Protest etiquette?

December 15th, 2010
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Call it Gen-X revenge syndrome or simply displaced sibling aggression. Growing up in the 1960′s you saw a lot of violent protests on TV – anti-war, anti-nuke, race-riots, whatever. Inevitably, the long-haired marchers would clash with police and they’d knock some heads. Not that I – even in my mind’s eye – saw my siblings out there, but my sympathies were usually with the police.

I particularly remember the student occupation and trashing of the Hall Building at Concordia University (then Sir George Williams University). Millions of dollars of damage was done during the rampage, particularly to the computer system, such as it was back then.

So I’m a little bewildered by the on-going debate over the G-20 demonstrations in Toronto. Yes, police brutality is bad. Innocent people should not be brutalized.

But let’s be honest. This isn’t Tiananmen Square we’re talking about, nor MLK’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. These big international events and the demonstrations that inevitably go with them seem to have taken on a fairly predictable dynamic. This pattern is something that is much more akin to the Sixties student protests than active resistance against an oppressive political or social regime.

The bottom line is that protest – as opposed to peaceful, non-violent demonstrations – was and is a cachet of the Left. While there are no doubt peaceful demonstrators and benign fellow travellers, there is a belligerent plurality if not majority that will push the issue as far as it will go. That means that, in the absence of police, they would (and have) march(ed) right into the meeting halls of the conference to sit in and or wreak havoc. As they did in Toronto, and Quebec City and Seattle and … they will push the envelope to the point where they can vandalize at will. And we know how the recent anti-austerity demonstrations in Europe are going.

So it is that the international demonstranti converge on the conference du jour, linking with local organizers, hangers-on and the odd innocent by-standers to engage in what, by now, are set piece confrontations with police. The real radicals want to bust things up, the hangers-on maybe just to bask in the righteousness of The Cause or to experience the frisson of a real gosh darn brush with violence.

But guess what?  Sometimes things don’t go as planned and the “brush” with violence ends up being a brush cut from a police mallet. Does this justify police brutality? No. But, when emotions are running high should anyone be surprised when apparently non-violent demonstrators are caught up in the violence?  For the radicals, actively vandalizing, who really cares? For the hangers-on, it’s obviously unfortunate when incidents like those in Toronto happen. Unfortunate also that there appears to be no shortage of examples of other police brutality.

Perhaps the key issue is a disagreement over the – for lack of a better term – root causes of the violence. Is it the fault of the evil politicians who hold these meetings and demand billion-dollar protection out of exaggerated safety fears? Or is it the fault of the demonstrators who talk non-violence yet repeatedly become violent, thereby drawing police reaction that occasionally affects innocent by-standers?

There are alternatives. At the 2000 World Petroleum Congress in Calgary, parts of downtown were cordoned off. The protesters were given an area to assemble – away from the conference site – where they could demonstrate their viewpoint to their hearts’ content. Despite expectations of violence, the congress was actually uneventful.

Not good enough? Well, there are creative ways to get your message heard without going through a ritualistic re-enactment of the Paris Commune. In fact there are still ways to attract the attention of even the hardest-bitten old news hounds. Not that I condone this, but  PETA’s use of young ladies clad only in a spray of fake blood comes to mind.

However, if you’re dead set on a lock-armed procession to the barricades, don’t be surprised at the result. Chances are, if you’re a demonstration organizer you likely want police violence – to discredit the police. If you’re a fellow traveller, you may just end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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By John Weissenberger