Monday, September 26, 2011

That Ottawa Action

I guess it is time for me to write my story about what happened in Ottawa today. This story begins with the fact that I promised my Mom that I wouldn't get arrested while doing my Ph. D.

I am a Ph. D. Candidate and a Teaching Assistant at McGill University's Macdonald Campus in Ste Anne de Bellevue. As you will see, it is necessary for me to communicate with clarity to you that being a Ph. D. Candidate accords me no power whatsoever within this institution. It is definitely not a position of prestige. My position is really humble: endless reading, laboratory experiments at any and all hours of the day or night, the pursuit of the interests of my academic committee. My only possessions of any value are my somewhat more than 25 boxes of books, and my netbook.

I am the TA for a class called Knowledge, Ethics & the Environment. As a product of their readings of environmental philosophy, some of the students spontaneously moved to attend the Ottawa Action against the Tar Sands, organized by Greenpeace, the Council of Canadians, and the Indigenous Environmental Network, et al. This class is an ethics class, and I felt like it was my moral duty to accompany the students.

Some of the undergraduates chose to bike all the way from Ste Anne de Bellevue to Ottawa. Some rode in a van. I heard that Concordia was organizing to go, and I figured they would have put in place a crack legal team, and since I do not currently have a bicycle with me here in Quebec, I opted to try to get a seat on their bus. At various times in the past, I have been bailed out of detention by the Concordia Student's Union and others affiliated with their university. So, if I was to be arrested in Ottawa, I trusted Concordian lawyers to be on my side. However, Concordia did not have its own bus, but shared one with Dawson College. So, I traveled to Ottawa on the Dawson College bus, with some members of Concordia's Sustainability Club, and a small crowd of College young people. We all received names and numbers for legal defense, in case of that eventuality.

Greenpeace organizes many actions – every day – all over the world. And it is the law of creative and scientific geniuses, like our friends at Greenpeace, that quantity precludes quality. That is, they must produce a great number of actions in order for a small percent of their work to hit the right note at exactly the right time, to instigate real change. I realize not all actions are perfect. In fact, most actions need not be perfect or even acceptable to anybody, because there are those shining moments when fate and destiny and long hours of organizing produce real, lasting environmental transformation.

We saw a lot of police at the Parliament building, but not an insurmountable force, given our superior numbers. The policemen – and for the most part the women, too - were tall and large. I looked for the usual policemen atop the buildings surrounding the Parliament, and they were there, but I don't suppose they could be snipers. In any case, the police had erected a low fence before the steps approaching the Parliament, and a couple of other fences on the steps and around the Parliament itself. At this point I should be clear about what I believe. I believe that the Parliament is OUR building. I believe it is a public space. I believe it belongs as an edifice to the people of Canada. It is literally ours. I believe sitting on the Parliament lawn is not an offense. I believe that any petty act of vandalism to the Parliament, and even any act of violence that could have occurred there, would necessarily pale in comparison - and pale absolutely in comparison - to the most grave act of vandalism in the world – quite possibly the most grievous act of vandalism and violence in the history of the whole world – which is the clearcutting of the Boreal forest, the open surface extraction of vast quantities of bitumen, and the release of THE CARBON BOMB into our atmosphere, thereby eliminating forever our habitable climate.

In any case, both of those fences could have been scaled by many of the protestors. They could have been dismantled by the crowd. We were so many and so capable that we could have really quite easily penetrated the Parliament's defenses and put our demands directly before the trembling government clerks inside.

I could say the protestors approached the Parliament, but that simply was not the case, owing to the many fences. The best that could be done, under the circumstances of really very peaceful civil disobedience, was for them to cross the first small fence. There, they sat on the lawn, on the other side, uniformly not facing the police. One by one they were “processed.” The protestors were asked to produce ID, they were handcuffed with white plastic ties, which I know to be excruciatingly uncomfortable when worn for many hours, tight. They were taken away. As they were not facing the police, they could not see their self-satisfied and frankly stupid policeman smiles. Those twinkling eyes. Those knowing nods to one another. It was pretty clear that, in the eyes of the Ottawa police, all the protestors were just foolishly idealistic people, merely naughty, but at least fulfilling their quota of necessary arrests for this year. New couples of officers processed each activist, so they each could get a part of the action.

Only one of our chants was provocative. With it, as it occasionally arose, we challenged the police and asked them which side they were on. The police did not get the message. There was no Arab Spring here, no changing of sides on their part, at all.

I started asking the police to not arrest people. Clearly and necessarily loudly I said “Don't arrest this next one! You don't have to! It's not illegal to sit on the Parliament lawn! This space belongs to the people of Canada!” And I was immediately told to be quiet by one of the sitting protestors. She told me I was not being a good ally. This amazed me. She wanted me to let her be arrested, processed, and her life to be reduced to such as ours are in the surveillance state. She wanted me to stand by as “our” police bent the law and arrested her fellow sitters for literally doing nothing.

Furthermore, a Greenpeace crowd control officer intercepted me and also told me to be quiet. They didn't want the situation to escalate. I joked with her that, as a McGill employee, I wasn't used to being told what to do. I really meant that as a little joke. As a Ph. D. student I am always being told what to do. Unfortunately, she took it completely seriously. I let it slide, and that was a mistake because she continued to think I had been serious. I tried to explain to her that nothing could come of this action if we couldn't get the police to stop arresting people. I began to summon my comprehensive academic knowledge on the history of nonviolent direct action, but Tantoo Cardinal also told me to be quiet. They collectively very clearly conveyed to me the message that they didn't want anything to come from this action today. They weren't seriously looking for any change in government policy. As such it was not so much a symbolic action as merely symbolic. It was about people sitting on the lawn getting arrested for no good reason at all. Greenpeace basically hand-delivered more than a hundred arrests to the Ottawa police. God Damn, I hope the gift will be reciprocated!

On the long bus ride home, one of the Dawson College students observed that the only way for environmental change to be effected in Canada would be for the police to decide to take the side of the protestors. “Like they did in Egypt.” He explained. Others tentatively agreed that perhaps an NDP majority would be effective as well.

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