Monday, August 23, 2010

Privilege and Protest

Protesters are often stereotyped as poor - after all, we're a bunch of semi-employed or unemployed hippies. How can we hold a job when we dress so slovenly? How can we find the time to organize if we work full-time?

This stereotype is, of course, false. Most activists I know work full-time in addition to organizing and attending events. Most make a comfortable living, though most are not what one would consider to be rich in the materialistic sense.

Here in Edmonton, there has been a lot of activism going on lately in a different sense than peace marches and pro-labour rallies. A group called Envision Edmonton has been working very hard getting a petition signed by enough people in the city to force a plebiscite on the the issue of whether or not to close the Edmonton City Centre Airport.

I am not going to get into the arguments about whether or not the airport should stay open, or whether or not there should have been a plebiscite in the first place. There has been enough debate in the social media world on both sides of the issue, most notable from Mack Male (pro-closure) and John Winslow (anti-closure).

Speaking on behalf of myself and a few others, there were those in the activist community who thought a plebiscite was the way to go. However, we were at a loss on how to get organized around taking on such a huge project. Getting tens of thousands of signatures on a petition is no small endeavour. So it does not surprise me in the least that several of the people behind Envision Edmonton are quite well-off individuals.

And, as someone who tends to rally for the poor and underprivileged, this does not bother me in the least. Wealthy people have a right to protest also. In fact, I find it rather heartening to see people putting their money behind a cause they believe in. However, there is another rub: many of the people involved in Envision Edmonton are of a Conservative political viewpoint.

While this is yet another point that can lose people in my activist cohort group, again, I counter: Conservative people have a right to protest also. Even when it is a cause that I don't agree with. That is part of living in a democracy. Except in this case, I do agree. So do other left-of-centre folks.

At first I thought this was cause for the Rapture to come. On second thought, it made me realize that people from opposite ends of the political spectrum to come together for a common cause. I am not sure those causes will come around often, but when they do, privilege and protest can go hand in hand.


lesoteric said...

Thank you for pointing out that this is not a 'left vs right' issue, an excellent commentary on the right to disagree, as we all do from time to time.

Oxygen Smith said...

I think that the stereotype of activists, like many stereotypes, is actually constructed in such a way where you 'can't win.' Oh, lefty is protesting? It's because she is a whiny poor person who just needs to get a job. Oh, lefty is protesting? It's because she is a trust fund baby with nothing better to do.

I would really hesitate to call Envision Edmonton "activists" and cede to them the aura of "grassroots" legitimacy that that term would imply. Envision Edmonton are corporate lobbyists who know how to run a campaign in their own interests.

For this reason, I personally don't care about the corporate elite's "right to protest" because it always is able to proceed without real obstacles, over anyone's possible objection. It never needs defending because it never has effective opposition, and it can be as undemocratic and misleading as it wants to be. "People's protest," however, faces real opposition and scrutiny, once it's actually effective anyway.

It's true that the airport isn't a right versus left issue only in the sense that you can't tell which way a member of Edmonton's local corporate elite would vote on the issue. The elite who want to use the airport want it left open, and the elite who are private developers want it to close for redevelopment because they stand to make money. These are the points of view from which the airport debate has been effectively articulated.

The question to ask is whether the rest of us get anything out of it one way or the other. I think we get something better out of closing it, but that point of view and list of demands has yet to be spelled out.