Every single time an NGO wants to stage a protest, the immediate reaction is to first deny permission and then to suggest that the protest be held in a stadium. This stadium knee jerk reaction has become the hue and cry of many a commentator, and surprisingly, even some who are for the cause of such protests also support the stadium solution.
The common refrain comes in three forms. First, critics point to the convenient nature of stadiums that can hold large capacities of people without causing obstructions on the road, or having the risk of car accidents.
Second, critics look no further than the successful Kelana Jaya Stadium and Stadium Negara protests and say: “There you go, everybody is happy that way.” Last but certainly not least, there are supporters of the cause who prefer not to break the law or whatever arbitrary regulation the authorities have thrown at people, and thus say: “Aiya…Just follow law la. They let us protest there, so let’s just protest there la.”
Protest organisers have been more or less quite adamant in not giving in to such demands, with exception of the immediate post-GE13 stadium rallies. And every time organizers reject the “Stadium Solution” (I call it the SS), there’s a huge backlash from ordinary citizens who view their constant rejections of government “compromises” as unreasonable. Yet, for all this hue and cry, there has never been an articulation, a strategic evaluation of why it is so important for protests to be held on the streets and not in a stadium. As someone who has been an organizer of protests, this is very frustrating.
So this piece sets out to articulate such a position and hopefully the rakyat will be more supportive and understanding of organiser’s woes when the next street demonstration comes along.
1. Stadiums are limiting factors
By their very nature, stadiums limit the number of participants. If a stadium’s capacity is 120,000 people, then you are surely not going to get more than that number of participants. Any excess crowd will gather on the outside of the stadium, and not being able to enter the stadium to hear the speeches, or participate in any collective action, will eventually just subside away. This runs counter to the number one objective of any protest: which is to get as much mass support as possible. Simply put, it’s like going to a buffet, and being told you can only have one plate of food, that’s all. Add that to the fact that you never know for sure how many people are going to turn up, and that’s a big problem.
Numbers are the lifeblood of protests. The more people that turn up, the more powerful the impact of a protest. Many people point to Kelana Jaya and tout it as a success. I beg to differ. Kelana Jaya reached perhaps 120,000 people, but there were thousands more stuck in traffic jams or milling about outside the stadium. Had it been held on the streets, with multiple meeting points converging on a large urban space, it potentially could have had the impact of a Bersih.
Not only are the number of protestors limited, the other most important factor in a successful demonstration, media coverage is also limited. Going back to the Kelana Jaya stadium protest, the Al-Jazeera reporter was stuck outside the stadium, doing live coverage of basically a few people milling about outside. Imagine the media impact lost because of that. Media impact is particularly important for protests to garner awareness, not just internationally, but also to inspire and to spur on fellow citizens who may be sitting at home wondering whether it was worth going.
Stadiums are also a geographically limiting factor, because, let’s face it, there are not that many that can comfortably hold more than a hundred thousand people. Many stadiums also fall under the purview of federal government agencies or private corporations, for which letting an “anti-government” organization hold a demonstration is a big no-no. So the stadiums that are viable, are often those in opposition held states, where public transport is less well developed, and are often magnets for traffic jams even on the best of days. They also tend to spill out into residential areas. So if you did not want to join a protest in the heart of the city, you simply stayed back home and relaxed. Now, because the only viable stadium is in Petaling Jaya, it now restricts access for residents themselves.
2. Street protests may be inconvenient, but that is part of the point
This is in response to those who would rather follow police directions and stick to stadiums if need be. A protest, especially in an authoritarian political setting, is by its very nature an act of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a purposeful act of breaking a particular law, in order to expose its arbitrary and unfair nature. This is what Mahatma Gandhi did in leading the Great Salt March from Sabarmati to Dandi, and making salt in defiance of the British Raj Salt Laws that outlawed any such endeavor. By doing so, he sought to show the injustice of the salt laws and demonstrate that salt belonged to all Indians. By protesting on the streets, Malaysians demonstrate the injustice of SOSMA and the Peaceful Assembly Act.
Of course, each one of Gandhi’s protests presented huge inconveniences to both the authorities and ordinary citizens. His call for a national day of prayer and fasting to protest the Rowlatt Act, put into context, was more than a massive inconvenience. Imagine, one man essentially declared a public holiday, and put the entire nation on standstill. Trains stopped working, shops closed, packages and deliveries delayed.
A ruling coalition only stands up and takes notice when it is hit where it hurts. The inconvenience of it all is a purposeful material and symbolic signal to the government to take heed of the rakyat and “Listen, listen, listen”. If street protests were so easy and free of consequences, then activists could protest 365 days a year without any effect, and the government could afford to ignore such pleas.
By making stadium protests a contained event, the ruling government also contains the impact of any such action.
3. Stadium protests are not only limiting, but downright dangerous
By far the most important reason to avoid a stadium, or any enclosed area at all costs, is the potential danger such spaces entail. Look no further than the annual deaths during the Haj in Mecca on the risks huge crowds in small spaces bring. Not to forget the various stampedes in football stadiums from the 2009 Houphouët-Boigny Arena stampede where 19 people died, to the 2013 Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny New Year stampede where 60 people died.
The above are religious and sports festivals, but imagine how much more tense the situation is at protests, where the threat of police action is always over the heads of protestors. Emotions run high, and the slightest spark can trigger panic. Imagine if police fired tear gas into Kelana Jaya stadium that night. Thousands of people, rushing to get away from the debilitating gas might have trampled all over each other. Or what if there is a threat of a bomb, some unbased rumor as is common in such incidents? This is exactly what happened when 147 people were killed during the Chamunda Devi stampede at the Chamunda Devi temple in India, caused by a rumor that a bomb was planted in the temple complex.
Unlike street protests where participants have dozens of avenues of escape should there be any incidents, stadium often only have a few narrow exits. The slopes and benches do not help either. Unlike street protests where the only obstacle might be a road block (and this can be circumvented too), all that needs to be done to hem protestors in is to simply lock the doors.
This risk to human lives is by far the most concerning facet about the Stadium Solution. It is an unacceptable risk that should be avoided at all costs.
Reject the stadium solution
No doubt, the ruling government is probably perfectly aware of how stadium protests are limited, less impactful and more dangerous than street protests. Like a noose that seeks to strangle, the stadium is a tool of encirclement that seeks to corral the efforts of protestors.
I hope, especially for those who have always wondered “What’s wrong with a stadium?”, that this articles lays it out clearly and concisely why the stadium is an ineffective and risky venue for any sort of mass demonstration. Reject the Stadium Solution. The streets are paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of all Malaysians, it is high time we claimed them to assert our independence from unjust laws. In the words of St. Augustine: “An unjust law is no law at all.” – December 31, 2013.
*Ong Kar Jin reads The Malaysian Insider.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.