Pack Up Your Lessons in Your Old Kit Bag

May 31st, 2000
By Naomi Klein

"We have learned the lessons of Seattle and Washington," RCMP Constable Michele Paradis tells me on the cellphone from Windsor. She is in charge of media relations for the meeting of the Organization of American States that is coming to Windsor this weekend, along with a few thousand protesters who object to the OAS’s plans to expand NAFTA into all of Central and South America.

"And what were those lessons?" I ask.

"I’m afraid I can’t answer that," she says.

This is unfortunate, because there are any number of lessons that the Canadian police could have learned about how to treat protesters in the wake of November’s demonstrations against the World Trade Organization and April’s demonstrations against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the absence of any elaboration from Constable Paradis, here are the key lessons the Mounties appear to have learned from their colleagues to the south.

Lesson #1: Strike pre-emptively.

Local activists in Windsor say they have been getting phone calls and home visits from RCMP officers. Josie Hazen, a graphic designer who produced a poster advertising the rally and teach-in put on by the Canadian Labour Congress, says an RCMP officer contacted her and asked a series of questions about these perfectly legal events, its organizers, and her knowledge of other anti-OAS activities. "Lots have been getting these calls and we think it’s a scare tactic to keep us away from the protests," Ms. Hazen says.

Lesson #2: Normalize police violence.

In Washington, I met several 19-year-old activists who carried swimming goggles and bandannas soaked in vinegar — protective gear against pepper spray and tear gas. It’s not that they were planning to attack a Starbucks, just that they thought that getting gassed is what happens when you express your political views.

In Canada, when we saw university students being doused with pepper spray outside the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Vancouver, there was a wave of public outrage. Now, 21/2 years later, we have seen so much brutality directed against protesters that we appear to have gotten used to it. And this is the truly insidious effect of police violence: If protesters are publicly treated like criminals regularly enough, they start to look like criminals, and we begin, albeit unconsciously, to equate activism with sinister wrongdoing, even terrorism.

Lesson #3: Erase the distinction between civil disobedience and violence.

There is a faction going to Windsor that plans to practise civil disobedience, to put their bodies on the line to block access to parts of the OAS meeting. This is a tactic used by activists in Canada and elsewhere to protest against unjust laws. It came in handy during the civil-rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests and, more recently, in native blockades, labour disputes and the 1993 standoff between environmentalists and loggers in Clayoquot Sound. It is not a violent tactic — it is an inconvenient one.

Essentially, what the protesters are planning for Windsor is a sit-in on the streets. Though this will annoy people trying to get to work, sometimes, when meaningful avenues for public expression have been exhausted, important political victories are won out of the small inconveniences.

Yet, when I spoke to Constable Paradis, she repeatedly described the plans to shut down the Windsor meeting as "violence," refusing to recognize that blocking a road could be done peacefully. "That’s semantics," she told me about the distinction. None of the organizers of the Windsor protests are endorsing violence, which brings us to Lesson #4: Divide and conquer.

"We’re not concerned with the peaceful protesters," Constable Paradis told me. "Just the minority bent on shutting things down." This distinction between good protesters — those only interested in shouting slogans and waving banners in sanctioned areas — and the bad, direct-action protesters was a constant police refrain in Seattle and Washington.

But the activists have learned some lessons of their own. Seattle showed that civil disobedience adds much-needed urgency and attention to less sensational official marches and teach-ins, events usually ignored by a been-there-done-that press. So, in the run-up to Windsor, there is a virtual consensus among organizers that you don’t have to choose between tactics — there can be hundreds of them, and activism can work on several complementary fronts at once.

The real irony in police attacks on anti-free-trade activists is that it comes in the midst of months of preaching about how increased trade with China will fill that country’s citizenry with an irrepressible thirst for democracy and freedom of expression. The opposite is clearly true: Free trade is so damaging to so many people around the world that democratic countries are willfully compromising the rights of their own citizens to protect the smooth advancement of the free-trade agenda.

Which brings us to Lesson #5, the one both police and politicians seem determined not to hear. In the era of free trade, politics itself is becoming a gated community, with ever more security and brutality required for it to conduct business as usual.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.