Revisiting the politics of protest

Following politics closely has become pretty disheartening as of late. Between spying revelationsfederal mud-slinging campaigns and story after story of political corruption emerging from Quebec, I find my head in my hands on a weekly basis. “What the hell is going on,” I overhear people ask each other at bars, at work, in the streets.

And that’s just locally; staying on top of protests in Turkey, Brazil and Sweden is an even more daunting task. But it’s reminded me of the importance of civil liberties, of the never-ending fight for the right to speak out against governments in power, and how political changes are enacted.

Women Firewatchers’ by Lee Miller for British Vogue, 1940

Women Firewatchers’ by Lee Miller, 1940

One story in particular that made me want to bury my head in the sand (or is that criminalized now, too?) is an amendment to Canada’s criminal code. As of June 19th, the federal government has banned the wearing of masks during a riot or “unlawful assembly.” It’s not so much the ban (and the debateable purposefullness of it) that is shocking, but rather the penalties that may be incurred, and the vague language around what constitutes a “mask” and what constitutes an unlawful assembly.

Check out the discussion that took place re: act to amend the criminal code.  Michael Byers, Professor and Canada Research Chair, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia presented just some of the reasons why this change to the law is potentially dangerous:

Unfortunately, it is relatively easy for a peaceful protester to unintentionally find himself or herself involved in an unlawful assembly. The definition of an unlawful assembly in paragraph 63(1)(b) of the Criminal Code says that it is an assembly that “causes persons in the neighbourhood…to fear, on reasonable grounds that they will by that assembly…provoke other persons to disturb the peace tumultuously.” This is hardly clear and definitive and is therefore open to subjective and controversial determinations by the police.

But Byer’s warnings were for naught, since it is now law. Hardly a first in Canada, sadly: this comes on the heels of Montreal passing a law last May that banned wearing masks at public protests. But why? What inspired this change so that people wearing masks at protests may serve up to 10 years in prison for… wearing a mask at a protest? Let’s step back three years to revisit the original inspiration or reasoning behind this law: the G20 protests. The bill was sponsored by Conservative MP Blake Richards, and was introduced to Parliament in the wake of the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010, which he describes in detail.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own experiences while in Toronto three years ago, and how the literal policing of what people were wearing overwhelmed me at every turn. From black clothing, to pins with political slogans, to the reporting on “what not to wear” to avoid being “mistaken for a protester” and potentially attacked by police

Ceyda Sungur, a young Turkish woman wearing a bright red dress, holding a tote bag, is pepper sprayed by police in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

Ceyda Sungur is pepper sprayed by police in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

And it doesn’t just happen here: let’s look briefly to Turkey. The now infamous photograph of a protestor being pepper sprayed by police is best known by what she was wearing: the woman in the red dress. What would the reaction have been had she been wearing a mask, which wouldn’t be unheard of given how much pepper spray is being used at protests in Turkey? Why have some journalists reported her as an “innocent bystander” and not “angry protester”? How much of an impact does what she was wearing at the time have on our perception of what may have happened before or after the photograph was taken? Whether or not the viewer of the photograph assumed she deserved such brutality at the hands of police? 

Lately, I can’t help but remember being followed, harrassed and threatened by police when I was biking on the empty streets of Toronto three years ago. Remembering overthinking about what I had been wearing, why I had been targeted. Wondering if I would have “gotten off easy” had I been wearing black, had a bandana with me/on me, or wearing pins with political slogans. I was wearing a simple red summer dress that day, too.

I cringed when trying to re-read what I wrote about that years ago, but thought some of it was worth re-sharing with my readers, touching on issues that seem to be destined to resurface again and again. Here’s an excerpt from “Violent thugs dressed in black: anarchists or cops? policing protesters clothing at the G20 protests,” (originally published on June 29th, 2010)

Poster of resistance to the G8 and G20 in Toronto, June 2010

Fashion is political. Some other readers might be thinking that it is incredibly frivolous and altogether irrelevant to talk about things like “fashion” when over 900 people were arrested for voicing their opposition to the G8/G20 and all that it represents. These events, and the questions about what people were wearing on the streets of Toronto, are intrisically connected. What I really want to talk about here is the emphasis on the sartorial choices made by protesters, “average citizens,” members of the press and police officers during this weekend’s rampant opposition to the G20 summit in toronto and how it actively held a part in leading to such violation of human rights.

