Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Notes on Notes from an Activist

After emerging disenchanted from a cloud of tear gas at his last demo, Ian Ward examines veteran activist Marisa Handler’s perspective on peaceful protest.

The acidic stench of chemical pepper lingers, and I watch between coughing fits as a longhaired, scruffy-looking man in his early thirties imposes himself between the front-line protesters and armour-clad riot police.  Legs crossed, he sits rigidly as military-grade tear gas canisters are launched into the crowd and thrown back by a handful of protesters wearing insulated gloves.  After twenty minutes, the man finally bows his head in pain from the drifting clouds of gas, and watches helplessly as a riot officer surges forward with a shotgun and fires a canister at the pavement in front of him. The canister explodes upon impact and bursts into flames before hitting him squarely in the stomach. A concentrated cloud of neon-green gas oozes out and quickly engulfs him as medics rush in.  Meanwhile, unseen by the police, one particularly tall protester picks up a loose slab of sidewalk, sneaks up to a blind corner and drops his massive block on the police line, now completely hidden by the drifting gas.

I joined the protest at Quebec City’s Sommet des Amériques in 2001 fearing that the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would give multi-national corporations the power to sue countries over trade issues, preventing democratically-elected governments from enacting important environmental and social legislation. Yet despite my deepheld convictions, this was the last major protest I attended.

Eyes swollen from tear gas and frustrated by the brutality I had witnessed, I left Quebec equally disenchanted by the left—in particular, by the lack of cohesion between the various protesting factions.

A sign that read "Don't Eat Babe," featuring a picture of a bright-eyed piglet, served as a glaring reminder that the left was fractured and unwilling to espouse the strong, cohesive stance that I felt was crucial if we were going to influence world leaders. “Why are you here?” a CBC reporter asked a protester.  "Because... capitalism sucks..."

Yet in her first book, Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist, freelance journalist Marisa Handler argues that the global justice movement’s inherent diversity is both an example of direct democracy and the reason for its legendary resilience.  With so many decentralized groups taking part in collective actions, it is next to impossible for police intelligence to infiltrate or prevent protests. 

Handler, although a dedicated social activist, nevertheless loses her faith in the left too at one point.  As a steadfast advocate of non-violent protest, Handler is thoroughly convinced by Martin Luther King’s words, “hate cannot end hate.” And yet, she finds herself losing her cool in a jarring confrontation with a woman delegate at the 2004 Republican National Convention, who calls the protests “silly.” Astounded by the woman’s ignorance, Handler’s anger and loathing surface in a fit of rage.  “Are your kids fighting? Are your kids dying?  she asks. “I’m shouting at her, now,” writes Handler in Loyal to the Sky “for her blinders and her diamonds and her privilege."

Handler struggles with this incident for several months, certain that opposition born of anger and grief only leads to more anger, more grief. Despite the estimated 250,000 demonstrators, not to mention the mainstream momentum of Iraq war opposition, Bush is somehow re-elected. As the American left licks its wounds and regresses, Handler questions the social justice movement’s overall effectiveness, as well as her role in it.  Her own direct-action group dissolves, its members physically and emotionally drained by organizing’s sporadic nature. The independent groups of people rushing to assemble in response to each new war, conference, or emergency, it appears, were stuck in a constant state of reaction, and lacked the strategic framework necessary for long-term change. 

But the clouds lift when Handler meets an organized group of non-violent activists who use a combination of puppetry, theatre, song and dance to protest the School of the Americas, an elite U.S. military facility with a history of training documented assassins and torturers. The group uses dancing-in-the-streets activism—an approach that contrasts strangely with the sense of emergency at most demonstrations. It works.

An emotionally poignant pageant held next to the SOA’s barbed wire fence, where the stories of several torture victims—mostly women and children—are retold, demonstrates the effectiveness of positive protest.  Narrating the pageant with a mix of joy and grief, former El-Salvadorian science professor Carlos Mauricio tells the crowd of 20,000 how he was tortured over nine days for speaking out against government killings.  Puppet dragonflies the size of trees, flowers as big as two people and a mock regiment of soldiers move through the crowd, bringing torture victims’ stories to life. 

“We are seeking to bring the perpetrators to justice, and also to preserve the historic memory of what happened in El-Salvador[…] If it is forgotten, it will be repeated,” Mauricio declares. The walls of a mobile puppet jail suddenly flip over to reveal a museum, birds take flight, drums beat and 20,000 people pick up the chorus.  Meanwhile, Handler gratefully discovers that hatred does not have to be the final outcome of public opposition.  “For anger and grief have their place, but so do joy and celebration, and if they are not present, nothing will grow.”

In Quebec City, I scorned the people singing and dancing more than a kilometer from the security fence that was erected on public property to isolate the world’s delegates from public dissent.  What are you telling them by celebrating, and how will they ever hear you? How can you dance when they’re negotiating three continents’ collective future behind closed doors? At the same time, I wondered who the riot police were beneath their gas masks.  Throwing sidewalk slabs won’t convince them to let us get close enough to speak with the delegates

Solidarity is the act of people from different walks of life joining together to protest an economic system that, as Handler explains, forces four fifths of humanity to serve the remaining fifth's interests. It is ironic that the majority of protesters are young, wealthy, and white, since they don't struggle like the people in whose name they fight. Yet, their struggle is an internal one. It is a gnawing guilt born of an inability to justify their wealth. Far from being idealists, they are reformists who have the courage to swallow their silver spoons and ask their leaders to do the same. Idealists in this scenario are those who are comfortable believing that modern capitalism rewards the people who work the hardest and produce the most. Protesting is a direct way of contesting the fact that we in the West are rich at the expense of those in the South.

Throughout history, bloody revolutions have often failed to create lasting change. However, political action has and can be informed by massive public pressure.  The global environmental movement, for example, has made significant worldwide progress by uniting the passion of small and large grassroots organizations with scientific rigor and, increasingly, mainstream public support.  Widespread and concerted action is proving its worth, and the sheer diversity of voices calling for change has become a heavy load to bear even for the most stubborn politicians. Some people build life-sized puppets, others save money by becoming more efficient, and still others relay news of yet another scientific study, attempting to penetrate the wall of blissful ignorance— and suddenly the issue comes up in casual conversations at dinner, or over a drink. Neither democracy nor the rule of law work flawlessly, but at a minimum, they afford us the right to disagree and be heard.