Defining victory in activism, from #BLMTOtentcity to the Site C hunger strike

Image description: A split shot. On the left is hunger striker Kristen Henry at the protest encampment outside of B.C. Hydro; behind her are several tarps, tents, and signs. On the right is the Black Lives Matter Toronto "tent" city outside of TPS headquarters; a large crowd is gathered on the sidewalk, with several colourful tarps in the foreground, apparently covering piles of supplies. (Image credits: Facebook/Youtube)

Image description: A split shot. On the left is hunger striker Kristen Henry at the protest encampment outside of B.C. Hydro; behind her are several tarps, tents, and signs. On the right is the Black Lives Matter Toronto “tent” city outside of TPS headquarters; a large crowd is gathered on the sidewalk, with several colourful tarps in the foreground, apparently covering piles of supplies. (Image credits: Facebook/Flipboard)

Often, activists are met with derisive questions from opponents as to what, exactly, they think they’re trying to accomplish by (blocking off traffic/marching and chanting/occupying space/working to rule/etc). The implication often seems to be that important decisions about the division of power and resources aren’t made in the streets, but in the halls of power, and that by taking up public space and making a ruckus, advocates are misdirecting their energy and doing nothing to forward their causes. (Often, of course, these criticisms are coupled with disdain for those very causes.)

In recent years, we’ve heard these criticisms mounted, with varying degrees of self-righteous intensity, against the massive anti-capitalist demonstrations at the Toronto G-20 in 2010, against the Occupy movement and its encampments in 2011, against the Québec student strike in 2012, against Idle No More’s road and rail barricades in 2013, and against anti-pipeline demonstrations for quite some time. We’re once again hearing this rhetoric deployed against the two most high-profile protest encampments since Occupy, the Black Lives Matter Toronto tent city (#BLMTOtentcity) at Toronto Police Services’ headquarters and the protest camp/hunger strike against Site C taking place on B.C. Hydro’s doorstep in Vancouver.

To listen to the contemporary critics of each of these movements, all were wastes of time, orchestrated by “professional activists” and attended by the ignorant unemployed, employing needlessly confrontational and counter-productive tactics which would ultimately prove self-defeating.

But the simple truth is that each of these movements did have accomplishments. Some were more successful than others, to be sure, but each of them was able to boast some major achievements.

That being said, not all are remembered as successes. The Québec student strike is the clear winner here; though their goal of a tuition freeze was not achieved, they brought down a provincial government and won a massive reduction in the proposed increases to tuition. And what’s more, the fact of their victory isn’t widely disputed. Just about any observer would concede that the students came out winners in their showdown with the government and the police.

Contrast that indisputable sense of (limited) victory with the legacy of the Occupy movement. Occupy dramatically drew attention to issues of income inequality and class oppression, mobilized massive crowds against austerity, and acted as a massive experiment in radical democratic organizing. It introduced countless individuals to activism, and in many cities it acted as a support network and community kitchen for homeless and impoverished folks. Its impact on mainstream politics is clearly visible in, for instance, Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the presidency in the United States on a program of reigning in Wall Street and getting money out of politics, or in Justin Trudeau’s oft-repeated campaign promises to raise taxes on “the top 1%”, a phrase straight from the Occupy playbook.

Occupy changed the political conversation, demonstrated that large-scale movements are still possible, and inspired a lot of folks to get more involved in causes that were important to them. That’s an impressive legacy for a hastily-thrown-together grassroots movement which prided itself on having no leaders.

And yet that’s not really how it’s remembered, is it? The Occupy movement is largely thought of as a failure. And one major reason why is that the movement didn’t define for itself what victory looked like. Its opponents did that instead, framing the movement as impossibly utopian, economically illiterate, and full of pot-smoking drum-happy hippy dropouts. “Success” became a weapon to use against Occupy; “What are your goals?” was a question Occupiers were constantly being asked, as though having a complete well-defined answer to all of society’s problems was a prerequisite to talking about them.

Towards the end of the movement, whether or not the camps were “successful” became discursively linked to whether or not they had been evicted by police. Many Occupiers bought into this narrative, devoting more and more energy to fighting for their space and less and less to building their movement. When the camps were ultimately dismantled, a movement which had centred itself entirely around occupying public space quickly lost steam.

This is the peril of refusing to define success for yourself. Your movement can achieve many things, move the conversation forward dramatically, and still be cast as a failure if you allow your opponents to define the terms of victory.

This question of victory is a pressing one for the two most exciting movements in Canada right now. That the movements against Site C and for Black lives have both blossomed into vibrant protest camps simultaneously is hopefully not coincidental; it may indicate a much-needed flowering of dissent in this so-called country.

The similarities between these two camps extend beyond the purely superficial. Unlike Occupy, both have specific demands:
blmto demands

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But as you may have noticed, these demands are extremely aspirational. Black Lives Matter claimed a big win yesterday when Toronto City Council voted unanimously to conduct a review of the SIU through an “anti-black racism lens”, but this doesn’t constitute an “overhaul” of the unit; only the province has the jurisdiction to do that, and they’ve been considerably less responsive to BLM (late-night visits to the Premier’s house notwithstanding). And there’s virtually no chance that the officer who shot Andrew Loku will ever be charged, let alone named, by a body that’s already cleared them of wrongdoing, regardless of how unfairly that body conducts itself.

Similarly, an immediate halt to Site C’s construction is a massively huge ask. The project was slowed but not stopped by a two-month encampment in the Peace Valley, and B.C. Premier Christy Clark has notoriously declared her determination to get the dam’s construction “past the point of no return” before next year’s provincial election. The Trudeau government has made as little noise as possible about the project, and is extremely unlikely to rescind permits quietly granted by its predecessor in the midst of last year’s election campaign. (As for this government’s massively disappointing record to date on Indigenous consultation, see here and here.)

For either of these movements, if they’re judged retroactively by whether they achieved their stated goals, then they’re vulnerable to being judged as failures. This is especially true for the Site C camp, where hunger striker Kristen Henry was forced to end her fast yesterday after twenty days due to serious concerns for her health. With the camp’s headline-grabbing raison d’etre gone, how will it continue to push its narrative effectively?

None of this is to say that these two protest camps are failures. As movement-building exercises, they’ve been magnificently successful. Both have done a tremendous job at keeping vitally important issues in the news and in the public discourse, when otherwise they likely would have been completely ignored. These are two praiseworthy efforts, and the goals they are trying to achieve are laudable. But if they don’t find a way to declare victory on their own terms, then both will likely be dismissed as failures and then largely forgotten.

And crucially, that blithe dismissal will not only cement the hostility of each movement’s haters; it will also be the lasting impression of the casually interested public to which these movements are appealing for support. Even the movement’s supporters can be affected; I know folks whose first enthusiastic brush with activism failed to blossom into anything lasting when the Occupy movement “failed”, leaving them disappointed and cynical.

I’m not involved with either #BLMTOtentcity or the Site C hunger strike, and it’s not my place to tell either of them how they should define victory for their respective movements. But I can’t urge them strongly enough to define what strategic victory looks like for themselves, and then declare it at the most opportune moment.

Solidarity with Black Lives Matter! Solidarity with Site C resisters and hunger strikers!


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