Power on Loan

The first march I covered as a journalist was a massive anti-war moratorium in Boston in the spring of 1970, part of nationwide protests; Boston was one of the hub cities. The demonstrators walked peacefully from the Boston Commons through the city to Harvard Square in Cambridge. But as the day and evening wore on, the demonstration descended into violence in Cambridge with Molotov cocktails thrown through store windows and police dogs and tear gas aimed at the crowds. I took refuge eventually in the basement of a church where I wrote my story.

America was on the march back then against the Vietnam war and in earlier protests in favor of civil rights. Though there was violence, most of the demonstrations remained nonviolent.

In the intervening years there have been many marches and protests in the U.S., but few like the ones held around the country this past weekend. These nonviolent demonstrations in cities in every state and in 55 cities worldwide focused on a more loosely articulated goal, not on specific legislation or a specific action but on showing solidarity, particularly with issues important to many women like freedom of choice over their bodies and also on issues such as the rights of immigrants, of minority communities, and of the LGBT community.

There was also apprehension about exactly what the new President’s “America First” policy will mean. Demonstrations around the world showed that America’s positions are not just the concern of U.S. citizens but have impact globally.

I’ve covered and seen many demonstrations around the globe since my first march. On Saturday, I was on the edge of the gathering in Washington, witnessing, hosting and delivering one marcher who came in from Colorado to participate. As she joined the crush in the Mall, I wrote and prepared for a PEN mission to Turkey where the political situation is deteriorating daily for citizens, especially those in the media.

In the Turkish Parliament this past week fights broke out as President Recep Erdoğan proposed and got ratified a Constitutional amendment to give even more power to the president, including an article that gives the President the right of “extorting individual rights and freedom” with statutory decree. The Constitutional amendment must be endorsed in a national referendum so demonstrations in Turkey may soon begin but with potentially direr consequences than in the U.S. In Turkey almost 150 writers and journalists are already in prison, not for crimes, but because they have dissented.

A few writers like Asli Erdoğan and linguist Necmiye Alpay have been released at their trial where Asli said, “Law is obliged to protect the individual and the community, not only the state.” The day they were released, however, journalist and writer Professor Istar Gözaydin, one of the founders of Turkey’s first democratic private radio, was taken into custody.

Last week musician Şanar Yurdatapan was sentenced to one year and three months in prison for participating in the “Editor-in-Chief on Duty” solidarity campaign at Özgür Gündem, the newspaper now closed. His sentence was ultimately suspended and another charge relating to the case resulted in a fine. The prosecutor had originally asked for a ten-and-a-half-year sentence. Cumhuriyet’s book editor Turhan Günay, who publishes a book index, is now in prison. He has said, “I have not written anything except for books until today. If I’m released, I will start to write political articles.”

The numbers of writers, journalists, editors and academics in prison has returned Turkey to the top of PEN’s list of jailors as it was two decades ago.

I’m wary about drawing parallels with the increasingly chilly atmosphere for the media in the U.S. I take heart that U.S. protests can occur and that the state protected the protestors, and as long as the demonstrations stay nonviolent, no one is arrested. The press can and does report what it sees even if a tongue-lashing by the Presidential press secretary and the President follow. However, six covering the turbulent demonstrations around Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday have reportedly been charged with felonies and face up to ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted. Also some access for the press may be closing down. The dynamics of fear and antagonism and the argument of “alternative facts” create a dangerous atmosphere.

Of note, though not in the front page headlines, in Africa’s smallest continental country, The Gambia, former President Yahya Jammeh finally stepped down from power this week after 23 years, having lost the election last month but refusing to leave office. The peaceful transfer of power in the U.S. the day before probably had little to do with his decision. The arrival of troops from a coalition of West African nations supported by the United Nations and the pressure by African leaders were no doubt the persuading factor, but the coincidence is worth noting.

The turnover of power is fundamental to democracies and is not always easy, especially when the pendulum swings to the opposing side and in the U.S. to someone who has not won the popular vote. Yet after a tumultuous and harsh election, the reins of power did transfer; authority was ceded. The old guard left the stage with dignity, and the new guard must now find the dignity to occupy it effectively.

