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Loose Cannon: This protest was a sodding bad idea

Thursday, November 5, 2009

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  • What started out as a clever street theatre production and “peaceful
demonstration" against development turned into somet

    What started out as a clever street theatre production and “peaceful demonstration" against development turned into somet

Written by Greg Beneteau

It would have been difficult for a casual observer to determine the motivation behind last Thursday’s Hanlon Creek Business Park opposition rally, staged outside a sod turning ceremony organized by the city.

It started out as a clever street theatre production and “peaceful demonstration,” complete with festive Halloween costumes, music and a burial ceremony for Mother Earth. Eventually, it turned into something not even remotely representative of the environmental movement.

Participants at the invitation-only event, including business leaders, civil servants and elected official, were called “f*cking scum” and told they would “be sorry” for supporting the development project.

As the city’s guests boarded a chartered bus behind a cordon of police offices, the demonstration devolved into a fit of screaming, F-bombs and derisive gestures. A group pounded the side of bus and spat at the windows while the clearly unnerved passengers looked on. There was no violence and no arrests, but it certainly wasn’t peaceful.

Not all of the estimated 75 demonstrators expressed such vitriol, but I do agree with Guelph Mercury Editor Phil Andrews, who noted in his blog that it was “journalistically challenging to land a compelling photo that failed to include at least one person giving the finger.”

Before continuing, I must emphasize that there are many calm and reasonable people opposed to the development at Hanlon Creek. A half-dozen of them attended the rally: lifelong residents of Guelph, most over the age of fifty – the kinds of people who tend vote in large numbers during municipal elections.

They stood apart from the group of mostly young activists who have become the most visible presence in the ongoing debate, looking appalled. Who knows how many more simply stayed home out of fear something like this would happen.

Make no mistake; gaining public support for your cause is all about creating an image. The city’s sod turning “ceremony” – a private event, in the middle of empty field that won’t see actual digging until next spring – was an attempt by council and developers to assert control in front of the media. The anti-HCBP crowd needed to respond in kind.

But the organizers lost control of the moment. Their threatening actions gave the city good reason to implement the additional security measures and offended people who support the cause, but not the aggressive actions taken to support it.

It was a little late to turn the spectacle into a success, but some tried anyways.

“I think the biggest criticism people will have of the protest is that we were expressing a lot of anger,” Sam Ansleis, an organizer of the Hanlon Creek Business Park Occupation group, told The Mercury in an email. “I think that, personally, that anger was justified.”

Being justifiably angry is one thing, but turning that anger into widespread support for one’s cause is another. If Ansleis’s group wants to end the Hanlon Creek project they need demonstrations that make people feel welcomed, not embarrassed. How many families would bring their children to hear foul language being hurled about?

A great case study on controlling political passions is currently underway in the United States, where the Republican Party is struggling to keep the reins on a small but visible minority of “Tea Party” protesters and fans of radio show pundit Rush Limbaugh.

They, too, scream at rallies, come out in respectable numbers and get a lot of media attention. All the while, support for the GOP among moderates has plummeted because few voters can sustain the level of anger demanded by these hard-core activists. Most don’t even want to be associated with them.

The anti-HCBP movement is suffering from a serious image problem caused by its most ardent supporters, though I fear it’s not recognized.

A written account of the protest on the HCBP Occupation website recalls only “great volumes of laughter, singing and dancing to drums and tambourine, head-shaking scorn, brilliant and spontaneous street theater [sic], and a strengthened commitment to keep moving forward.” 

“It was loads of fun.”

Depends on who you ask.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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  1. Posted by: D.L Newton on Nov 6, 2009 @ 8:09pm

    There are various methods of approaching the issue of how to be an activist. One of the most unfortunate things I believe to have occurred is the association of the word activists with extremely inimical behavior. Although all activism does surround the idea of taking actions to initiate some sort of social change, it does not necessarily mean that you must pick up a sign and scream for change. Not all circumstances call for that, although some do. It becomes a matter for the individual, or in this case individuals, to discern between what they believe are the most effective methods to induce change and the least effective. A good book on this topic is Saul Alinsky's Rules For Radicals. Although the author of this article will not reply to this comment, I would really like to know your particular stances, I have some ideas, as they have tended to influence your articles, in often a less than subtle way.

  2. Posted by: christine de pizan on Nov 27, 2009 @ 2:30pm

    thanks for your stance on this issue greg. i guess we're only going to get to hear your opinions this year at the cannon! i'm super excited.

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