“What a year,” said every commentator everywhere. Not only did the scourge of COVID-19 spread across the globe, but we also saw social movements calling for change take root. At times, social justice movements have been mocked as ‘social justice warriors,’ scorned as if they are out to steal, or, perhaps most devastatingly, ignored. However, 2020 brought groups together rising up to say this is unacceptable; we can bear no more. That collective No is powerful and thrilling. Martin Luther King Jr. captured the hope and challenge of these movements today in his words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King’s life and death testify that the arc does not bend towards justice on its own.
2020 does not represent the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. but it does represent a critical inflection where black and white Americans, as well as people all over the world, took to the streets to protest state-sanctioned violence against black bodies. Three black people who were killed by police or white nationalists sparked these protests: Breonna Taylor while sleeping in her bed, Ahmed Arbery while out for a jog, and George Floyd pleading for his life while a crowd watched a police officer kneeling on him until he died. The movement, which was founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, demands an end to white supremacy and actively protests and calls out injustice. However, its aims are not only remedial; its bold creative aims include “creating space for Black imagination and innovation and centering Black joy.”
That strong imagination for what the world could look like if we pulled together and saw each other as a part of the whole rather than an enemy or competitor is a hallmark of movements reaching towards justice. It is on display right here in BC with the Wetʼsuwetʼen protests against the gas pipelines through their traditional territory. The “Land Defenders,” as they branded themselves, sought to prevent further environmental destruction and sought to protect the sovereignty of the hereditary Wet’suwet’en Chiefs. It is a protest that asks Canadians to recognize the Wetʼsuwetʼen as guardians of the water and wildlife on their territories. It asks Canadians to imagine that a different relationship with the First peoples of these lands is possible.
Halfway around the world, another day, another struggle, January 1, 2020, found massive protests in Taiwan as part of an ongoing pushback against increased control by the Mainland Chinese government. Ongoing protests include Pro-Democracy forces protesting peacefully in enormous numbers as well as others pipe bombing police stations and throwing bricks at police officers. Demonstrations are planned on encrypted messaging apps. Police have worked to infiltrate and surveil pro-democracy groups, and repeatedly respond with tear gas and water cannons, jailing protestors and imposing curfews and restrictions on the right to assemble.
As 2020 turns to 2021 and the world waits on some return to normalcy, Taiwanese protestors continue to organize and demonstrate. Another group organizing and demonstrating is in India, where tens of thousands of farmers protested the government’s plans to change the way agriculture is regulated. Prime Minister Modi enacted new legislation removing some of the guaranteed fixed pricing for agricultural commodities to prompt more significant corporate investment and innovation. Farmers have been walloped by COVID-19 and the ensuing economic disaster and fear that they will not be able to survive without guaranteed fixed prices. The farmers asked their country to imagine a world where their voices are centered in their country’s economic policy.
We see the arc bend towards justice when Black Lives Matter advocacy prompts the Biden administration to phase out federal private prisons and the pressure mounts worldwide to ‘defund the police’ and reimagine community safety. When Wetʼsuwetʼen people exercise sovereignty in their traditional territory and when that exercise challenges the very definitions of Canadian economic and national interests. Taiwanese protestors continue to organize and advocate for fair elections and political independence, despite the threat and reality of state-sanctioned violence. When the massive protests in India spark demonstrations across the world, demanding the farmer’s right to both peacefully protest and be included in regulatory decisions that impact their livelihood. However, none of this momentum towards a more just world is assured. Ignorance and complacency, twin perils of our age, pull us away from justice. Social justice is the collective force that, when we join together to learn, advocate, and act, propels our universe a little closer to justice for everyone.