A successful movement needs to be quick on its feet and adapt, and the goal has to be one of winning over people to our idea of the common good that we can build together.
By Michael Borrelli
Published June 28, 2010
After a weekend spent consuming images of street violence from Ontario's capital, I wonder whether progressives in the West can continue to organize in a manner that has, over the past ten-plus years, become the standard operating procedure for international summits/mega-protests.
This model is big-tent, is mainly non-violent, and is often an attempt to shut down a meeting so that summiteers are put face-to-face with those citizens and their reasons for being there. It was popularized by Seattle, but has rather quickly been co-opted by radical elements and security forces to serve to delegitimize legal, peaceful protest.
The images monopolizing local news media coverage have been almost exclusively of the unlawful and immoral actions perpetrated by black-clad misfits and their gas-mask equipped counterparts on the other side of the security fence. Despite some excellent coverage of the weekend's events by print and broadcast media (Matt Galloway's weekend duty at CBC headquarters, right in the middle of things, was excellent), there is no doubt that the protesters' messages were completely lost behind smoke and tear gas.
I saw numerous shots of hooligans with makeshift weapons wantonly smashing the shopfronts where many new Canadians make their livings. Any employees required to work in Toronto's abandoned core (while the bankers spent the G20-Long-Weekend back in suburbia, or at the cottage) cowered in fear with their customers as the usual corporate suspects incurred the wrath of thugs.
Starbucks, despite attempts in recent years to accede to critics' demands, was targeted yet again with a scripted zeal that continues to defy logic.
Whether these thugs were actually radicals otherwise aligned to the movement, or another round of state-sponsored agent-provocateurs used to undermine the legitimacy of all concerned citizens, it really doesn't matter: the jig is up.
Black Bloc 'anarchists' seemingly made fools of the combined security apparatus on display downtown on Saturday by moving outside their reach and wreaking havoc, and police quickly exploited their foes' weakness by conducting mass, questionably legal raids and arrests in the dark of night, and more, later in broad daylight.
In Seattle, protesters might have gotten within long-range spitting distance of delegates, but in the infamous "post-9/11" world, security concerns trump civil rights, and the absolute requirement for public debate on important topics. So a security island in the biggest city in the country is forcibly erected, and delegates and viewers at home never get to hear or see any of the reasons driving citizens to protest.
Fort Harper was built in a week, and because of its overwhelming success, the mass public - the millions of citizens that stayed home - saw only expensive mayhem and cheap photo-ops of world leaders. They may have also seen a justification for the outrageous billion-dollar public expense to build Fort Harper.
Regardless, progressives have to view this past weekend as a draw, if not a straight-up failure. No issues were raised or discussed. Twitter feeds served us real-time pictures of violence, and many a Saturday night BBQ was spent discussing the property damage and immense cost, but not the underwhelming commitment to maternal health, the lack of any progress on the environment, and a stalemate on economic issues that amounted to nations going their own way on bank taxes and stimulus spending.
So violent protesters were aided by the massive security force in derailing any kind of meaningful discussion of these issues. Leaders made important decisions, as they frequently do, without consulting citizens, and those of us who actually care about finding solutions to some of the world's ills that might be rectified through coordinated international action are left disappointed.
Someone in a union office somewhere has got to be reading news reports from the past weekend, thinking, "Hey, is this the way we keep doing things? How can we avoid the same traps over and over?"
I single out labour unions because traditionally they have held the organizational know-how and resources that facilitate large protest movements, and someone at one of the big unions that sponsored the weekend's rallies has to be thinking that there's a better way to expend those great expenditures of resources and effort.
On the Monday after the Battle of Toronto, I'm not sure what that model is, but it the only way it can get worse than cat-and-mouse games with stormtroopers (who may or may not be eager to beat you up) is if people start getting killed (again). The larger messages are not getting through to the large, meaty segment of the population that needs to get behind a movement that will actually influence a ruling regime, especially one as conservative as Stephen Harper's. I do think, however, that Western progressives need to reconsider the old adage, "think global, act local."
Imagine, instead of ten thousand people converging on a security-controlled ghost-town, labour unions hosted dozens of community BBQs at local parks just outside the perimeter, inviting its members, out-of-town protesters, concerned citizens, and neighbourhood residents to congregate in a legitimate and convivial forum.
A network of family-friendly, non-violent, and engaging public events (not unlike the successful community BBQ held in Beasley Park this past weekend) would have made it very difficult for fear-mongering politicians to argue that the massive expense behind Fort Harper was required to protect delegates from the unruly rabble.
If people want to take the "act local" idea even more seriously, protesters can reduce their carbon footprint by just staying at home, and spending time talking to their own friends, family and community about the issues that are important to them. Or join the groups, like those in Hamilton, that organize local meetings, anti-G8 concerts, and other events.
Some will say it's important to fight the state's smothering encroachment into public space, but I think the battle for the civil right to peacefully protest and communicate with our leaders about important issues can be fought just as effectively from a parkette in Oakville (bringing the issues right to where the Moneymakers live).
This kind of decentralized, community-based activism eliminates the ability for radical and destabilizing elements to ply their trade for the cameras. It also builds valuable social networks where it matters most: at the community level.
This is not a declaration that the old mass-mobilization tactics that defined generations of activists are now dead. It's a frank admission that, for the time being, the State Security Apparatus that inevitably shows up at every international summit has our playbook, and they're beating us.
A successful movement needs to be quick on its feet and adapt, and the goal has to be one of winning over people to our idea of the common good that we can build together, not scaring them off with images of destruction.