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Students for a Democratic Society and Municipal Government


 This is a paper I wrote for my urban politics class at the University of Victoria. The analysis at the end is the main point that I would like to get across; the question of urban politics vs. national in general is something that I think is important to think about, as my local SDS chapter focused solely on national and provincial governments.

 

In this paper I will examine a protest rally that occurred in front the Tourism Victoria Visitor Centre on January 10Th, 2009. It was organized by Victoria Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA), and other groups and unaffiliated individuals, to protest the slaughter of Palestinian civilians by the Israel Defence Forces. The meeting was met by a counter-rally organized by the University group Israel on Campus (IOC). This public meeting will be examined through the lens of SDS and focus on the relevance of municipal government to the protest as well as the goals and aspirations of SDS as an institution of social change. I am a member of SDS, and participated in organizing the meeting, and so I have in-depth insight into the planning aspect. More important to mention is that this paper will be coloured by my personal biases. Instead of attempting to maintain a purely objective analysis, I will focus on my personal perspective. I will not focus on the details of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as these have been dealt with sufficiently elsewhere.

 


On the 27th of December, 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead. It was a massive attack on one of the most densely-populated areas in the world. Democracy Now! (2009) reported that, by Jan. 10, at least 778 Palestinians, including over 200 children had been killed. In response to these crimes, activist groups in Victoria—SDS among them—organized the Jan 10th protest as part of an international day of action calling for an end to the bombing. The concerned groups attended a planning meeting on Tuesday, January 6th to organize the rally a mere four days before it was scheduled. The event was planned to unfold as follows; concerned citizens and community groups were to gather at the Tourism Victoria Visitor Centre on 812 Wharf St. Speeches were to be made, with each group present at the planning meeting having the opportunity to have a representative speak. Following the speeches, those who were willing would divide into groups and hand out leaflets and start public discussions at busy intersections with passersby. Some groups were also taking donations for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which would be designated for Gaza medical aid.

As noted in a recent lecture by renowned Middle-East scholar Norman Finkelstein (2009), the suffering of the Palestinian people will not end until Israel is reviled by the international community for its crimes just as South Africa was for its apartheid policies, before significant pressure forced it to change. As such. the goals of the event was to show our disgust of Israel’s state terrorism, and use it as a catalyst to capture media attention, but more importantly educate the public. We provided crucial context to violence in the Middle East (namely, that Israel was in the process of colonizing Palestine). We encouraged Victorians to talk about these issues with their family and friends, contact their Member of Parliament or the Prime Minister, and asked them to sign one of the international petitions that were being circulated on the internet by aid groups. These actions were aimed at supporting either the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign which would put international economic pressure on Israel to end their brutal occupation, or telling the Canadian government or United Nations to condemn Israel’s actions, end the violence, and bring Israel to justice.

In an e-mail, the main organizer for the protest provided me with some information. The day before the event, he phoned City Hall to request a protest permit. He was informed that ordinarily a written form must be completed, but since the rally was the following day, a verbal application over the telephone was acceptable. He described the protest details, all of which were accepted by City Hall. The purpose of the permit form, as stated in the Special Events Guidelines PDF (2006) on the City of Victoria website, is to minimize the negative impacts of businesses and residents, and to remind people to avoid "disruptions". In section 4.p: "Security", the Guidelines state that

 

"The applicant has a large degree of responsibility for the behaviour of event participants

 

 

and is responsible for ensuring that appropriate security is in place. The event should be

designed to avoid risk of unintended police call-outs. Specific costs of such callouts may

 

be assessed to the organizer if risk has been identified and inadequately addressed."


It is unclear whether "participants" here include people engaged in a counter-demonstration; if not, then he had no responsibility for their actions, and as such he attempted to ensure that proper security would be in place to reduce disruptions. This issue has a long and bloody history, and as such, the organizer called the police department back and asked the perhaps several bicycle mounted police could stop by to make sure there wasn’t any disruption in the rally. He said that they were non-committal about this, even though he made it clear that public safety was uncertain.

