Last night, Michelle and I were walking down Burrard when the intersection with West Georgia became blocked by a noisy group of about 200 anti-Olympic Games protesters. Cool, right? Many were wearing scarves over their faces with hoodies and parachute pants, and of course they were taunting police, posing for photographs, and chanting indecipherable slogans. In other words, they were generally making asses of themselves and not at all advancing their cause, which is a good one. They were heavily shadowed by at least a dozen police officers, some with video cameras and all wearing that contrived, “aggressive” posture that tends to make you question why anyone would ever want to be a police officer when they train you to act like total dickheads. We followed the protest as it marched in Orc fashion around the Hotel Vancouver, buzzed all the way by helicopters above and lit by the mobile red and blue lights of mustachioed CHIP stand-ins below.
I couldn’t help but think I was witnessing the worst protest I’d ever seen. I’ve seen peaceful ones, extraordinarily violent ones, and even been arrested for “inciting a riot” before. This was pure lameness, as if it’d been conceived by Tweedle Dee and executed by Tweedle Dumb. While I wholly get their motivation (the Olympics are a big waste of resources when so many of Vancouver’s most pressing problems remain decidedly unsorted), they were doing it all wrong.
Here are a few unsolicited suggestions:
Choose The Moment Wisely
If one of the paramount goals of this protest was to make people aware of a set of issues, then picking a moment of the day when visibility is at its highest is just common sense. Either morning or afternoon rush hours would be the best bets. Huge numbers of people are on the streets and the high volume of traffic just begs to be targeted with choke points. Done right, this city could be paralysed by 200 people with 10 people blocking 20 intersections simultaneously. This seemed an entirely amateurish affair designed to work around the schedules of those doing the protesting. Holding it on a cold Thursday night during TV prime time is like yelling at the moon and expecting a response (quite possibly the worst time of the day on the worst day of the week during the worst month of the year). I understand that it was timed with the one year countdown to the Games, but choosing fealty to the exactitude of “time” over seizing the perfect moment was a bad decision, and just the tip of the retarded iceberg these protesters were floating on.
Stay On Message
On the messaging front, it was made abundantly and repeatedly clear that these protesters had invested very little in their efforts beyond a few weak placards, banners seldom held aloft, and a megaphone given to a person whose artistry with the English language was moronic at best (and that’s being kind). We followed the throng for half an hour and not once were we offered a pamphlet, an argument, or a web address where their passions could be given the context it needed to translate to anyone who might be interested in what they were doing. Protests need an oratorical component to drive the engine of malcontent. They don’t require a Ghandi, a Mandela, or a Martin Luther King, but when you take oratory of out the “issue” equation you lose the one thing that might sway the opinions of those whose day you’re disrupting. If messaging isn’t carefully considered – and it really wasn’t in this case – it’s just a gathering of the Mutual Admiration Society, a masturbatory exercise in “hey, get a load of me.” Fucking pointless.
Don’t Dress The Part
The great poetic truth of 21st century anarchism is that…save for other anarchists…no one gives a shit about what they think or say. Why is that? It starts with personal and associative branding evolving as convenient, pigeon-holing markers for those living in complex, urban societies. Today, if person A is wearing a tailored suit and freshly cut hair, there is a good chance that person B with the dreadlocks, camo pants, torch, and black kerchief over their face isn’t going to feel that much in the way of a personal connection. The phenomenon works both ways. It isn’t a Capulet v. Montague thing, and it has nothing to do with archaic notions of “class”. If a particularly deft person was leading the protests, it would have everything to do with accruing results (the conversion of those who might disagree). Enter cognitive dissonance: Person A might absolutely appreciate and respect the ideas of Person B, but when they see disorganisation, sloppiness, and teens kitted as if they’d raided the Anarchist Accessories store, they tend to turn away and yawn. It’s a common enough indictment in the modern era, so I’m surprised protesters seldom take notice and advantage.
Use The Media
Also yawning were the media, who have turned covering protests like last night’s fiasco into a formulaic art form by quoting the one person in the crowd who seems the least lucid, the least capable of stringing coherent sentences together, and the least apt at making themselves look like anything other than a quadrupedal collection of dirt and fungus. That’s not a judgment call, only an observation. Have you ever seen a segment on a “Legalise Marijuana” protest that didn’t include a pull quote from a guy who was so baked that he thought the camera was a lollipop? It’s how the mainstream rolls. They deal in extremes, not nuance. So why not foist them on their own petard? To give you an example of the possibilities, just about every news organisation in the world intently covered a riot in Pakistan back in the Spring of 2007. Were they jihadists raising their shoes above their heads and smacking effigies of George Bush? No. Those sorts of protests are too commonplace to be remotely interesting anymore. What drove the incident to the front page above the fold was that these protesters wore suits as they battled the police. It was Person A versus Person A, and that makes for fantastic optics as far as segment producers and editors are concerned. If it was a choice between protesters in suits and protesters dressed as hooligans, who do you think they’d want to cover? Bottom line: if you want to be noticed, lose the kerchiefs, the gasmasks, the camo gear, and the near-absolute absence of coherence. Otherwise, you are just begging to be ignored. I’m not saying suits are a must, but the couture on display last night suggested the group was hell bent on being stereotyped rather than taken seriously. Was there any media coverage of this protest? I don’t think so. Does that mean the media are in cahoots with a cabal of big bad corporations? Maybe if you’re wearing a hat made of tinfoil. The reason why the media tend to ignore protests like last night’s is because a cat up a tree is infinitely more interesting than 200 people not making much in the way of sense.
Find Competent Leadership
If the point of these protests is to raise awareness of poverty in Vancouver, then these folks are failing miserably. And fail they shouldn’t. Such an issue is too important to be left to people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. When the only thing passersby are being made aware of is a total lack of discipline and message, fire the imbeciles in charge and tighten the ranks. Though they may only be volunteers, they need to go. If someone shows up at your protest looking like a goon, tell them to beat it. If someone starts blabbering off message to a reporter while wearing a gas mask and the Rage Against The Machine t-shirt their mom bought them, discreetly kick them in the knee caps. If someone says meet up at 3am and we’ll start marching along the seawall, tell them to grow a fucking brain.
To protest against one’s own government is a noble thing, and not only should it be done with a measure of nobility, it should be done wisely. What I saw last night was nothing of the sort, and it’s time these good folks went back to the drawing board. Whatever passion and fire they had was lost, and the people whose minds needed the most convincing just shook their heads and walked past.
Andrew Morrison is a west coast boy who studied history and classics at the Universities of Cape Town and Toronto after an adolescence spent riding skateboards and working in restaurants. He is the editor of Scout Magazine, the weekly food and restaurant columnist for the Westender newspaper, a contributor to Vancouver and Western Living magazines, and a proud board member of the Chef’s Table Society of BC. He lives and works by the beach in Vancouver.