In a healthy society, protest is celebrated as a sign of life and fighting spirit. Whether it is Civil Rights advances in the Southern states, environmental struggles or widespread movements for social change, protest has always been a vehicle for transformation. Instead of seeing protest as a way of change, however, the state sees it as a threat – sometimes for good reason.
The state is a unique force in society in that it does not conceive of demonstrations as a positive thing. While most of us would be inclined to celebrate protests, especially in a time of badly needed change, the state criminalizes it. With its hands on the till it has the ability to spend limitless amounts of money on controlling and criminalizing dissent. As the twentieth century teaches us, the state is almost always conservative in nature.
Quebec is a recent case in point. The provincial government has introduced draconian legislation to criminalize dissent and break the back of the student strike. The onerous and completely unacceptable constraints placed by Bill 78 on anyone who wishes to organize a demonstration has moved Quebec beyond the line that separates a quasi-democratic society from an undemocratic society. The students should be congratulated and supported, not just for their underlying cause of fair tuition fees, but now for their defence of democracy itself. In Vancouver, weekly solidarity rallies have cropped up for this very reason, giving coast-to-coast support for the students of Quebec.
If there is one lesson from Quebec for Vancouver’s ruling class, it is that the crackdown against the protesters came too late in Quebec. Rather than following Montreal police forces in their initial hesitation to confront protesters, the VPD is acting early rather than waiting for things to multiply out of control. As Lauren Gill has recently stated after the arrest of a dozen non-violent ‘Casserole’ protesters in the past week: “this is not the criminalization of dissent but the preliminary criminalization of dissent: the police are trying to stop a movement before it event gets started.”
Even Province writers have begun raising their eyebrows about the aggressive treatment of a relatively small number of Casseroles protesters in Vancouver. And if there was any doubt that Vancouver police have been trying to take lessons from the crackdown on the Quebec uprising, the Vancouver Police Department has now admitted that it has been sending members of its Crowd Control Unit to study tactics from the Montreal police.
A little moment of history might be helpful to understand the background as to why we are where we are today. With COPE tied down by a pro-Vision electoral agreement, a real electioneering spectacle ensued in the fall of 2008. Memorably, Vision ran a series of negative campaign ads attacking the NPA for not hiring extra police officers and for being soft on crime. Even though Vancouver had experienced a 9% decrease in the crime rate from 2007 to 2008, Gregor portrayed crime as “skyrocketing” and smeared his opponents for not fortifying law and order.
Once elected, Vision followed through by hiring 100 extra police officers, and giving an extra $13 million to the VPD in 2009 alone. In 2008 the police were already absorbing $180m per year. Today, after four years of consecutive increases, an additional $45m is spent on the police every year. In this year’s budget the VPD will receive another yearly increase of $7.8 million, bringing total expenditures to $213 million — more than 20% of the city’s budget.
Since the election of Vision and Mayor Robertson in 2008, corporate taxes have been slashed, services have been cut on all levels, homelessness has continued to grow and the only public branch to receive extra money has been the police department. Gregor’s slogan is: Austerity for everyone but the police. This year’s multi-million dollar police department budget-increase is coming just in time to enforce Harper’s unprecedented omnibus crime bill. While city governments in Quebec have passed motions refusing to direct their police to enforce Harper’s bill, Vision has stayed the course in proving themselves all-too-willing to follow the fool’s path of a law and order approach to poverty and social unrest.
One can never tell at the time whether or not a given demonstration will turn into something much bigger – we can only determine that in hindsight. With some hard work and solidarity from students and others across Canada, and as governments ramp up austerity measures and plunge us further into financial recession, the Quebec protests may be a taste of what is about to come across the country. We have to keep an eye on the fact that the Vancouver Police Department is hoping for just the opposite.
 Jackie Wong, “Expansion of Downtown Ambassadors program draws praise, criticism,” Westender, July 17, 2008