Tuesday, August 21, 2007

thou dost Protest too little (?)

Generally, I don’t go to protests, but a lot of people that I love and respect do. I have participated in one official protest, and one other “rally” in my life. The protest was against the Iraq war – a march from the Hill to the American Embassy and back. There were signs and cheers, and it was all very friendly. Canada didn’t join the war – so that was good. The other rally was in high school – the provincial government was going to close down our hospital, and our students’ council organized an event with all of the students in town (2 high schools, 3 elementary) to “hug the hospital” – we formed a big human chain around it. It was a standard “media event” – we created something for the news to capture, and then talked about why we were doing it - I was the spokesperson for our school, and had my 2 seconds of media fame. The hospital survived the cuts. So, I am 2 for 2 – you’d think I’d be a great believer in the power of protest. But I am not a protestor, though at the same time I am fascinated by protests, and the dialogue that surrounds them.

My reaction to protests, and particularly those in the amorphous anti-globalization vein, has had a profound effect on my life. When I was deciding if I was going to go to law school, the Quebec City summit was going on (G-8? I’m not even sure). People that I knew went to protest. They participated in alternate forums. They were radical cheerleaders. They took indie media videos. They got tear-gassed ad naseum. And back in Waterloo, we saw the news coverage. McDonalds was vandalized. Fences were pushed. The police responded. The people back home tsked at the hooligans, and the leaders inside of the fence did their thing, coming to the same conclusion as they would have if the people were not there facing rubber bullets on the other side. All of this left me deeply discouraged and feeling like if the system was going to be changed, it had to happen from the inside. So, off to law school I went.

Anyway, here I am on the inside, but I still can’t just write off protests. I believe that radical change, from the women's suffrage movement around the world to the civil rights movement in the United States and the anti-apartheid fight in South Africa wouldn't have happened if people hadn't got out and made some noise. And I am still fascinated by the noise they are making - when the G-8 met at Gleneagles, I combed the Guardian daily during the lead up and the event, and I’ve found myself doing the same thing with Montebello. But still, while I follow the dialogue closely, and while I respect many people who are out there marching, I have no desire to join them.

I think part of my antipathy comes from my experience that the “average person on the street,” as far as I have been able to discern, feels alienated from anti-globalization protestors. They don’t understand the cause, and they don’t feel like the protestors are speaking for them. I have experienced this reaction from people I know and have talked to, and it's evident in the comment stream on the CBC website today (which is a bit less abrasive than the average G&M comment stream). I guess this is my pragmatism talking – I don’t want to participate if I don’t see it working. But, as I noted above, there have been protest movements that have worked - so the question is - how can anti-globalization protestors get there?

I wrote in response to Wheat Sheaf’s blog that protestors have to be informed and creative. They have to be informed because, by choosing to participate in the protest, they have taken on a role as a public figurehead for the movement that they are out supporting. Anyone at a protest could have a news microphone shoved in their face, and their response will affect the way the movement is viewed. I’ve often noted in media coverage that there is a sense of confusion as to what the message of the protest actually is – this is partly because when a protest is against a multilateral summit, there is not going to be one grievance, or one cohesive message. However, at other times, it’s because the protestors don’t know, themselves, why they’re there. Protestors are painted poorly when they can't explain themselves coherently – they have to prove that they are not “uncivilized,” as the Chair of the Canadian Council of CEOs has suggested.

They have to be creative because the media is going to grab onto the most sensational thing that it can – and if that is window-breaking, a thousand peaceful protestors are going to get lost in the shuffle. Protestors also have to be creative because, even if their protest is completely peaceful, it’s one of a million news stories coming in - and it has to stick.

But somehow that creativity has to make sense too – when I was responding to Wheat Sheaf, I commented on Fathers 4 Justice. They dress up like superheros and climb government buildings, to bring attention to what they see as a mother-centred bias in custody cases. These guys feel passionate about their kids, which I respect. But, I don’t know if they are doing their cause any good – their mode of protest just seems somewhat random and disconnected from what they are fighting for. You have to hear an interview with one of them to understand why they’re doing the superhero thing (dads are like heros to their kids . . .). If you don’t hear the interview, they just don’t make sense.

I don't know if this opinion is in any way helpful, but I felt like I should throw something into the dialogue that I've been watching so closely.


el Maggie said...

Good article about the reason to protest on Rabble.ca.

Paul said...

I will admit that I've been to two rallies in my life. The first was an anti-abortion rally and the second was a march to oppose the war in Iraq. Both were small and completely peaceful. Like el maggie, I am skeptical about the effectiveness of certain protests.

If I reflect on what actually changes political decisions in this country, it is almost never the typical protest like what we saw in Montabello. Real change comes when politicians get worried about a powerful group of supporters. Sometimes, but rarely, this change will come as the result of a protest, but it has to be big - like the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who marched to protest getting involved in the war in Iraq.

A more effective solution, I think, is to put effort and money into effective NGOs that will run media-savvy publicity and education campaigns and will lobby the government. It's imperative to get MPs promoting these ideas. To make a sweeping generalization, left-wing NGOs can often squabble more than the right. They need to get their act together, swallow their pride, and work together.

Wheatsheaf said...

I think both el mag and paul are looking at the notion of protest wrong. Protest and demonstrations are but one means of getting the issue on the table. One can debate on where best to put your resources, but at some point you have to ask yourself whether you are being more effective attending the rally or reading the newspaper at home.
Furthermore, protests can work. In the 1990's the plug was pulled on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment because of public demonstrations. I would like to think that the number of demonstrations held against the Iraq persuaded Chretien to not jump in.
One does not have to jump into every protest, but protest is a means to be active citizen, to speak up on issues that are important to you.

el Maggie said...

See, and I know all that - which is why I can't write off protests, but I think there's a culture of protesting b/c it's cool, and I don't think this does service to whatever the cause (general anti-globalization) is.