Protest should be celebrated not criminalized

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.[1]

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.

[1] Jackie Wong, “Expansion of Downtown Ambassadors program draws praise, criticism,” Westender, July 17, 2008

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6 Responses to Protest should be celebrated not criminalized

  1. James says:

    Hey Tim, a Quebec student here. How are you?
    Just a couple of points about Quebecs “draconian” law. I am not sure what is the draconian part. Is it the part the keeps the protesters off campus so that I may attend the classes that my classmates got a court injunction to be able to attend? Perhaps it is the part that suspended our session, moved it to the end of the summer (at a cost right now of over 40 million taxpayer dollars, if the teachers union get the deal they want to provide services for the rearranged term) so that we would not lose the term and the money we spent on it. Or perhaps it is the part that says if you are going disrupt downtown traffic day after day, night after night, you should have the courtesy to inform the public, and the police, so that everyone can make the appropriate arrangements. You do understand of course, that when a route is provided, it requires only about 25% of the police resources to keep all parties safe.
    Perhaps you find it draconian that those who arrange the protests, mostly the three main students associations, are elevated to the level of legitimate unions and professional associations in the fact that if they recommend their members hold an illegal protest (in the case of the unions, holding an illegal walkout) they are held liable. Or do you find it draconian that teachers/support staff can no longer arbitrarily refuse to provide services, assuming that all health/safety/contract obligation are met?

    I guess you and I have differant definitons of draconion. Tell me, what is your definition of molotov cocktailing innocent peoples business by mistake, firebombing metros and malls, assualting my fellow students, destroying rectors offices and ignoring court injuctions.

  2. James says:

    Oh and one other point: If you check you will find that both Mayor Tremblay and the SPVM have one of the best records when it comes to dealing with protests. The Occupy movement in Montreal was one of the longest lasting ones, thanks in part to the attitude of both the SPVM and Mayor Tremblay. They were only shut down when the weather hit well below 0 and there were fire concerns coupled with a couple incidents of violence.
    Further to that, if you do your research, you will find that the number of people arrested in Mtl, vs Quebec city, Toronto or Vancouver, is proportionally non-existant. Some estimates would put the total number of protesters, cumulatively speaking, at over 1,000,000 over the course of the last 4 months. The number of arrests/tickets/overnight detentions is barely cracking 200, unlike Quebec city, for example where they have more arrests than that in a single night. I would suggest that the VPD learning how to deal with protesters will actually work in the Vancouver protesters favour, because many have found that the SPVM are very “hands off” only intervening in the worst cases.

  3. Standing Water says:

    “In a healthy society, protest is celebrated as a sign of life and fighting spirit. ”

    So, we start right off the bat with a eugenic view. A “healthy society”? I am sorry, but societies have no souls or bodies, so they cannot be healthy or unhealthy—I “know what you mean”, and what it means is that you are representative of a large number of humans who have become incredibly intellectually lazy and who are unable to engage in the proper process of political discourse. That you begin your article with a eugenic statement belies the rest of the content—you’re worried we’re ‘sick’ and that the ‘medicine’ is protest.

    And why? Because you claim dislike of protest is in itself symptomatic. You’ve been to Law School, Tim, so tell me, how is three people marching with the common purpose of effecting an alteration in Government not a riot? Come on, maybe look through those first year law notes. The law doesn’t change just because you find it “sick”, Tim.

    The sad thing is, I mostly agree with the rest of your points—but from the Child Prodigies in Occupy, we don’t hear a peep of proper context. British Columbia had free education c. 1908, in statute. Why? Because Occupy isn’t a regional movement—it has been co-opted by the Usual Suspects.

    As to why we need more police officers, it’s very simple. The public education system is now prohibited to teach morality to children, so they are not socialized properly, so they are mostly feral. The only way to keep feral animals in line is by force. You cannot reason with a feral, unbaptized hominid that has never heard the Scripture.

  4. Tim Louis says:

    Hi James!
    Thanks for your comment.
    I think the basic point to be made is in response to the idea that the ban on campus protest exists in order to protect students who want to continue studying. The fact of the matter is that students as a majority voted to go on strike. The ban on campus protests and picket lines is therefore an attempt to legislate an end to the strike and prevent students from enforcing their own union-approved strike action. Any other trade union would not support court injunctions to prevent mass support for a democratically-backed strike – why should students tolerate such a law?

    • James says:

      Well, in response to your question, there is some discussion, even among lawyers whether this constitutes a boycott or a strike.
      Further to that, although many associations have voted to boycott, and they are part of larger associations, such as CLASSE, FUEQ and FECQ, many of those associations are not representive of the larger whole. For example, many of the association are not like the Student Union at UBC,where all students are a member, but are related only to specific fields of study, and may only hold as little as 45 members. Of the total number of post-secondary students in Quebec, only 30%, by virtue of the association they are in, have voted to not attend, and in most of those votes it is usually a 60/40 split at best, at worst a bare majority.
      Considering that these actions can take place on campuses where only one small association, say the Political Science Undergrad Association, have voted in favour of the strike, but the actions are still affecting the greater whole, for example with fire alarms during exams, is it not appropriate for there to be some conditions to the protest area? Even in the case of a labour strike, there are still stipulations as to access to the work site if others want to continue working which include freedom from intimidation and threats of violence.
      I will give you an analogy regarding Bill 78, if you will allow me: Our constitution protects us from being stopped without just cause. However every yr at Christmas that is violated by virtue of the drinking/driving counter attacks. Why do we allow that? In part because we understand that although most motorists are reasonable and mature when they get behind the wheel, many are not. We understand that we can suffer a small intrusion or limit on an unlimited right as the result of, sadly, having to legislate to the lowest common denominator, inasmuch as behaviour goes. Nobody is suggesting that these students don’t have a right to speak their mind, however there needs to be a respect for others who don’t share their views, and if folks aren’t not going to self-regulate, then the general, and in this case majority public will stand up and ask for it to be done by the state.

  5. James says:

    Btw, it doesn’t say they can’t picket, just they can’t interfere with anyone trying to perform their duties or attend their classes. Bit of a differance between the two.

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