, in a functioning democracy, expressing public anger at injustice is important- alongside political organizing and the occasional snappy letter to the editor.

I was lucky for this early education, but by the time I was in my late teens, I had become a bit jaded.

First, chants have never been my thing. I hated their repetitive and robotic nature. Their general lack of creativity. Their failure to ever end on a high. I can’t count the number of times that, “What do we want? (fill in the blank) When do we want it? Now!” has petered out to a depressing mumble.

In university, I went to a demo for refugee rights with my friend Nita, who had recently become fired up with an alarming earnestness. She was appalled when I suggested we duck away to grab a bagel and rejoin the march when it made its way around the block. Food will make it more fun!, I argued. We’ll be more likely to stay if we aren’t hungry, won’t we? Besides, a mouthful of lox and cream cheese seemed like a good excuse for not chanting or pounding my fist in the air. I kept that argument to myself.

In university, many demonstrations had too many targets (the university, the state and society!) or worse, too many causes lumped together (refugees, capitalism and the environment!). And too often they seemed more about making sure the demonstrators felt good, than about reaching the public or people in power.

In my twenties, I joined AIDS Action Now! Their demos were small, but they were smart. They got attention of the press and politicians. I was even willing to chant at them, because it seemed someone might be listening. And I attended the massive 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, when nearly a million of us filled the National Mall. We were so many that nobody cared when I pulled out something to snack on.

This past spring, I was in Vilnius for a conference on harm reduction in drug use. The local AIDS service organization invited me to a demonstration-slash-city bus tour.

Loreta, who spoke English for the five non-Lithuanians, explained we would be dropping off a petition with demands at various government offices, and along the way, she would point out interesting sites. So thoughtful and efficient! I thought.

Vilnius has 500,000 inhabitants, but it was Sunday and felt more like 500. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see tumbleweed blow down the main street.

We pulled up at the first government office and disembarked.

Loreta had us form a line in front of the building and handed out large letters laminated onto cardboard. It took us an embarrassingly long time to properly spell “Keep the Promise on AIDS”. Why it was in English and not Lithuanian, I can’t say, but perhaps they felt it didn’t matter, since there were no passers-by to speak of. The organization’s founder, Svetla, marched triumphantly into the building and handed the envelope of demands to a sleepy security guard.

We boarded the bus. At the next stop, a nearly deserted town square, Loreta had us march in circles clutching our laminated letters to our chests and chanting, “Keep! The! Promise! Keep! The! Promise!”, over and over, until we ran out of steam. Then she physically rearranged us so that we stood in the shape of a red ribbon. It was a shape you could only have seen if you looked down at it from a helicopter. Or the upper floor of a government building. There was no helicopter. The buildings were empty.

Back on the bus, Loreta explained that this was a rehearsal and that later on, when we were marching in circles, she would give the word and we were to snap to red ribbon formation. At our next stop, Svetla entered a building and handed another envelope to another security guard, who uttered a half-hearted promise to pass it on. Svetla emerged beaming and raised both fists into the air. We applauded her.

Finally, we came to the national parliament, where again we chanted and marched on the empty square in front of it.

I waited for Loreta to ask us to snap to red-ribbon formation.  She never did and I never found out why.

There was not one single person on that street.

This time the security guard refused to take Svetla’s envelope. For his own security, he said, and pointed to a rubbish bin sitting a metre to his left.  There was no chance that he, nor the janitor emptying that bin, were going to keep the promise on AIDS.

Finally, we came back to the conference centre, where a small tent and a microphone had been set up. To our great satisfaction, the national Minister of Health appeared. He made a short speech about how we were all partners in this epidemic.  No promises on AIDS were made, but he did vow to continue the dialogue. Photos were taken, and then the Minister left abruptly.  We made a few more speeches to each other, and then called it a day.

Loreta and Svetla were pleased. It didn’t matter if maybe five people, tops, saw us demonstrate that day. The real target was that one politician, and he’d worried enough about a public demonstration to show up on his day off. The demo had served its purpose: the organization had its foot in the door with a key government official.

Even better, one of Loreta and Svetla’s staff had captured the afternoon on video.  I pray it will end up on YouTube. And who knows who might see it then.

The whole crazy experience helped me make a decision.  I’ll keep going to demos when I think the cause is worth fighting for, despite my cynicism. I’ll chant as little as I can get away with, and I’ll thrust my bagel, just like a placard, high in the air.