On the day of the meeting, the main organizer was alerted to a counter-demonstration organized by IOC to take place at the same location. He called the police department again, and informed them of the situation, asking that the counter- demonstration could be moved some distance away to avoid confrontation. The officer he spoke to said they couldn’t do that because the counter-demonstration had an equal right to free speech; whether or not IOC had obtained a permit was apparently irrelevant. The officer informed him that only if there was violence could police be sent, showing a potentially dangerous disjuncture between stated City Hall policy (ensuring security beforehand) and the Victoria Police Department convention (cleaning up after violence starts).

On Saturday, January 10th, people started gathering at 11:30 AM, those of us with banners supporting the Palestinian and lined up on the edge of the sidewalk right beside the road with our banners and posters facing the street. Fairly soon, the counter-demonstrators arrived with strings of Israeli flags and placards and formed a line beside us. When the speeches started, most protesters clustered around the tent, leaving the counter-demonstrators room to spread thinly along the street and encircle perhaps half of the protest area. On their part, this was good visual tactic; though we outnumbered them by a ratio of perhaps 3:1, it appeared from the outside like it was an evenly split crowd. Indeed, in the Martlet article covering the protest, Cody Willet wrote that "half the 200-strong crowd waved signs and sang hymns in support of Israel’s incursion into the Gaza strip that’s killed hundreds of Palestinians—many of them civilians."

Throughout the speeches, the counter-demonstrators shouted slogans and sang songs, which made it fairly difficult to hear the speakers. There were also heated shouting matches; individuals from one side would make a foray into the other group’s territory, and soon after an argument would erupt, though luckily there was no violence. This may be because shortly before the speeches started, a Victoria Police Department paddy wagon drove by. This was an obvious warning against violence to the protesters and counter-demonstrators, as it is unlikely that such a large police van would be coincidentally patrolling the area. It seems as though the police were not as negligent of public needs as they first appeared. When the groups dispersed, many conversations were struck between counter-demonstrators who took issue with what the speakers had said. At this point, I left with my SDS comrades to hand out leaflets on the street, though we did not collect money as many other groups were doing.

We abstained from collecting money for two reasons. Oftentimes, when people donate money, they do so just to dissipate any guilt the may have and assume that problems can be solved by simply donating money. SDS thought that a deeper engagement with this issue was crucial. We wanted people to become involved. Also, we thought that collecting money in the streets would be disrespectful to the homeless population in Victoria, and so we opted for debate, dialogue, and inciting people to act rather than allowing them to potentially dismiss the problem with money.

 

This viewpoint makes sense when SDS as an institution is taken into account. In the 1960′s, SDS was one of the organizational beachheads of The New Left in the United States. Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement of 1962 was adopted as the SDS manifesto, and called for people to devote themselves to work towards truly democratic alternatives to the ills of the world, and to win a new world (Albert, 2006). According to Michael Albert, who was instrumental with SDS at MIT during the time, despite the millions of "active politically radical participants", SDS lacked a vision to ground their strategy, and lacked strategy to guide their actions; they fought against injustice, instead of for justice. And so, too few were inspired, too little tenacity was provoked, and too little continuity was generated in order to keep the movement going, and the movement effectively ended along with the 60′s.

 

Recently, SDS reformed in the United States on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2006, and quickly rose in membership (Kelly & Russell, 2008). The new SDS constitution states that, learning from past mistakes, the movement will be remade, with the ultimate goal being "a world beyond oppression, beyond domination, beyond war and empire" grounded in direct democratic principles and totalist politics (Students for a Democratic Society, 2008). It is in this period of reclamation and renewal that the Victoria SDS chapter coalesced in February of 2008. The SDS Victoria, which was obtained by e-mail, states that

 

 

"The SDS mission is to promote democratic participation and influence in our local and

 

 

global society. SDS stands in solidarity with environmental, labour, anti-oppressive, 

anti-war movements. Through grassroots activism, SDS aims to create and support local

initiatives that strengthen the communities of Victoria."

