A Change of Tactics

The very definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a different result.

It’s high-time the student leaders of Québec recognized this fundamental truth.

We’re almost into the third month of 2012’s Maple Spring and nothing has changed, other than public sentiment towards the striking student protesters. To say nothing of the rest of Canada, where the vitriol often reaches into the depths of anti-Francophone racism and hysteria. But one thing at a time, we’ll deal with our federal PR ratings later on.

The talks have broken off because the largest, or at least most visible, most provocative organization CLASSE, was not recognized by the education minister. Bad move on her part. It’s not just that the protest is now a 24-hour kind of affair, but it happens in multiple locations too. It is all-encompassing, and includes a general population of the disenchanted and disenfranchised.

But the violence which has characterized almost every major demonstration, largely as a result of the heavy-handed tactics employed by the SPVM, in addition to the disruptions to traffic and transit, the lost revenues and the bad morale, bad blood, is all starting to pile up like so much unwanted garbage. Because neither the apparent ‘leaders’ in government, nor the legitimate student protest movement, can accomplish anything as long as both sides dig in their heels, the city as a whole suffers. As Charest fails to act, opposition to him will manifest itself in multiple ways. Already, fringe extremist elements have indeed infiltrated the student movement, inasmuch as those generally displeased with the current provincial government, or separatists, or trade-unionists. I sometimes wonder how politically savvy Charest really is, as his inattention and ill-advised stance seems to making a bad problem worse.

Yet, when it comes to the inevitable provincial election, it will not be the students playing king-maker – students don’t generally pull themselves together to get out the vote (and by that I mean actively engage themselves in making sure others vote, and not just exercising their own limited franchise individually). Thus, the decision will be made by a small majority of primarily middle-class and middle-aged Québecois, as it is and seems always to have been. And they support Charest. Some of them are ‘happy’ the police are ‘kicking ass’.

And it’s the police which ultimately wins out. The estimated $3 million in extra costs associated with the student demos will be paid – I can guarantee it – by the tax-payers. These are primarily the same people who will determine who wins the next election. They want well paid cops, and they see police in riot gear as money well spent. There’s every reason for the SPVM to encourage additional violence, additional rioting – it makes sure they get paid, and that’s the bottom line.

So the student movement is going to have to consider some alternative actions if they have any hope of reaching out to this key demographic and effecting a change. But what could they do?

For one, they could exercise far stricter control of rallies, marches and the like. And I mean Malcolm X, early-1960s Nation of Islam in Harlem styled discipline. Perfect manners, a ‘uniform’ of individuals’ Sunday best, rank and file marching etc. It will shock and awe if only for its sheer novelty, and will convey a crucial message: we mean business. Imagine if the striking students wore business attire or their closest approximation – it would be very hard to distinguish ‘dirty hippies’ from ‘respectable citizens’ and it would win hearts and minds too.

For two, information. The most crucial part of any mass public protest is communications, and this student movement sucks at broadcasting the message. The argument is that the mainstream media won’t listen or will manipulate the message is a lazy cop-out, frankly. What’s ironic is that the movement has excellently employed the use of modern mass communications tools to organize their demos, but hasn’t done much to actually reach the public, present a clear and concise case, and win-over public sentiment. I suggest going old-school, really old-school. Hand out pamphlets, newsletters, flyers. Post bills. Build websites and centralize the voice of the movement around it’s most eloquent spokespeople. Again, exercise strict discipline in how and who disseminates the message, but do everything you can to ensure the progressive point of view is ubiquitous and understood by any interested citizen (and remember as well – the majority does not have a university or college education, and the establishment went to school so long ago we have almost nothing in common with them). Yes, this will cost a small amount of money – the leaders, many of who are paid union members, can use their salaries to pay the printing and hosting costs, or else a collection should go around.

And be consistent. Is this not the iPhone generation? A generation of tech-savvy communications specialists hooked up (in most cases since birth) to the greatest self-expression machine of all time? So why is it so hard to get a consistent, clear and concise message across to the general public?

Stop fucking up the transit and traffic system – it’s bad enough as it is. Either get a full police escort for the march and inform people of the route, or don’t do it at all, because it’s pissing people off unnecessarily. I don’t think the smoke-bombers are anything more than wannabe anarchist poseurs, perhaps mere vandals, but either way, attacking the public transit system is just idiotic. We want people using the Métro – remember we still need to save the planet on top of figuring a way out of the tuition increase, right?

It’s time to change the tactics. It’s time the student movement takes a close look at the popular revolutions which have actually succeeded long-term and forget about the populist, and fundamentally lazy and self-destructive methods used up until this point.

If it’s not working today, why expect it to work tomorrow?

It’s time to build a student society – real connection through hard-work, altruism and cooperation. Let our generation turn the tide by doing things differently, and forget the methods which have failed so broadly.

Ultimately, ask not what the movement, our government or our society can do for you, but what you can do for your society – today but most importantly, for tomorrow as well.

6 thoughts on “A Change of Tactics”

  1. Don’t take the whole marching thing too literally. The point was more that the student movement has been remarkable in terms of its ability to mobilize students. I’m asking whether it’s really that much of a stretch for this movement to get even more organized than it is. Having a clear and concise message, and being able to exercise restraint in the face of adversity, is what will define this as a successful grassroots revolution for positive change, as opposed to merely another year of street-theatre.

