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From catapults to guillotines, using props as political theatre is nothing new

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Protest at Queen's Park, April 2019. Photo: Can Pac Swire/Flickr

This year's May Day demonstration in Toronto caught the Ontario premier's attention, but not in the "I'm going too listen to your demands and implement your reforms" kind of way.

A certain prop was present at the demonstration on the lawn of Queen's Park -- a guillotine. Complete with fake blood around the head hole opening. Two people wearing signs accompanied the prop: one that read "No Cuts But This Cut" and another that read "May History Repeat Itself. Chop Chop." Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod claimed that it involved an effigy of Ford being "decapitated" by said guillotine.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford was so threatened by either what the guillotine could do to him or what the guillotine represented politically that he called the cops. Yes, he called in the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP).

"Yesterday went a little too far," Premier Doug Ford said in the legislature the day after the May Day demonstration. "As a matter of fact, it goes way overboard."

He and his cabinet consider the prop guillotine a "credible threat."

"Mass protesters brought a bloodied guillotine to the grounds of Queen's Park, and you know what they did? They beheaded an effigy of the Premier," MPP Lisa MacLeod said on Thursday. "This is disgusting and it is a sick act."

The Conservatives quickly went into overdrive as they criticized the provincial NDP of attending the protest and supporting the guillotine. Two members of the NDP did attend the protest which brought hundreds to Queen's Park to demonstrate against the Ford government's cancellation of the basic income pilot project, for example, which is a broken election promise. But neither were involved in bringing the prop to the Ontario legislature.

Instead of hearing the voices of those who demonstrated to protest autism spectrum funding or the slashing of Ontario's library budget, Ford's government is making much ado of the guillotine -- at the expense of the government and media talking about the real issues that matter to Ontarians.

Ontario's Progressive Conservative Party is actually making money off the incident, using the presence of the guillotine to spearhead its latest fundraising campaign. The most recent donor email had the subject line, "They want to cut off his head."

Using props at demonstrations as political theatre is not something new.

During the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) summit in Quebec City in May of 2001, a large prop made its way up and down the streets of hilly Quebec City.

The political prop was a catapult....a teddy bear catapult, to be exact. It was brought up to the front lines to fire furry stuffed animals at the police. It didn't work. The stuffed animals simply did not have enough weight to effectively fly through the air towards their enemy, but I remember being almost hypnotized.

At that time, prominent anarchist Jaggi Singh, who had had nothing to do with the catapult, was charged with possession of a "dangerous weapon." Singh was held for 17 days before being released. This only added to the impact of the catapult as a satirical weapon, as demonstrators across Quebec City began plugging up police stations attempting to turn in their stuffed furry friends as "violent" offenders.

According to the Beautiful Trouble activist-creative-inspiration webpage, Dave Oswald Mitchell wrote up a case study of the effectiveness of the catapult:

"While the literal target of the airborne teddy bears was the riot police and the politicians behind them, the real target lay outside the fence. Firstly, the action captivated the public imagination with a media spectacle that exposed the absurdity of democratic leaders literally 'besieged' by citizens asking reasonable questions. Secondly, the action engaged other activists with two important messages: first, don't be afraid to confront state power, and second, when you do so, don't lose your sense of humour or lose sight of the broader optics of your actions."

While I'm not sure what steps will be taken at the next anti-Ford demonstration, I will be waiting to see what creative political geniuses have in store for us next.

Krystalline Kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto. A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly into the democratic fray.

Photo: Can Pac Swire/Flickr

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