 


The Constitution has two notable contextual features; it states that SDS’ "aims are similar to those of the New Students for a Democratic Society", which is the larger group I mentioned above. Also, Article 3: Limitations, states that "Nothing in this constitution shall be interpreted in a manner repugnant to the Constitution of the Students’ Society or to the declared policy of the Students’ Society Board of Directors." Thus, two larger, more comprehensive constitutions govern or at least advise the actions of SDS. The UVSS constitution is more restrictive, as SDS must abide by the UVSS rules applying to clubs, though in this protest we were well within our UVSS constitutional rights. The larger SDS constitution is more informative than restrictive, and is used as a means to ground and guide our actions.

The short paragraph from the SDS constitution provides insight into SDS goals and tactics. In keeping with our goal to strengthen communities in Victoria and our language of solidarity, we felt that these would both be undermined by collecting money from passersby in front of members of the Victoria homeless population. Also, during the protest, we were indeed attempting to influence our local and global society via grassroots activism while standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people and anti-war and anti-oppression groups around the world. At the planning meeting, we managed to convince the other activists that the traditional protest march after a rally may not be a good idea, and so proposed setting up at busy intersections to hand out leaflets.

 

A cursory analysis indicates that we were fulfilling our mandate as the ‘New SDS’ that had learned from past mistakes; we had a vision to guide our strategy, the vision being and end to the occupation via international pressure and the strategy being educating the public to generate the emotion necessary for this pressure. We also had a strategy to guide our actions; we weren’t collecting money because we wanted to focus on real engagement with the issues, and we decided against a protest march in favour of education. While we were still fighting against injustice, we were also focusing more on fighting for justice.

 

At the same time, SDS is still perhaps rooted to some extent in the traditional activist mindset. For instance, it is interesting to note that despite SDS’ claimed local focus, we did not appeal to the municipal government to accept BDS; it didn’t even cross any of our minds. Arguably, there is a good reason for this, articulated by Harold Kaplan (1982);

"One cannot model local government on both a judicial tribunal and a business

corporation. Local government cannot be both an experiment in mass participatory

democracy and a corporation created by and for property owners."


It is widely recognized that municipal governments in Canada are not organized on principles of mass democracy, but a business model that is by and for property. Tindal & Tindal (2000) state that the most important aspect of municipal government is representative and political. Furthermore, business model governments perceive citizens as mere customers who need streamlined services, and in doing so ignore citizens’ additional rights, responsibilities and moral concerns. It is questionable whether an appeal to a municipal council (with close ties to the interests of powerful business lobby groups) to enforce a boycott on goods from Israel would be a fruitful endeavour. It is unclear whether this would even be feasible. Despite the fact that municipal government was not directly addressed in this protest, it is not irrelevant. However dysfunctional it may be in addressing the the claims of the protesters, municipal government provides a framework for the protest to happen by allowing public space to be used within the parameters outlined in its online application form, including everything from the security measures already mentioned to noise restrictions to garbage collection. City Hall was also very accommodating in that it allowed a verbal agreement to be reached with the head organizer.

 

It is interesting to note that it seems almost absurd for SDS to appeal to municipal government, while appealing to Provincial or even Federal governments seems more fruitful; as Spector (2009) wrote, the Harper government explicitly stated they were supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself. Why should SDS petition a monolithic federal body when comparatively, municipal government is much more accessible? According to Robert A. Dahl (1972), "the policies of city hall and the totality of city agencies are so important to our lives that to participate in the decisions of the city means…participating in shaping not merely the trivial but some of the most vital aspects of our environment." It is on the municipal government that provincial and federal governments rest. In the municipal we see the daily expression of provincial and federal programs and policies. It doesn’t makes sense to avoid this foundation of governmental power simply because it would be difficult to persuade them to cooperate. Municipal government is more accessible to local concerns, and so the potential of winning real gains increases. The BDS campaign would still be an issue of business, and therefore it would be well within their scope to deal with; the question would be whether or not SDS could effectively organize enough public support, especially among local business interests, to tip the scale. If SDS is to take seriously its own mandate of creating local and global change through grassroots activism by building Victoria as a community, then it must not fall into the trap of issuing bold yet useless national appeals. Furthermore, engaging City Hall may provide important practice if SDS intends to take on provincial and national policies and make real gains in the future.

