Protest Vogue, or, The Fashion of Having Opinions

Over-glorifying protestors has the consequence of making protest itself fashionable, in the process diluting the values upon which the protest is based. Having an opinion, which is not valuable in itself, becomes more important than actual understanding.

I thought I would take the time to write a little bit about protest culture in response to some arrests that took place in the Assembly Chamber in Toronto, Ontario, this week. Mike Schreiner, the leader of the Green Party of Ontario, tweeted the following:

There are a few things I've learned about protests in Canada, both from attending them and having worked in a government building, that I think might be worth sharing.

To begin with, arrests, when they happen, are often expected. Protestors, if they are organized in any way, typically know what kind of legal territory they’re getting into when they protest. The people who get arrested know that this is going to happen; they make the choice for it to happen. As an example, I was once part of a large-scale protest at Parliament in Ottawa, and arrangements had been made with the police beforehand. The police would designate a line, and protestors who crossed it would be arrested. There was a fairly ceremonial section of the event during which protestors queued up, crossed the line, and were peacefully taken into custody for a few hours. Still an important symbolic gesture on the part of the individual protestors, I think. But safe, and expected.

In this context, one might see the phrase “handcuffing grandmothers” as, perhaps, a little calculated to sound as dramatic as possible. And it might be argued that perhaps this particular grandmother didn’t know what she was getting into. However, if the process by which visitors enter the public gallery in Queen’s Park is anything like it is in Alberta, security staff likely included it in the list of rules when they first entered the building. It’s a basic rule. The grandmother was handcuffed because protesting isn’t allowed in the chamber. Not even by grandmothers, if you can believe it! That is a basic rule of the Westminster parliament system, common to (I think) all such chambers in the British Commonwealth.

And, lest this rule seem needlessly authoritarian, consider this: In Canada, you can watch the government work. You can visit the grounds of most government buildings. People coming from less permissive countries are often stunned when they learn this. The limits on activity in the Chamber are necessary. You may think the Westminster system is flawed, and it may be, but there does need to be somewhere that the elected officials can work without danger of interruption by whoever walks in off the street--which is only even an issue because we live in a place where anyone can walk in off the street to watch the government work!

It is irresponsible, and intentionally misleading, to construe arrests during a protest, in Canada, as the first harbingers of a totalitarian police state. Something else that ought to be common knowledge: I can’t speak to any other capital buildings, but at the Alberta legislature, protests are supported by the legislature itself. If you plan a protest, you will be provided with a PA system, a podium, and security. A lot of the time, politicians will prepare statements to make as part of the event.

Protest is important to democracy, and the system knows this and therefore incorporates it. It is important to recognize, if one is to understand at all what is happening, that arrests are all part of the gesture. It is irresponsible to construe the necessary response to an act of protest as “Charter rights being trampled”.

One might ask whether the fact that protests have become part of the system suggests that they are less effective. Perhaps they have been “domesticated”; perhaps it is very important to the archetypal nature of protests that they go outside of the system, or outside of the rules. Perhaps this even causes the protest impulse to become amplified and exaggerated, leading to the kind of radical protest action that dangling from bridges and climbing cranes represent. Protest may inherently need to go beyond the accommodating limits of the system.

It seems to me to be closer to say that it is not protest as such, but individual protestors who inherently need to go beyond the accommodating limits of the system. To explain what I mean, let me share a story: When I was university, I overheard a classmate of mine saying something that has stuck with me ever since. She asked, in an effort to get to strike up conversation with someone else, “Do you like going to protests?”

As mentioned, I’ve gone to a few protests in my life, but I have to admit that I always feel a bit embarrassed to be there. Not that I don’t recognize and value them, and the right to hold them, as absolutely necessary parts of a functional society. It’s rather that I often feel they lack dignity; the ones I attended, at least, seemed to be driven by a very selective understanding of the issue at hand, an emotional tone that alienates everybody not in the mob, and an acting out of childlike power fantasies. I am often reminded, by protestors yelling at the doors of government buildings, of angry children yelling at their parents to get their way. And still, I support the basic value of political protest--anyway, sometimes the parents can do with a bit of being yelled at.

Overhearing my classmate say, “Do you like going to protests?”, however, immediately seemed to illuminate what my problem was. Many protestors, as far as I can tell, show up for reasons other than those they profess; that is, unacknowledged personal reasons. They may care about “the issue”, at least as far as they understand it, and maybe they think it is important to “show solidarity”--but what about the part of them that simply likes going to protests?

It can feel really good to protest. That is not a bad thing, in fact it is quite understandable that the feeling of potency that one might get from “shaking the tree” is enjoyable; but it ought to be kept in mind as part of the picture. It helps contextualize, for me, the sorts of high-flying activities that organizations like Greenpeace get up to--and subsequently lionize their “heroic” staff and volunteers for executing. I am thinking, here, of dangling from bridges in order to put a temporary halt to tanker traffic, or writing gigantic messages next to the Nazca Lines in Peru. The kind of activities that leads many on the right to call them “drama queens”; stuff that probably feels really great, and which has very unclear actual results. Does the visibility of such an action offset the animosity it creates?

I think there is a danger in making an act of protest something it is not--as Mike Schreiner’s tweet seems to me to do. I see it as marketing. It’s an intentionally dishonest description of reality calculated to sell something, in this case, the idea that Doug Ford (premier of Ontario) is an absolute tyrant. It also, weirdly, makes the protestors into something they’re not; this is the case especially if and when the protest is contaminated somewhat by personal psychological needs (ie. a need to express anger, and feel potent). The image of protest could do with a bit of deflation, in my opinion: Relatively few protests are hills to die on, and relatively few protestors are Spartacus.

I think there is a danger in marketing protest and letting it become too fashionable. It makes “having an opinion” fashionable, which is not the same as have an informed and refined opinion, and is certainly not the same as knowing anything. Earlier, I brought up the question of whether systemic support for protests somehow domesticates the protest itself. In my opinion, inflating every instance of protest into a revolutionary fantasy domesticates it far more than support from the authorities does. And the potency, ferocity, and necessity of protest is not actually something we want to lose to fantasy; it is too important.