Last winter, anti-war demos swept across the world like an international flame to anti-American tinder. In Toronto, it seemed everyone was marching against the war, even the Raeleins. Different communities, thousands of people in major cities across the world, came together in the hope that we could stop the war, though for Canadians, many seemed happy to settle with keeping our country out of the conflict as we froze in the cold.
Over all, the demonstrations were big and mainstream and tried to please everybody at once. They were the kind of marches I could have brought my Mom to, if she would have come, without the usual you'd better not call me from prison! (Not jail, but prison, where she thinks delinquents belong).
From that anti-war experience, organizing on Ryerson campus and attending Toronto general meetings, here are the five things I've learned.
Propaganda should be shared (but not just among your friends)
Call it over-propagandization. Call it stuffed-pocket syndrome. Call it what you will, but every activist knows the feeling of coming home after a demo with their pockets crammed full of leaflets and fliers: event announcements, facts and figures, political manifestos, witty political cartoons. It seems every activist must be married to a word processor or photocopier. In fact, political groups even have their own fonts. I can tell an International Socialist (I.S.) flier or poster a mile away.
Environmental paper-waste objection aside, the one thing that has always irked me is why activists go to the trouble of printing 1,000 fliers just to hand them out to other activists! We're all hooked up through the Internet, reading rabble.ca, http://www.indymedia.org/or/index.shtml / target="_blank">Indymedia (IMC), and Infoshop.
We're already in the know, so why not pass out the information to those who don't already know, like the people walking by your demo. Sure, they can see the crowd and read the witty placards, but after you've piqued their interest, they walk away. Why not hand them something that helps them remember why you bothered to rally on a cold Saturday afternoon in the first place.
Sure, maybe eight out of ten bystanders will crumple the paper up, but it's unfair to discount the two who will read it and maybe check out the website for more information. Why are we being so cliquish, anyhow? If we're supposed to be representing the masses, why are we so afraid to talk to them?
Watch your language
With every cause, there are at least four different ready chants, complete with the silly rhymes and blunt message: Hey hey, ho ho, this-or-that has got to go.
This is fine boring and repetitive, but fine. What's not fine is saying End the war! in one breath and Down with Israel! in the next. The left has been criticized for being anti-Semitic and when you've got a crowd of people chanting such a slogan, it's no wonder.
Being anti-war isn't an all-embracing movement. Yes, it's good to be inclusive, and surely if a band of Neo-Nazis were to show up at a demo shouting that bullets are being wasted on Iraqis in favour of another target, there would be outrage. So why let more subtle forms of hate become acceptable under the pretext: Well, at least theyâe(TM)re anti-war.
Anti-war/Pro-hate is an unacceptable combo and when such messages, against any group, do arise, they should be dealt with immediately. Sure, it's uncomfortable and people would rather be in confrontation with the state than with each other, but it needs to be done, stamped out, or what kind of better, more peaceful world are we trying to create?
A marshal-by-any-other-name is still going to get in your face
Crowd marshals have been a point of conflict within the activist community for at least three years, ever since these crowd facilitators or mock cops began appearing at demos. Whether they are getting people back onto the sidewalk, giving directions, negotiating with the police or yelling at you to put the tomato down, it always looks as if they're more on the police's side than on yours. It's inevitable, straddling a thin line like the ever-debatable role of the middle class in revolution: whose side are they really on?
Ours! I've been told 100 times by five different prominent activists while other more grassroots types have said the opposite. But it's hard to feel as if they're on your side when they're repeating the exact same orders the police just gave them. Get back on the sidewalk or you'll get arrested! By whom, the marshal or the cop?
Now, in theory, marshals make sense. Who else can help people give way to an ambulance or know the march route, but too often I've seen this neutral helpful role being corrupted by the power hungry in some machismo show of testosterone, ordering people off the street even when they had a permit to be there.
My concern is less with the notion of crowd control (though it would be best if everyone was empowered with the logistical information about the route and trusted to make good decisions!) and more with the selection process and their training. Who exactly are these marshals who show up, how are they trained and why do they think that the demo will degenerate into bedlam if they donâe(TM)t tight-fist control people's movements? For once, it would be nice to be trusted; that people wonâe(TM)t act reckless the minute there's no leader or authority figure around. It's enough that we have to keep an eye on the police.
Yes, I've been guilty of this myself, I'll be the first to admit. Shouting out at the end of any political debate: and that's why you should join the [insert name here]! or poking fun at fringe lefty groups. While it makes for good drunken humour, it's not helpful to be divisive or make grande public condemnations of other's tactics lest you face a fierce public backlash Ã¡ la Josh Matlow .
Let's face it, with an issue as big as anti-war, you're going to have to work with a lot of different groups: Solidarity means sometimes working with people you don't like. It means communists working with anarchists; Anglicans marching beside kids who listen to Bad Religion; Iraqis chanting with Iranians; intergenerational, cross-cultural, poly-political. Not unity, but harmony. Doesn't diversity rock?
This doesn't mean conformity, or zombie-like adherence to one ideal or message, just a mutual understanding that people have rallied together in good faith against war, hatred, violence and suffering.
Activism means more than just marching to the consulate
Last winter, as the bombs fell, being anti-war became a weekly thing, or a weekend thing, I should say; a ritual which would come to be known by some as the Saturday stroll down to the U.S. consulate.
This was about the time that some activists started seriously questioning tactics, the idea that maybe we should be doing something more than just angry marching? Would mass mobilizations really succeed in stopping anything? Instead of just targeting the U.S. consulate, should demonstrators also be focusing on the issue of oil consumption by blockading intersections, protesting outside gas stations, leafleting motorists and looking at our own lives and trying to cut back? Anything that would break people free of the mass marching routine that seemed to have gripped every activist in Toronto. What about going into communities, tackling the racist backlash kicked up against Muslims? These were great ideas, though they didn't really get off the ground, but the questions and debate have continued, even now. I'm glad they have. There is much more to being an activist than angry marching alone.
That said, part of me likes to think that our mass marches, especially the February 15 march that drew 80,000 people in Toronto, had something to do with stopping our country's involvement in the Iraqi war, but then again, all the angry marching we did didn't keep us out of Afghanistan, so I'm not so sure. And it didn't stop the U.S. from attacking Iraq. It sure beat doing nothing, though. But on the other hand, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.