Those clips from the ‘60s that are so familiar — of marches, police shooting water cannons, protestors being bitten by dogs — all signify one thing: they were turbulent times.
We now live in a similarly troubled era. Economic uncertainty and rapid social change brought on by shifting political currents and digital technology have run headlong into a renewed sense of identity-based politics and class consciousness. Now as movements like Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, and nationalism spread across the world, people are taking to the streets, and engaging in disruptive tactics — blocking highways, halting parades, interrupting meetings — and arguments rage in many quarters over whether such actions are effective or even desirable.
There is room for a real debate. Some recent research out of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management suggests that more extreme protest tactics that disrupt day-to-day life generate the most publicity, but are also the ones that most often turn public support against the cause in question. The extremity of action itself makes people who aren’t directly involved — who don’t have a personal stake — unable or unwilling to identify with the protestors.
The argument that protest is okay as long as it doesn’t inconvenience people is common, and flawed.
Recently, here in Ontario, columnist and activist Desmond Cole recently decided to stop writing for the Toronto Star after management told him his activism was incompatible with his work as a journalist. This came shortly after Cole disrupted a meeting of Toronto Police Services Board due to its refusal to destroy data gleaned from “carding,” the practice of random stop and checks by police that disproportionately affects Black men. Cole’s post about his decision generated a storm of controversy, since the Star appeared to imply that further activism would jeopardize Cole’s arrangement with the paper.
There is a real and important discussion to have about the extent to which a journalist should participate in activism, which others are already engaged in, but there is an equally important and separate question about whether Cole’s disruption was effective, no matter what job he might hold. In a time in which protest and activism are everywhere, it’s worth remembering what protests are actually meant to do — and that when protest is meant to defend society’s most marginalized, inconvenience is inevitable.
Consider: Black Lives Matter Toronto’s temporarily halted Toronto’s Pride Parade last year in order to highlight a series of demands — most controversially, that official police participation in the event be prohibited. That protest led to an acrimonious debate, in part because two marginalized, intersecting groups (Black Torontonians on the one hand, and queer and trans ones on the other) appeared to be in conflict, but also because many deemed the very act of interrupting the parade too extreme.
The protest was almost bound to be unpopular: police are not only celebrated in popular culture, they also enforce the very laws and property rules that themselves define the mainstream. Blowback was inevitable. But BLM felt — quite rightly — that until police action wasn’t so disproportionately and so systemically misdirected at Black Torontonians, it wouldn’t be right to officially include them in a political march whose very purpose is to celebrate inclusion.
And for its purpose, Black Lives Matter chose wisely: the group wasn’t worrying about mainstream appeal but effecting change within a specific community, and the protest helped it do just that. The Pride Toronto committee accepted the group’s demands, saying that individuals who are officers are welcome to participate in the parade as individuals, but asking that the force not march in an official capacity and that officers not participate in uniform.
- Why Pride Toronto handled Black Lives Matter badly
- The trouble with political correctness
- The Agenda: The future of protest
Similarly, when a group of Tamil Canadians marched on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto in 2009 to draw attention to the civil war in Sri Lanka, the protest was decried by many, including then premier including then-premier Dalton McGuinty. Yet, the sheer attention the protesters drew forced the issue into greater public awareness; it was subsequently raised by then-Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in parliament.
In each case, despite the fact that these actions angered and inconvenienced people, they achieved their goals where more moderate tactics would not have been likely to succeed, due to the simple fact that most Canadians weren’t personally invested in the particular issues at stake, and wouldn’t have paid attention — much less pressed community and political leaders into action. This was just a matter of getting things done.
The reasoning is straightforward. As an activist, Cole argues that “the most marginalized never win changes by courting moderate consensus. Courting them is a waste of time.” And indeed, that’s true.
The problem faced by specific demographic groups — by Black, Indigenous, trans, and other communities — is that the very empathy that underlies the idea of “appealing to the mainstream” is missing. It is precisely because these are the most marginalized that they need to not just protest but disrupt: in these cases protesting is about insisting their humanity be recognized on their own terms. It is a fight against the mainstream demand to assimilate; “be polite”; advocate without alienating (as though the advocates weren’t the ones who were most alienated); or more generally to fall in line.
In the face of that sort of opposition, disruption is necessary because the community groups, organizations, and governments that are disrupted in protest present targets that are both more manageable than shifting public discourse, and hold the power to material change circumstances for the groups that are protesting. You may not get people on your side for broader aims like ending police brutality or transphobia or racism, but you can influence the power brokers more immediately involved — and accomplishing the latter can often help with the former.
To be clear, there are absolutely issues which, by virtue of affecting more people, mean that appealing to the mainstream is a necessary concern. Voting reform or a national pharmacare program are but a couple of examples; those kinds of causes demand tactics designed to bring as many people on board as possible. And in such cases, it is tempting to hope for activism that won’t alienate — that it will be loud, attention grabbing, but carry with it broad public support, because it is reflecting broader public concerns.
But when it comes to the concerns of minorities of various kinds, the contradiction in such tactics should be clear: gaining visibility while not interrupting or inconveniencing others is essentially impossible. In the nitty-gritty of politics, people have to advocate for their own interests for the plain reason that no one else will, and this is perhaps most true for those pushed to the margins of society. In such troubled times, the only way for those crushed underfoot to be heard is to become the trouble themselves.
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