 

 

In Portland, Oregon in 1996, a group of activists broke the law, and converged at a neighbourhood intersection with the idea of building a sense of community by painting the intersection. They broke the law, but soon afterwards, by ordinance, their actions were made legal by City Hall (The City Repair Project, 2008). City Hall was reorganized from the ground up. This shows that municipal government can change not just through lobbying, but can be forced to restructure from the bottom-up through public actions. It is arguable that if SDS wants to meet its criteria of focusing on the local community and entrenching principles of direct democracy, then municipal government cannot be ignored. If enough people at City Hall meetings continuously demanded something more than a mere business-model approach to municipal government—using a diverse array of well-planned tactics, from simple lobbying to civil disobedience—then it is arguable that change will be made from the ground up, and that the City Hall will begin to shift in a good, participatory, democratic direction. If SDS continues to disregard municipal government, then a potentially rewarding path towards our vision of democratic society will remain woefully unexplored.

 

 

The question at stake is whether or not this will build the movement. While municipal government is theoretically more accessible to local citizens, whether or not it will be more responsive remains in question. Part of the appeal of citizen’s groups such as SDS is precisely that they are not tangled in the bureaucracy of mainstream political bodies. If SDS devotes time and energy into trying to engage a wall of business interests, chances are that this would not be a significant means of building community support in comparison to organizing teach-ins, rallies, film presentations, or even painting intersections. Unfortunately there is no clear answer to this Engagement Question, and only through careful deliberation and discussion with the entire group could a decision be reached. However, even thinking about and discussing new ways in which our goals could be reached is of utmost importance.

 

 


 

Works Cited

 

Albert, M. (2006). Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism. London ; Seven Stories Press.


The City Repair Project. (2008). About the City Repair Project: Video. Retrieved January 29th, 2009, from http://www.cityrepair.org/wiki.php/about


 

Dahl, R. A. (1972) The City in the Future of Democracy, in Feldman, L. D. and Goldrick, M. D. (eds.). (1972). Politics and government of Urban Canada: Selected Readings. 2nd Ed. Toronto: Methuen.

 


Democracy Now! (2009). Palestinian Toll Reaches 778; At Least 200 Children Killed. Retrieved January 10th, 2009, from http://www.democracynow.org/2009/1/9/headlines#2


Finklestein, Norman. (2008). The Israel-Palestine Conflict: What We Can Learn From Gandhi. Retrieved January 10th, 2009, from http://normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=11&ar=2061


Kaplan, H. (1982) Reform, Planning, and City Politics: Montreal, Winnipeg, Toronto, in Tindal, R. C., Tindal. S. N. (2000) Local Government in Canada. 5th Ed. Scarborough: Nelson


Kelly, B. Russell, J. K. (2008). Giving Form to a Stampede: The First Two Years of the New Students for a Democratic Society. Retrieved January 13th, 2009, from http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/18115


Spector, N. (2009). Gaza versus Lebanon: What a difference for Harper. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved January 13th, 2009, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com


Students for a Democratic Society. (2008) who we are. Retrieved January 13th, 2009, from http://studentsforademocraticsociety.org/home/?page_id=102


The City of Victoria. (2006). Special Event Application Guidelines. Retrieved January 10th, 2009, from http://www.victoria.ca/common/pdfs/permits_events_guidelines3.pdf


Tindal, R. C., Tindal. S. N. (2000) Local Government in Canada. 5th Ed. Scarborough: Nelson.


Willett, C. (2009, January 15). Protest over Gaza takes to the street. The Martlet, p. 5.

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