My first demonstration was at age of five. On the shoulder of my aunt and then my uncle, mini-me, with about 40,000 other people, chanting, screaming, singing. An open air rally at sunset. At one point, a few thousand people, me on shoulders included, suddenly marched and drove out on to the streets circling neighbourhoods in the city for hours. I remember getting home, my voice hoarse, my mom feeding me warm milk and me being so excited that I couldn't sleep all night.
After years of being in protests and demonstrations, that excitement that comes from being an active part in something larger is rare, and I miss it sorely.
Last Tuesday, a protest was called on facebook in Toronto in solidarity with the Quebec student -- some say social -- strike. Two hundred people showed up, but the person who had set up the protest event page was nowhere to be seen. I was approached by a few organizers in the city and asked me to MC. A speech line up of the usual suspects had been developed, a route decided and I was told to get it going. A part of me felt like we needed something different and I suggested instead an assembly process.
People gathered unsure about what to do. The first few speakers made the usual rally speeches, but then people started throwing out stops along the route where the march should go. Suddenly the crowd that had gathered to hear speeches, turned into individuals with voices and opinions. A few stops were voted on, one blocked. Not exactly democratic but at least involving people.
The march started and it was beautiful. The front line was fluid and shifting. Over and over again the harried police officers would try and block "the front" but people would just walk past them. We were like water, flowing through the cracks. Running up and down the march, I could see that everyone was watchful, their eyes on the police, on the road. People were looking around, seeing who they were with, and forming small groupings with friends and allies, making decisions together. We did a sit-in in a major intersection without a problem and when some people thought we should move, others forcefully disagreed.
This whole formation barely lasted a few minutes. Soon there was a front line, a banner, someone pacing, and someone directing people on the megaphone. The police had us lined up on one side of the street and were on a regular march pace. At one point, we stopped outside Police HQ, a stop that had not even been discussed. Rather than returning to the collectively decision, I led a mic-check, a tired repetition of the same old protesters-police harangue.
The energy in the march noticeably shifted. Now people were simply following the front, one step in front of another. When we stopped at intersections, people would look around and wonder why. The alertness of the march dissipated. Our militant chants not withstanding, we were another allowed markers of dissent that allows neoliberal capitalism to release steam without blowing up.
Now, don't get me wrong, it was a powerful action. A lot of people for an event organized on facebook and in the middle of a work day. See this video for yourself.
But what I am after is that little spark of freedom that is often extinguished in our hyper planned demonstrations. We have marshals, pacers, decision makers, scouts and runners. We have mass produced signs and a sound truck leading the way. We have carefully thought out call outs and stops, and inspiring speakers who have honed their public speaking skills over years of practice. Those are important and necessary, but I am beginning to wonder, have we lost something in this process?
The Occupy movement, the M15 movement. the 2008 actions in Greece, and mass organizing in Egypt during the uprising all had one thing in common: democratic assemblies leading to actions where each person is part of a bigger whole. Or at least an attempt at them.
These actions are not "spontaneous" but "organic", with people making decisions together, either verbally or just by looking at each other.
Organic actions like the Casserole Night in Canada today are not easy, and people make awful mistakes. Many of these actions aren't accessible. People who cannot move at the pace set by a few, are left behind. This is a flaw in communication and in understanding and needs to be fixed.
Within them is also the possibility of power that is simply absent in more controlled demonstrations. Volatility allows for creativity. It creates a sense of ownership and participation which makes people want to take to the street night after night after night. It creates safety, so that there are no identifiable leaders. It actually allows for the taking over of public space and that is the whole point isn't it.
Volatility is a shift in the ways we interact with each other not necessarily an escalation in militancy. It is a move away from going into protests where decisions are pre-made and going in to demonstrations to develop our own actions together.
Now don't get me wrong, I've organized dozens of protests and demonstrations that have been extremely thought through, roles assigned, and directions set. They have their own value - consistent messaging and maximum safety. They can be extremely democratic because people can participate in decisions around planning in advance, and empower particular decision makers to make calls based on the most amount of information on the ground.
Unfortunately this is not always the case. I've been in dozens of marches where we have self-corralled ourselves, giving up parts of the street. Many actions where marshals have actually done the job of the police. These mass-produced, cookie cutter actions are disheartening, ineffective and also just boring.
The Quebec student strike has immense revolutionary potential. It is also essentially a street movement. A street movement that is based in democratic organizing with creative, spontaneous, mass-actions. Decisions on the street determine decisions in the community and vice versa.
Particularly now that there are assemblies being called in Ontario to mobilize students for a strike, we need to hold strong on to democratic organizing. I think it is time then to (again) carefully start looking at how we behave in protests (and therefore meetings). Too many of us have accustomed to our traditional roles, some as organizers, others as participants. I think, its time to change.
I certainly intend to try starting tonight.
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