Friday, August 31, 2007

Peace, violence and activism

Rick Salutin has a good column in today's Globe and Mail to mark the upcoming Labour Day weekend. In it he gently admonishes Dave Coles, the union leader who spotted and confronted the three undercover cops in Montebello, for a tad too self-consciously placating the unseen audience out there by roaring, "This is a peaceful demonstration."

Of course it was peaceful: and Salutin wasn't arguing for violence. But he noted that we lose our edge when we reassure the public that we really aren't any threat to the established order. We need what he calls "a sense of implacable determination that takes [us] beyond any desire to seem respectable."

Well put. Binary thinking makes us choose between peace or violence, and categorize all protests as one or the other, but there are other positions. Gandhi's implacable non-violence led to many deaths. As Salutin points out, it's "relentless determination" that counts, that brings about change, that makes all the difference. And he raises the case of Mohawk activist Shawn Brant.

The column was evidently written before Brant's release from jail after two months, under strict, and some might argue onerous, bail terms. He may not participate, for example, in any demonstrations or protests: bail conditions, it seems, trump Charter rights. But Salutin (and Brant's spouse Sue Collis) makes the point that Brant's actions, in-your-face though they have been, were less disruptive than the anti-Harris labour-led Days of Protest, and no one jailed the labour leaders. Why did he spend two months in jail, effectively for acts of civil disobedience?

I'd say there was an implacability in his expression; he cut his opponents no moral slack. He didn't threaten, but he didn't try to mollify, either.

In its heydey, the labour movement had this kind of single-minded, almost stoic conviction. Its main weapon, the strike, was non-violent but aroused feelings comparable to those during war, toward scabs or bosses. In that frame of mind, there is no need felt to placate the other side and none at all for respectibility. What would you want it for?

I think a society benefits from this kind of challenge. It clarifies choices and discourages endless avoidance. Sue Collis writes that, after the Mohawk blockades in June, polls showed "71 per cent of Canadians wanting actions on land claims and 41 per cent of Ontarians prepared to acknowledge rail blockades as justified." There's also a social loss when fierceness and passion vanish almost entirely from movements such as labour and the environment.

I think Salutin is spot on, and I say this as a former labour leader who, at least on occasion, played the respectability game as the labour institution currently demands. Ken Georgetti, President of the Canadian Labour Congress, calls himself a "CEO," for crying out loud, and wears the suits to match. We all fuss too much, I think, about public opinion, keeping the public on our side, causing minimum disruption to the public--as though being successful in any of this has moved our cause forward one centimetre.

I don't necessarily hold a brief for Shawn Brant. As a wise co-activist once said to me, "The labour movement is no place for heroes," and the same goes for any social activist movement. I shall leave internal Mohawk politics to the Mohawks--there are, I suspect, countless wheels within wheels there--but Brant does strike this outsider as somewhat of a loner. Be that as it may, however, his actions (like those of John Clarke of OCAP fame) force us all to re-evaluate what we're doing.

One could hear the audible sighs of relief from all quarters after the coast-to-coast protests during National Aboriginal Day passed without "incident." I may even have made some of those noises myself. Once again, Native activists had performed on stage for the masses, entertained us all for a day, and quietly left the stage without an encore, with muffled applause. Suppose they had, in the true spirit of audience participation, mingled with us, forced us to "dialogue" with in-your-face drill-sergeant histrionics, and not only made us listen--but made us talk? Might that have helped us to understand a little more, even want to do something (or explain why we don't), about the landless Lubicon, one-third of whose members have TB? The mind-numbing poverty and hopelessness on reserves? Indian Affairs policy, which veers wildly between paternalism and neglect? Racist crap like this?

Instead we all clapped politely and made our way to the exits and the rest of our lives. Another day of peaceful protest. Thank you, First Nations. And thank you, labour movement, environmental movement, anti-war movement, for not really upsetting us or inconveniencing us or challenging us in any way. You
behaved yourselves. And so you'll have our support and even our respect, and your decorum will be noted in news stories, columns and editorials. Just don't go trying to change anything.

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