Let’s begin with some of the more obvious questions:

  • How does a protester dress? What does a protester “look like” and who decides what that is?
  • Practicalities: What a protester should wear when participating in peaceful protests and rallies to protect themselves from targeting, harassment, tear gas, pepper spray, etc.
  • On the eve of the G20/G8 summits, with a $1.3 billion dollar security pricetag, what are police told to look for and who are they told to target to “ensure security” and “maintain the peace?”
  • Policing and legislation around what people are legally allowed to wear on the streets of toronto as the G20 approached
  • Massive confiscation of black clothing items: what are the assumptions being made about what black clothing means and represents?
  • How do police present themselves? What are their “costumes” and how to they contribute to political posturing?
  • How to the police present themselves when acting as agent provocateurs and undercover/”plainclothes” officers?

Those are just a few of the ways in which fashion constitutes a very political and important dynamic of what went on in the streets during the G20 protests. The physical appearance of protesters and what they chose to wear was highly emphasized. It was used as a way to target public hatred and to strike fear in the hearts of the consumers of the media. That being said, few people are recognizing this. Hardly a peep has been made about these dynamics. The only things I have found about fashion and the G20 have been fluffy,  problematic articles published by the mainstream media.

Awful parody from The Star, June 2010: “This easy-to-wash cotton/polyester ensemble will definitely be noticed by police. An optional bandana is made with polyester to protect from noxious fumes, but it also pampers the protestor with the luxury of satin.”

If you google “g20 fashion” – surprise surprise – we are once again exposed the sexism inherent in the institutions the G20 system upholds and represents. There are dozens of stories about what the G20 leader’s wives wore on the “red carpet.” Was this a Hollywood premiere, or was it a gathering of world leaders meeting to make important decisions that have a global impact?! You can even vote “hit” or “miss.” Yeah, judge the First Ladies of the 20 wealthiest countries in the world based solely on what they wear. Sounds right to me. To make matters worse, female political leaders like the President of Argentina and the Chancellor of Germany aren’t safe from these insipid judgements either.
How lawyers should dress in order to avoid being attacked by protesters for wearing suits. Because we all know that was the main goal of protesters this weekend; to arbitrarily attack anyone wearing a suit. EDITED TO ADD: Note those two people in masks? Could serve up to 10 years in jail for that now. Doesn't matter if they're lawyers or not.

How lawyers “should dress” in order to avoid being attacked by protesters for wearing suits. Because we all know that was the main goal of protesters this weekend; to arbitrarily attack anyone wearing a suit. EDITED TO ADD: Note those two people in masks? Could serve up to 10 years in jail for that today. Feel safer?

Sifting through all of this garbage – which is very clearly designed to distract people from the reasons why the G20 is happening in the first place and why 25,000 PEOPLE WERE OUT IN THE STREETS VOICING THEIR OPPOSITION - all I could do was laugh. We can’t forget, however, about the ways in which “fashion” at the G20 was occurring in a very legislated and calculated way at the hands of police and the law.

The article in which the photos of lawyers “in disguise” is taken from, many of the quotes illustrate just how pervasive the emphasis on how dangerous clothing can be.

…Mr. Wearing, who is counsel to the law firm Ormston List Frawley, will be dutifully adhering to the “Summit Planning Guide,” a one-page safety tip sheet being circulated by landlords in downtown Toronto.“If you unexpectedly encounter demonstrators, you will be better treated if you are in jeans and a casual shirt than if you are in a business ‘power suit,” the guide advises.

…“Now that we look like demonstrators, how do we convince the police not to pepper spray or tear-gas us?”

These statements perfectly illustrates the ideas propagated by the mainstream media that:

  1. “Protester” might as well equal “violent terrorist”
  2. No protesters are lawyers, or any kind of respectable, powerful, suit-wearing folk
  3. Aaaand last but definitely not least fucked up: if you look like a protester, it’s your own fault for getting tear-gassed or pepper sprayed. As Mr. Wearing ponders, how could you convince police not to pepper spray you simply based on your appearance? There is an inherent assumption that if one looks like a protester, one deserves violence and repression at the hands of the state. This statement inadvertently admits that there is explicit profiling going on on the part of police. This in and of itself is not enough: the police have aditionally been manipulating the media, the citizens of toronto, and protesters to try and excuse their rampant targetting, attempts at repression and brutality.

To prove just how truly backwards these notions are, the article concludes with this wonderful nugget of propaganda:

“You don’t challenge that type of event,” he said. “You use common sense and stay out of the way.”

