Sunday, March 30, 2008

A quick guide to Winnipeg protests

I'm a regular reader of David Watson's Waverley West and beyond blog and find it engaging, well-written and a valuable addition to the community. Lately, however, I've been following with some amusement his attempt to uncover some grand scheme behind last week's P3/city budget protest, made notorious by one attendee's ignorant attempt, via a sign, to put Mayor Sam Katz on par with Hitler.

Watson seems desperate to find a smoking gun showing that the provincial NDP or some other political organization organized the protest as part of some larger strategy to take on Katz. Is offensive sign holder Steve Mack an "NDP operative," he asks? Is protest spokesperson Mike Lennon an NDP-paid-for "protest leader"? (oops, he's already scratched that one off the list). Is the fringe Canadian Action Party "involved with the Katz defamation"? What if the "agent provocateur was sent by someone else in City Hall?" Watson also wonders, as he seems to struggle with just why Katz would be hiring people to film the protestors, is the plot "why Sam Katz was having the protestors photographed"? The drama has all of the twists and turns of a good conspiracy theory movie and I'm almost disappointed to see each new lead turn up with, well, nothing surprising.

It's been some time since I've attended any sort of political protest and I wasn't at the one at City Hall, but what happened seems pretty straightforward to me -- along the lines of the many hundreds this city has seen before:

1. For obvious reasons, unions and their allies dislike contracting out, P3s, privatization, and right-wing politicians who support such things.

2. Political demonstrations are not all that effective in swaying public opinion. Unions and other organizations organize protests to communicate with the public and with political leaders when other avenues are limited. If you can elect your people to public office with ease or get what you want through negotiation or simply by asking without having to protest publicly, why would you go to all the trouble?

3. The provincial NDP, especially when in power, does not bother to organize demonstrations as a political strategy because they have other, far more effective avenues for getting things done. If the provincial NDP decided that Katz was a thorn in the province's side (which they do not), they'd use their communications machine to back it up or recruit someone sufficiently high-profile to run against him.

4. No political organization or protest organizer with any brains or experience directs people to compare politicians they dislike to Hitler. How much ground did Katz's political opponents gain after the incident? Absolutely zero. If anything, the incident lost them ground. It's obvious that the sign was not the brainchild of any organization seeking to defame Katz.

5. Rallies against political policies are usually open invitation events held in public spaces. As a result, they may attract all sorts of people, including political organizers, members of any number of major or fringe parties, activists who regularly attend protests on any number of issues, people elected to public office, people who want to be elected to public office, people who have lost or who risk losing a job should proposed political changes pass, people whose philosphical or ideological sympathies are consistent with the protest's objectives, people who like crowds, lonely people, smart people, dumb people, people who are there for the free coffee, etc. For this reason, it seems pretty reasonable that lone individuals attending a protest cannot be said to speak for or represent the protest organizers or the entire collective body of protestors.

6. People attending political protests are motivated enough to take time out of their day and hang out for an hour or two regardless of the weather or other committments they may have. It shouldn't be surprising then that many attendees are dedicated political activists who are also avid participants in the political process in numerous other ways to support a range of causes or organizations.

7. Filming or photographing participants of strikes and political protests is nothing new. It's an extremely well-established and often-used technique throughout Canada and the US and elsewhere for (a) making participants feel "watched" and uncomfortable, so that they'll keep a low and non-militant profile and hopefully stay home next time; (b) discourage bad behaviour, by ensuring that photographic evidence will be available if things get out of hand; and (c) provide beautiful opportunities to shift attention away from the policies being protested to the protestors themselves when, for example, some clown shows up with an inappropriate sign.

8. As much as City Councillor Lazarenko is right to be shocked and offended at the sign one protestor chose to bring, trying to ban or limit protests isn't going to solve anything. Lazarenko, who according to the CBC, feels the city may have grown too lenient over the years in terms of what it will tolerate in a demonstration, is quoted as saying, "It gets to be like a mini-riot. It comes to a point where we lose control. The courtyard is for a peaceful demonstration."

Settle down, councillor; it was a peaceful protest, like one of many that happen in Winnipeg all the time.

Photo: A less-recent protest at City Hall. Depicted is a crowd gathered outside old City Hall, at Main Street and William Avenue, during the Winnipeg general Strike. Visible on the left are the Union Bank of Canada building and Leland Hotel.


David Watson said...

There is a certain Brownian movement to public demonstrations. Protestors often are a random mix of Marxist, Anarchist, Labour, university students, et al. I am glad that you also love a good detective story. Dead ends are part of my self appointed biz. But look at the benefits of all the dead ends. Interesting questions. Why is young NDP NOB (Name on Ballot)Mathieu Allard working for presumed Liberal Dan the Man? Why is there a revolving door in Christine Melnick's offfice for ambitious young pols? Is there really a link between the Kenaston extension and the mythical NAFTA Superhighway after all? You have to separate a lot of chaff to find the kernels. I admit it has been a dusty week.
And hey, thanks for the nod!

Prairie Topiary said...

You're right -- it probably always takes a good number of dead ends to find the interesting nuggets, and there are always a few nuggets tucked away in dark corners.

I think Dan Vandal is a New Democrat. He might have been a Liberal once, but I don't think he is today.