Of Catapults and Teddy Bears
The teddy bear hurling catapult at the demonstrations in Quebec City may turn out to be the most effective piece of street theatre in protest history. Designed to mock the wall separating leaders at the Summit of the Americas from the people protesting their policies, the catapult has accomplished much more. It has exposed the attempt of over zealous police and crown to manipulate the law to punish a protest leader. And it may very well lead to a new unity on the left.
I was involved with the catapult. A group from Edmonton thought up the idea and I organized the financing of it . It seemed to me to be a creative and funny way to protest a medaeval tactic on the part of the state, building a wall against the people.
The Medieval Bloc, (now revealed as the Deconstructionist Institute for Surreal Topology) (www.tao.ca/~wrench/dist/), surrounded the teddy bearing catapult the entire 10 kilometers from Laval University to the perimeter. Dressed with pots on their heads, medieval warriors hurled teddy bears into the crowd every ten minutes or so. They had ten "slaves" pulling the pult with ropes. Made of rough hewn wood, the catapult was an exact replica of the real thing with one exception. It had a spring to make sure it could not hurl anything with a force stronger than the human arm.
I marched with the catapult until the march stopped then I went up to the perimeter to see what was happening. Mesmerized by the ease with which the fence went down, I missed the slow but steady action of the catapult as it moved to the front line. Then whack, one bear got hurled on to police lines. Then another and with the first volley of tear gas, a pink dragon flew over the police. One protester told me he thought he was hallucinating when he saw it.
Mission accomplished, the medieval warriors withdrew the catapult and disabled it so it could not be used for any other purpose. That's when the police got it.
In court on Monday, Ottawa bloc member Paul Smith testified that police seized the device from him after the march. Police were never interested in who actually built and used the catapult, they just wanted to use it against Jaggi Singh. They charged him with possession of a weapon.
My testimony at Mr. Singh's first bail hearing that the catapult was only a theatre prop and that Mr. Singh had nothing to do with it was not challenged by the Crown or the judge, yet the judge decided to keep Mr. Singh in jail anyway. Despite his claims to the contrary, Jaggi Singh is a leader and an excellent organizer. He crisscrossed North America, building support for the protest against the Summit of the Americas.
It was his group, called the CLAC (Anti-capitalist Convergence) that organized a welcome centre for young protesters not affiliated with groups. They, along with similar Quebec City groups, organized a collective kitchen to feed people and helped to organize billeting. Yet because his group refused to renouce violence in advance, they were excluded from the Convergence Table, which was in charge of organizing the People's Summit and the march of the Peoples of the Americas that took place on Saturday.
Police targeted Mr. Singh not because he committed any criminal act but because he helped organized a demonstration that turned violent. The same thing happened to John Clarke, a leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty last June. The difference is this time, they tried to keep Mr. Singh behind bars on an obviously bogus charge. Arresting protest leaders whether or not they have committed a crime is a serious threat to freedom of speech.
Another reason for the state action, I believe, was because they thought that Mr. Singh was isolated from the traditional left and would not get support. They thought wrong. Fortunately, support for civil rights is still strong. Key union leaders, including Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti, respected Quebec social movement activists like Francoise Davide of the Quebec Women's Federation, and civil rights proponents like Stephen Lewis signed an open letter asking serious questions about Mr. Singh's incarceration and demanding a judicial review.
Within three days, 7,000 others who signed a petition on rabble.ca (www.rabble.ca/petition) were willing to speak out to demand Singh's release. Yesterday another judge released him saying Mr. Singh is a non-violent activist and his detention would only discredit the adminstration of justice.
At Quebec City, there were serious divisions about tactics and strategy. Many of the organizers of the People's Summit were angry that direct action groups chose Friday for their assault on the perimeter inevitably taking attention away from their massive march planned for Saturday. But in light of the tear gas, in light of the unjust incarceration of Mr. Singh, even those who were most angry with him and his group, mobilized to get him out of jail.
Hopefully both Mr. Singh and his detractors will see the lesson in this. A united movement that respects and debates a diversity of tactics is much stronger than one that splits because of these divisions. The teddy bears, who have always organized to include every bear that ever there was, would be proud.