Unsurprisingly, the article does not discuss any of the hundreds of reasons why people are “challenging this type of event” and why people are refusing to “stay out of the way.” It is serving to explicitly propagate stereotypes not only of what a protester looks like, but that if you “look like that” it is your own fault for being targeted, potentially arrested, and brutalized by police. We see this sort of logic at work in rape culture as well, demanding to know what women were wearing when they were raped and engaging in victim-blaming.

What is important for us to address here is the policing of our bodies based on what clothing we choose to wear when out on the streets during a protest. For me, these negotiations are particularly complicated in addition to being totally fucked up. I don’t change how I dress when deciding to attend a protest from my regular dressing habits. This basically means that i take to the streets in dresses. While I don’t run the risk of, say, being mistaken for an undercover cop, I do encounter other issues. I am often forced to negotiate spaces based on my presentation and appearance. I know some other protesters might read me as a bystander if I am not actively engaged at an event, either leading a chant, holding a placard, or being part of the organizations who organize the rallies/protests. From a logistic perspective, it is often harder for me to approach other more “obvious” looking protesters to ask for information, such as where events are happening if they have changed at the last minute, information about arrests, organizations, etc. At times, I have felt obliged to prove myself as “one of them.”

These costumes and disguises worn by police are used to manipulate anyone who disagrees with the status quo into feeling unsafe if we are out in the streets, and helps those on the “good” side of police (in this case the G20 leaders, government officials, and citizens who have been sucked into the fear machine) to feel protected. In riot gear, police officers are completely stripped of any semblance of humanity. You cannot speak to them. You cannot look at them. You cannot interact with them. You cannot ask questions. All you are supposed to do is be afraid of them. The number of times we were in this crowd and thought we might be tear gassed (for standing there, peacefully protesting) was absurd and terrifying.

When the mainstream media is constantly misinforming people about these “thugs in black clothing reeking havoc on the city of toronto,” I can’t help but think about how much violence i saw go on entirely at the hands of thugs dressed in black clothing… emblazoned with the words “POLICE.”

…It is essential not to lose sight of what triggered these questions in the first place: why were people out in the streets of Toronto this weekend in the first place? What were the images the mainstream media showed us of what a protester looks like and wears? How do police use our physical appearances in an attempt to repress our voices and to manipulate fear in the public eye? and more generally, what does our clothing say about our beliefs? What clothing marks us as politicized, subversive, as challenging authority?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Revisiting the politics of protest

  1. Kate

    Oh man, I have a lot of feelings about this. Granted, I’ve only been to relatively peaceful protests (no gas masks needed), but I do find myself wishing that protestors were more aware that their physical presentation will be used as a way to judge and spin the event as a whole. It’s not fair, but it’s the truth, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

    I mean, I’m sure the flower-bedecked unicyclist in the pink spandex bodysuit who I saw at an anti-war rally (as an example) is awesome and I’m glad he’s expressing himself, but if one goal of protests is to call attention to an issue, dressing up like a caricature makes it incredibly easy to dismiss you and the movement you’re representing. Again, I’m not saying it’s fair or right, but I think everyone should be aware of how appearances will be judged and how that might affect how people perceive the message you want to send (this is also why I HATE seeing people do drugs at protests). I make a special effort to dress in relatively “nice”, somewhat conservative outfits, and if that means other protestors give me the side eye they can suck it. My goal is to get people to pay attention, and fitting the dominant cultural stereotype of a vapid hippie (or angry anarchist, or young slacktivist, or whatever) makes it that much easier for them to pigeonhole me and dismiss me.

    I guess it comes down to pragmatism for me- if dressing a certain way can help a protest be more effective, I think it’s far more important than ~*expressing myself*~ through my clothes (and I LOVE expressing myself through clothes under most circumstances).

  2. Julia, this is super interesting and important. I love your brain!

    Navigating the “tu”/”vous” code of dressing become especially treacherous when one is forced to physically disguise one’s political stance, even if (or especially when) one’s political stance has nothing to do with how one dresses.

    But the point about fellow protesters is also really important – having to constantly authenticate one’s legitimacy as a protester simply because of one’s dress is super fucked up – and indicative of how gendered discrimination clings to even the most “radical” circles.

    There’s such a weird tension here between, like, being forced to avoid the so-called costume of protest (which clearly doesn’t do much to negate police harassment/brutality [but even if it did, there's still the assumption that the costume of protest equals consent to being beaten up]) while also being (directly or indirectly) encouraged to don it for fear of being pushed to the sidelines.

    How does a person or group gain necessary visibility when the visibility of self (the most personal political landscape) endangers them? Then again, why must the visibility of cause be so intimately tied with the visibility of self?

  3. Pingback: CHANGE IS GOOD | Bossy Femme

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