The demonstrations of four decades ago in the U.S. led to the end of a war, the implementation of civil rights legislation, advancement for race, gender and cultures, and while we still have distance to go, it has led to large strides for women in my generation.

I continue to hope the arc of history is upwards and outwards, not inwards on itself, puncturing the very progress that has been made. Whoever is in power must remember that power is only on loan, especially in a democracy.




  1. Marian Botsford Fraser on January 23, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    The Canadian band Arcade Fire and American singer Mavis Staples released a single for inauguration. “I give you power” all proceeds from sale go to ACLU. Emphasis on “give”!

  2. Maryann Macdonald on January 23, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Love your reflections, Joanne. Especially the title!

  3. David N. Smith on January 23, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    I appreciate your comments and share your concerns, and I am reminded that as recently as 1968 journalists in this country were arrested to prevent them from continuing to cover the protests at the National Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. Much of the demonstrating had turned violent, but the violence was frequently initiated by the police, who did not want their behavior recorded. The (non-violent) journalists were arrested on the pretext that they had joined in the violence, which was virtually never true.
    The question now is, “Could it happen again?”

  4. Lynne Pace Robinson on January 24, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Hear, Hear! Thanks for your words of accuracy and wisdom.

    It is hard to fathom the comments and approach to the Presidency that Trump has taken so far. Let us pray for a more clear, cohesive and calm review and response to issues day-by-day as he settles into The Job.

    Yes, the Women’s March helps us all focus on what issues are of concern.

  5. Malcolm O'Hagan on January 24, 2017 at 11:06 am

    I too, along with my son, was an observer of this amazing event, way beyond what I expected. After watching this peaceful demonstration where many fears and hopes were expressed I feel that America is great again. I love dissension as I value skeptics who challenge us to question our opinions and values. As an Irishman I have inherited a rebel gene!

    As an immigrant I cherish the freedoms we enjoy. I also believe that we should do what we can to make our President successful for the benefit of the US and the world. I am also an optimistic who believes that the best will prevail.

    God Bless America and all its people.

  6. Willee Lewis on January 24, 2017 at 11:08 am

    Thanks for sending these words –about such an important matter.
    I, too marched, and have other times, but this was a wonderful one!!
    We must move forward together; the new guy in charge is scary!
    At best- just unpredictable, unreliable to lead without intelligence.
    Especially without experience – in a way that includes decisions.

  7. Sharon Hom on January 24, 2017 at 11:09 am

    Thank you for sharing your round-up after this weekend. I think your point cautioning being too sanguine about the media climate is spot on. I participated in the NY march over the weekend and it was inspiring and energizing. We need to continue to do everything we can to defend our rights under assault and an independent media is critical.

  8. DJA on January 24, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    Thanks, Joanne, an excellent and timely piece. Turkey really worries me, a “NATO country” aligning itself more and more with Russia and Iran, while becoming more and more of a vicious dictatorship.
    FYI, all three generations of our family marched through Portland, Maine, in one of the largest demonstrations ever held here!

    • Ekbal Baraka on January 25, 2017 at 3:49 am

      Thank you for sharing your wise thoughts that coincides with what we feel today after five years of our peaceful march on January 25, 2011 .The Egyptian people became just one step away from achieving true democracy. President Mubarak relinquished after thirty years of power , the pillars of corruption strongly shook and a new dawn was rising . After 17 days of peaceful marches opponents regained consciousness and started the counter-revolution, which reached its peak when the Muslim Brothers seized power after the election of Mohamed Morsy. June 30 (coup) on that group was a must, but they succeeded in making the whole world look with suspicion about that real revolution. The only thing positive in Trump is his discovering the truth about the Muslim Brothers and that they had planted the seeds of terrorism and chaos all over the world , and he promised to eliminate them. The question today is: Will President Sisi leave power after the expiry of his term or repeat the old scenario played by Erdogan in Turkey now?

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