Of Catapults and Teddy Bears

If you go up to the wall today, you're in for a big surprise.

The teddy-bear-hurling catapult at the demonstrations in Quebec City may turn out to be the most effective piece of street theatre in protest history. Designed to mock the wall separating leaders at the Summit of the Americas from the people protesting their policies, the catapult has accomplished much more. It has exposed the effort of over-zealous police and the Crown to manipulate the law to punish a charismatic protester. And it may very well lead to a new unity on the Left.

The Medieval Bloc, (now revealed as the Deconstructionist Institute for Surreal Topology), surrounded the teddy-bearing catapult the entire ten kilometres from Laval University to the perimeter. Dressed with pots on their heads, medieval warriors hurled stuffed animals into the crowd every few minutes. Ten "slaves" pulled the machine along with ropes. Made of rough-hewn wood, the catapult was an exact replica of the real thing, with one exception. It had a spring to make sure it could not hurl anything with a force stronger than the human arm.

The group, from Edmonton, had built the catapult. I organized the financing for it. It seemed to be a creative and funny way to protest a medieval tactic on the part of the state - building a wall against the people.

I was with the Medieval Bloc until the march stopped. That's when I went up to the perimeter to see what was happening. Mesmerized by the ease with which the fence went down, I missed the slow but steady approach of the catapult to the front. Then whack, one bear was hurled on to police lines. Then another. With the first volley of tear gas, a pink dragon flew over the police. One protester said that he thought he was hallucinating when he saw it.

Mission accomplished, the medieval warriors withdrew, disabling the catapult so it could not be used any more. That's when the police got it.

In court on Monday, Paul Smith testified that police seized the device from him after the march. Police were never interested in who actually built and used the catapult; they just wanted to use it against Jaggi Singh. They charged him with possession of a weapon.

At Mr. Singh's first bail hearing in Quebec City, I had testified that the catapult was only a theatre prop. I said that Mr. Singh had nothing to do with it. These statements were not challenged by the Crown or the judge. Yet the judge decided to keep Mr. Singh in jail anyway.

Despite his claims to the contrary, Jaggi Singh is a leader and an excellent organizer. He has crisscrossed North America, building support for the protest against the Summit of the Americas.

It was his group, called the CLAC (Anti-capitalist Convergence), that organized a welcome centre for young protesters not affiliated with groups. They, along with similar Quebec City groups, pulled together a collective kitchen to feed people and helped organize billeting. Because his group refused to renounce violence in advance, they were excluded from the Convergence Table, which was in charge of organizing the People's Summit and the march that took place on Saturday.

Police targeted Mr. Singh, not because he committed any criminal act, but because he helped organized a demonstration that turned violent. The same thing happened last June to John Clarke, a leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. The difference is that, this time, they tried to keep Mr. Singh behind bars on an obviously bogus charge.

Another reason for the state action could be that officials thought that Mr. Singh was isolated from the traditional Left and would not get support. They thought wrong.

Fortunately, support for civil rights is still strong. An open letter asked serious questions about Mr. Singh's incarceration and demanded a judicial review. It was signed by key union leaders, including Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti; respected Quebec social-movement activists like Francoise Davide of the Quebec Women's Federation; and civil rights proponents like Stephen Lewis.

Within three days, more than 6,000 others signed a petition on rabble.ca demanding Jaggi Singh's release.

Yesterday, a new judge released Mr. Singh, saying the activist is non-violent and that his detention would only discredit the administration of justice.

At Quebec City, there were serious divisions about tactics and strategy. Many of the organizers of the People's Summit were angry that direct-action groups chose Friday for their assault on the perimeter inevitably taking attention away from their massive march planned for Saturday. But - in light of the tear gas, in light of the unjust incarceration of Mr. Singh - even those who were most angry with him and his group mobilized to get him out of jail.

The lesson? A united movement that respects and debates a diversity of tactics is much stronger than one that splits because of these differences. The teddy bears, which have always organized to include every bear that ever there was, would be proud.

Originally published by cbc.ca. Judy Rebick's column appears every other week.

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