My father was arrested in the 1980s protest against the authoritarian government in South Korea. He spent eight months in solitary confinement because he was deemed a political prisoner with high risk of disseminating anti-government ideology. The protests in the 80s were a response to state-sanctioned violence including rapid expansion of martial law and “re-education” labour camps. In one of the early mass protests in the city of Gwanju, approximately 600 people – mostly undergraduate students – were killed in open-fire by government troops. After almost a decade of demonstrations, the people of South Korea overthrew the authoritarian regime in 1987, eventually bringing democracy to the country.
Throughout history, activism has always been an essential component to civil society. Civil disobedience has toppled oppressive regimes using nothing but the power of collective mobility. Through organized advocacy, basic human and civil rights have been instituted: women have earned the right to vote and same-sex marriage has been realized, along with other such milestones. The strongest environmental policies that protect our waters and communities are a result of intense protests and scrutiny by environmentalists and Indigenous communities. Police brutality and gun violence that disproportionately affect black and brown lives have been held accountable by acts of civil disobedience like sit-ins, blockades and marches. In engaging with these non-violent direct actions, we are admitting that legislative processes sometimes fail to produce real change. By radically speaking out, we are exposing abuses of power and resisting compliance to them.
On Jan. 20, millions of people across the world practiced civil disobedience for gender equality during the second annual Women’s Marches. Galvanized by the #MeToo campaign that has been radically transforming industries complacent in fostering a toxic culture of sexual assault and harassment, people demonstrated their exhaustion from the systemic violence that faces women, femmes and non-binary people. While the Women’s Marches have been rightfully criticized for their lack of intersectionality with factors like race, sexuality, ability and class, they have grown to be a part of a broad-based feminist movement advocating for issues ranging from immigrant rights to health-care reform. While we do not yet know what the future holds for this movement, we can look toward the democratic movement of the 80s in South Korea to teach us that there is a revolution possible from people-power.
For systemic trauma, empowerment has always come from collective mobility. When we mobilize as a community, we are practicing a tender act of self-care with those who are also impacted by the tightly woven oppressions that are forced upon us. Healing is a communal practice because we are liberating ourselves from trauma that has spanned painstakingly for generations. When we demand justice together, we are releasing ourselves and each other from corporations and institutions that profit off our individualized self-preservation and survival. Justice for one person or a single group of people while others struggle through multi-faceted oppressions is not justice. Instead, it is when we come together, centred by the voices of those denied, that we are able to resurrect as a safer, more resilient and more compassionate community.