Even in this quiet moment between protests and political rhetoric, there remains a good deal of hostility toward “the protesters” in Montreal. Perhaps by looking back over the last few months we can identify how our city ended up so divided, and how to move forward toward a more inclusive political climate.
Because I believe in the right of a people to protest, I’ve been wary in the past few months of criticizing the Montreal protests too strongly. But it’s not just “protest” in general that I support – and what’s happening here doesn’t make sense to me. So I’m discarding the foolish idea that not supporting the protesters means I’m supporting the government’s actions – because I’m not doing that either. What I DO believe is that intelligent, well orchestrated tactics of nonviolence (including but not limited to protest) can effect greater and more lasting change than violence. I believe, too, in a peoples right to challenge their government when they feel it does not represent them. But somehow, no matter what you’ve taken to the streets to oppose – no matter how just your cause – your message gets lost when you don’t engage the community, you don’t exercise discipline, or you just start acting like assholes. In a nutshell, those are my three big issues with this protest-in-progress.
Over the past few months, I’ve been pouring through live feeds, mainstream and independent media coverage and the propaganda from both sides. Talking to as many people as I can here in Montreal. Even with all that information, the whole thing has left me with a feeling of frustration – a discomfort with both sides – that’s been difficult to articulate. And I know I’m not alone. It feels like we’re all too anxious to make this a black and white issue – good guys and bad guys, right and wrong. That would certainly make it easier to judge, easier to support or oppose, to fix or to dismiss. But it’s not that easy. There are some elements of the protests that truly demonstrate the powerful beauty (and creativity) of a people united – specifically the pots and pans protests against Law 78. But to date, the actions of both the protesters and of the government have polarized the city. The protesters have made choices that have ultimately helped create the environment of public criticism that allowed the government to pass an indefensibly oppressive law. And the government, in turn, with a patronizing and short-sighted handling of the protesters (made all the more obvious by the incredibly creepy public service announcements about how fair they are being), has in turn given the protesters an international legitimacy they would otherwise not have earned. As if the issue wasn’t complicated enough, the protesters have been emboldened by that international support (mostly against Law 78) in spite of a lack of local solidarity. And forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but if we’re talking democracy here, LOCAL is where solidarity matters most. At the very least, it’s where solidarity needs to start.
In it’s most basic form, a protest that wishes to hold up the tenants of democracy (or to protest the lack of that democracy in it’s own government) must seek to unite – to find a common ground on which to stand against the action it wishes to oppose. A movement that does not seek the support of the people cannot succeed, and worse, risks becoming as tyrannical as the ruling power it opposes. The protesting students, while united with each other in large groups and powerful student unions, has still not reached outside the student community. It appears that from the beginning, they operated on the assumption that the rest of us were simply part of the problem, and needed to be treated as such. Their tactics, including blocking bridges and subways during rush hours, and tolerating the destruction of personal property during marches and protests, turned much of the city against them. Real people lost money. Local business owners suffered greatly as insurance companies refused to cover the repeated damage done to stores and restaurants along regular protest routes. They immediately alienated the very people whose support they should have been actively soliciting, and the backlash of that arrogance created the hostile environment that continues to work against them.
It bothers me when I see spokespeople for the protesters speaking about how they’re fighting for everyone – for me, for future generations. While I can identify with their sense of purpose, I just don’t buy it. Because when you haven’t actually spoken to the people you claim to represent (or claim to be fighting for) that’s a pretty arrogant thing to say. Good intentions aside, there is no – I repeat, NO – substitute for actual human conversation; person to person interaction. Not online petitions. Not websites. Not social media. We all remember what our parents told us about what happens when you assume. And when you skip the legwork – the real life interaction with the people you should be engaging – you don’t get to assume you know what we want. Again, despite what might be the best and most noble of intentions, if you don’t do the work, don’t expect the rewards. Authentic democracy does not have shortcuts. That’s arguably how we got here in the first place. Don’t presume to fight for me, take the time to fight with me.
