Is street protest dead? That’s a question I often ask myself, as my placard-making supplies languish in the back of my bedroom closet.
Pride season is in full-swing across Canada, and though I love to see queers and their families filling the streets, there is rarely a political slogan to be found. And while it’s valuable to be visible and build community through festivals, parades and social events, I can’t help but wonder whether or not our community has lost its edge.
In fact, as I write this column, I am wracking my brain to remember if I’ve ever participated in a large-scale demonstration for queer rights. In the last few years, I have marched against George Bush’s visit to Canada, in opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in support of public health care, and against trade agreements like the Free Trade Area Of The Americas.
But when the Harper government introduced a motion to re-open the same sex marriage debate last year, there was nary a whimper, much less a street demonstration. And when the Conservatives gutted Status Of Women Canada and cut the Court Challenges program in September, it was a small group of feminists who took to the streets. Queers were noticeably absent, and national lobby group Egale Canada took several days to decide whether or not to sign on to a statement opposing the loss of program. Even though queers have undoubtedly benefited the most from Charter cases funded by Court Challenges, some members of the Egale’s board were reportedly leery of alienating potential allies within the Harper cabinet.
Still, the gay and lesbian community isn’t the only group of people who have traded street protests for more “reasonable” negotiations in recent years. Since 9/11, the North American anti-globalization movement has shied away from some of the massive “summit-hopping” street fights that characterized the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999 and the tear-gas fueled protest against the FTAA in Quebec City in 2001. Now, many are pushing for concrete positive solutions, like fair trade coffee, forest-friendly paper and local, organic produce.
A recent article by Joseph in Hart in Utne Reader suggests that the age of protest is over, and tells activists to “dump your signs and slogans — it’s time to make change.” He uses the example of the environmental movement, pointing to the blockades and boycotts that led to over 1,000 arrests and helped to save old growth trees in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia. Some of the same activists who chained themselves to trees in the 1990s, are now sitting across the boardroom table with logging company CEOs, working together to find common ground in an effort to preserve Canada’s forests. Does this mean they’re selling out or getting real? It depends who you ask. But it’s fair for people to try changing things from the inside.
What’s problematic is when the activists who have moved to “the inside” — whether that means joining a political party or joining the board of a more established NGO — deride protestors as being obstructive or counter-productive. We saw that dynamic at play in Ottawa last month, when certain members of the Police Liaison Committee scuttled a demonstration that was planned in support of drag personality Dixie Landers. Instead of channeling the rage that was about to hit the streets, they told people that what they should really be doing is attending a meeting. They seem surprised when the meeting almost exploded due to the queer community’s frustration at the lack of information provided at that meeting.
So, while it’s good to have people working on the inside, it’s equally important for others to organize protests and follow outsider strategies, such as civil disobedience. The whole point of civil disobedience is that when you are not getting the response you need and deserve from the people in power, you willingly take personal risks, in an effort to highlight the cause you care about.
During last month’s First Nations’ Day of Action, media commentators were quick to complement the people who marched on Parliament Hill, while simultaneously condemning protestor Shawn Brant for daring to blockade a highway and some railway tracks. Some characterized his actions as “violent.” But were any of Brant’s actions violent, or did they simply cause inconvenience and economic disruption? There’s a big difference. By forcing CN Rail to cancel its trains on June 29, Brant and the more radical protestors helped fuel the Assembly Of First Nations’ peaceful march on the Hill. Together, the two sets of actions signalled that First Nations’ people won’t stand for poverty and mistreatment. And they demonstrated the fact that a diversity of tactics can lead to potent political and social change.
With George Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon set to meet Stephen Harper in Ottawa from Aug 20-21, we can expect to see thousands of people protesting against the secretive Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. Plans are already underway for a giant demonstration and a bike caravan from Ottawa to Montebello, Quebec, where the leaders will be meeting. It’s exciting, because it feels like the spirit of Seattle may be making a comeback.
In the queer community, I wonder what issue will be powerful enough to propel us out of our boardrooms and bedroom communities and back onto the street.