Friday, November 06, 2009

If you want to fight back, make it effective

I find myself thinking about protest a lot these days, mostly because of the ill-considered social cuts going on in B.C. right now.
It’s really the only form of democratic action we have in between elections, and a proven tool. When the public “blowback” is intense enough, as Housing Minister Rich Coleman might say, governments tend to change their minds.
But last week’s Olympic torch dustup reminds us that there’s protest, and then there’s effective protest. Those of us who want real change had best keep that in mind.
I mean no disrespect to those who protested the torch relay last Friday. The majority were there for all the right reasons. I certainly share their pain over a $6 billion party being thrown next February even while growing numbers of vulnerable British Columbians lose the programs and services that help them cope.
Still, little is gained when the only thing your protest accomplishes is to frustrate and sadden the people who didn’t get to carry the torch because you blocked the route. The media stories over whether it was protesters or undercover police who threw marbles under the police horses’ hooves didn’t help. Protest is a powerful tool, but less so when it alienates potential supporters.
The environmental movement has had remarkable success with protest. The Clayoquot protests of the early 1990s stand as great case studies of effective action for anyone wondering how it’s done.
The point of conflict at that time was a provincial plan to log the old-growth forests of Clayoquot Sound, on the Island’s west coast. We’d been logging coastal forests flat in B.C. for decades by that point, but a new environmental consciousness had started us questioning the prevailing wisdom that every B.C. tree was there for us to log.
The line in the sand turned out to be Clayoquot Sound. One summer day in 1993, almost 800 average British Columbians turned up on a logging road in the middle of nowhere, and stood down the logging trucks.
They got arrested by the dozens and went to jail - regular people, looking earnest in their Goretex jackets and Tilley hats as police led them away. Average folks, including grandmas and office-worker types, went to jail for the love of a forest that a lot of them probably hadn’t even heard of a year or two earlier.
And wouldn’t you know it, B.C. forest policy started to change. It wasn’t all love and flowers from that point on or anything like that, but the Clayoquot protests did indeed change the course of B.C. history.
So I flash back to Clayoquot whenever I need a reminder about how you go about getting the government’s complete attention.
First - and this is a big one - the Clayoquot protest had timing. British Columbians didn’t have much of an interest in environmental issues until the late 1980s, but we’d come a long way by the time Clayoquot was an issue. We knew enough to have an informed opinion on the subject, and to resist government’s usual attempts to pat us on the head while doing whatever it felt like doing.
Lesson No. 1, then: Make sure there’s sufficient public awareness out there of what you’re protesting about. Government responds only when they sense a major groundswell of opposition to their plans. If your issue isn’t yet well-known enough to elicit that groundswell (parents of autistic children losing services, take note), then doing something about that is your first task.
The Clayoquot protest also had a charismatic leader in Tseporah Berman and other home-grown environmentalists, and celebrity support from the likes of the late Robert Kennedy Jr. It had smooth-talking, well-informed spokespeople to disseminate its messages, but also slightly crazy protesters on the front line doing dangerous things like chaining themselves to logging trucks - guaranteed to draw the news crews.
It also had economic power, which perhaps more than anything explains why social protest has not been able to get off the ground in B.C. despite more than 10 years of ruinous policy. When the logging trucks didn’t roll, somebody somewhere didn’t get paid. That made all the difference to getting government’s attention.
We who toil for causes where the economic impact isn’t as instantly apparent need to figure that one out. History tells us that economic disruption matters much more than “heart” in changing the course of social policy. Protest works when it hits government and the private sector in the pocketbook.
As for last week’s Olympic torch protest, it will be a brief blip in history that most people will remember as a dispute over marbles. Whatever your issue might be, learn from Clayoquot and do it right.

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