When speaking about the violence and property damage caused during the marches and protests, I’ve heard it argued (and have argued myself) that it’s only a small group of idiots causing damage, and that despite the media’s obsession with focusing on those few, we should not judge the protesters based on that violence. On the one hand, it’s a valid argument. There has been little focus on the thousands of peaceful protesters because there are broken windows to point cameras at. However, I do not accept the idea that that the protesters as a whole should not take responsibility for preventing that violence and destruction. As an example, I point to a recent protest in Mexico as part of the YoSoy132 Movement. The organizers of YoSoy132 are facing a far more overtly oppressive government, and seem to understand that organization and discipline are instrumental to building the support and credibility of their movement. They seek unity – not spectacle. I refer you here, to the guidelines and rules they set out for those who wish to join them (read the full article here on Narconews.com).
“All who attend the march pledge to:
• Attend on Sunday, June 10, 2012 in the Zocalo without any partisan political displays. The recommendation is to dress in black.
• Not engage in any prosletism in favor of any candidate or party. This means not wearing the colors associated with political parties, images that allude to the candidates, cheers for any of their names, etcetera.
• March PEACEFULLY and on the indicated route.
• Remain in only one lane of traffic so as to not impede the travel of vehicles.
• Respect all who attend the march, pedestrians and vehicles along its path, irregardless of their political inclinations. There will be some guides during the march solely to indicate what that means, but we trust in your civility and if we act according to these guidelines everything should happen exactly as it is planned.
• Do not respond to any provocations by infiltrating groups nor occur in acts of vandalism or violence, such as taking down, damaging or destroying campaign signs. We must not damage any public services.
• Do not bring your voter ID of the Federal Elections Institute nor expensive objects of value that could be robbed or a target of provocations.
• Expose vandals and people who occur in acts of violence. If this occurs we suggest stopping the march and sitting down with arms crossed around the violent person, filming and taking photographs. This is how we will expose the aggressor.
• Deliver any person who conducts acts of vandalism or violence to the authorities.
• Inform the people of the truth about candidate Enrique Peña Nieto: his errors, goof-ups, evil governing, inexperience, ignorance, etcetera.
• Inform about the dishonest news by media companies bought by the PRI party (like Televisa) that have edited or ommitted relevant information that would expose the true face of Peña Nieto.
• In the event that any of these cited agreements are violated, retreat from the march.
Specifically, I point to this:
“• Deliver any person who conducts acts of vandalism or violence to the authorities.“
You cannot protest a government with chaos. Governments – and authority in general – know very well how to deal with chaos. You must approach them – challenge them – with more powerful weapons, namely organization, unity and discipline. In essence, a protest that wishes to gain the critical support of the greater public must be self-governing. And a protest cannot boast the will of the people without that critical support. Without that support, your actions are not holding your government accountable – you’re simply holding your city hostage. Just imagine, for a moment, what a powerful statement it would have been if the peaceful protesters had turned the rock throwers and vandals over to the authorities themselves. What sort of statement would that have been about the true focus and priorities of their message?
The single most important thing that our Quebec protesters seem to misunderstand about protest – about the effective practice of nonviolence in general – is that it is not spontaneous cooperation. Or impromptu anger that reaches some tipping point and simply spills out into the streets. It is not disorganized. It is not repeating the same tactic over and over again expecting something different to happen. Lack of strategy and disorganization weaken the purpose of their protest, and the true practice of nonviolence is not weakness. Like the warfare that includes weapons and casualties, nonviolence is strategy, organization, discipline and unity of purpose. It is not simply taking to the streets. It is understanding what one wishes to change, the obstacles to that change, and the strategy required to remove or overcome those obstacles in order to effect that change. Above all else, it’s working (yes, working) to unite people behind your cause. It’s all about the people. The very premise of nonviolent struggle is that the real power ultimately lies with the people. So if you want the power, you need the people.
For now, there really are no heroes in Montreal. Everyone is angry and everyone is behaving badly. But it isn’t the government or the police that have the most potential to learn from their mistakes and move forward toward finding more positive, inclusive solutions. It’s the protesters. Truth be told, I want to support them. Many of us do. But for that to happen, they need to demonstrate the discipline and strategy necessary to engage and include the rest of the city.