    Let’s face the hard reality here;

    Public opinion doesn’t support the students. Worse, because there’s been no attempt to broaden the cause to the other provinces, there’s no commonality, no common front. Are the students of Québec truly that different from the rest of Canada? Are we destined always to go it alone?

    Historically, Canada has always worked best when French and English (as an muted analogy for multiculturalism in general terms) work together.

    From the looks of the protesters, it’s hard to determine whether this is a push for a tuition freeze, better future opportunities, the resignation of Jean Charest or another Referendum.

    And as long as the student movement isn’t clear about its goals, every Tom, Dick and Harry out there will piggy-back on what appears to be broad disenchantment. It’s merely an illusion. Like I said, Charest’s approval ratings have gone up, not down, as a result of his refusal to bend.

    He’s not even remotely in charge of the tactics employed by the SPVM, who themselves, couldn’t give a flying fuck about popularity polls.

    See – the student’s are fucked if they can’t get public opinion on their side. I don’t want to see the potential of this movement fizzle because the student’s don’t do the simplest and most straightforward protest maneuver – reaching out and being sympathetic to the mass.

    I think the SPVM may have provoked violence in the past, but there’s a violent element which has managed to make its way into what ought to be a fully non-violent protest movement. What I find odd is how Occupy Montréal was non-violent, and yet the last twelve weeks have been marred with violence – consistently.

    If the movement has the discipline to get students out into the streets, could they not also train a small group of people to neutralize the threat of overly-aggressive provocateurs? The unions can. Other protest movements can (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement in the States in the `60s). So why can’t we? Why is it that we’re suddenly helpless when it comes to policing ourselves?

    Again, I return to the example set by our Black brothers and sisters down South during the 1950s and 1960s. They were viciously attacked by the police, on a regular basis. Some were killed outright. They were constantly terrorized, constantly belittled, constantly up against hopeless odds.

    And they won, against those odds, through discipline and restraint. There is no sound quite as deafening than the silence manifested by those who stand distinguished and dignified in their moment of greatest peril. The students of the Printemps Erable have no such foes, no such threats, so why do we give them a pass to be ineffective, contrarian and thoroughly self-interested?

    If the students can’t show why their cause is just, then their cause is lost. Complaining about ‘the Man’ keeping you down won’t accomplish anything.

  2. Taylor,

    I enjoy your blog and I consider you a reasonable human being. I appreciate the fact that you’ve been able to criticize some elements of the movements without the same old rhetoric about how the students are always wrong and how they should work harder, etc.

    However, I think you’re asking for the impossible. You’re suggestions would work well but I cannot even begin to imagine how rank and file marching could be executed in public streets. We are not soldiers. (It would be awesome though, I’ll give you that)

    I do like the suggestion about getting the word out to the people better. Pamphlets and such would be a great idea. The only major problem with this is that (and I say this from some personal experience) the public is very hard at listening. I feel as though the English media has been terribly biased against this movement and many of those uninformed are eating it up.

    I’m always up for an interesting debate but most of the time when I’ve discussed this issue with people who were against the students have used arguments that are either completely and utterly invalid or unrelated to the issue at hand. It has become ridiculous to me.

  3. Tax-payers & students are not distinct groups. Students are taxed.

    Education is a liberal society’s ‘great equalizer’. Canada is a liberal society. It is liberal and progressive largely because of the Quebec fact. In Quebec, ultra-inexpensive, public post-secondary education is a part of our cultural heritage and part of our society – it has been this way since the beginning of the Quiet Revolution in the early 1960s. Nearly-free post-secondary education allows poor people to raise their social status by allowing them to apply their minds in the pursuit of knowledge, and subsequently, better opportunities. You don’t need capital, you don’t need to be part of an exclusive club – you just have to have the will to learn and apply yourself.

    But in order for this system to work properly, you can’t afford to hand out corporate compensation rates to deans and chancellors, you can’t run universities as corporations or companies, and you need to ensure that there’s no gov’t waste in terms of how tax-dollars are spent, generally.

    There are independent countries all around the Globe, though many are in Europe, which provide ultra-low-cost and in some cases free post-secondary education for any citizen. These countries have economies roughly similar to that of Quebec, and Quebec has the added benefit of federal transfers and a variety of less well-defined yet equally economically and developmentally stimulating factors which should be making it even simpler to run a free post-secondary system.

    How is countries both larger and smaller than our province can do this, and yet we’re somehow incapable?

    And why should the present students of Quebec continue to deal with the failures of others?

    The students’ have the upper hand and so their message to Charest, inasmuch as the Quebec public, should be very clear: clean house, scrap the proposed raise, find funding by cutting the government fat, and lead by example. Otherwise, they can promise Montreal will have to deal with massive public disruptions and protest throughout the economically-vital summer tourism season.

    And that’s no good for anyone.

    But I agree, they do need to establish a very clear message and bray it incessantly at the cameras like the Tories do in the House of Commons. People seem to have short attention spans these days.

  4. Taylor, what would be nice is if the students would articulate “why” they need tuitions kept down. If there is a reasonable argument to be made for this, I think that the public (who is being asked to pay for this) should be made aware of it.

    If all the students are saying is “we can’t afford the increase” then it opens to door to taxpayers/voters making the same argument (i.e. we can’t afford NOT to raise tuitions), doesn’t it?

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