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Breaking the picket line

by Laura Marchand April 7, 2015
Breaking the picket line

Rash protest action for anti-austerity hurts their own cause

Photo by Laura Marchand.

Photo by Laura Marchand.

Noise: there’s noise everywhere, deafening even the words of the girl sitting to my right. To my left, he metallic clang of metal spoons on metal pots continues incessantly, sending painful shocks through my ear and straight into my head. I cover my ears if only to soften the assault a little bit, forehead meeting the linoleum table.

This wasn’t how class was supposed to go.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected: I knew the Political Science Student Association (PSSA) had voted for a strike earlier that week. I also knew that I couldn’t attend the vote that night due to work—and that the final tally wasn’t announced until the early hours of the next morning. I was also keenly aware that just over 70 students ended up deciding for the entirety of Political Science students. It was an ugly pill, but I swallowed it—if quorum was met and the vote conducted fairly, then that was that.

But I had a class on April 1—the first of two strike days for the PSSA. Our teacher sent us an email saying that he was obliged to hold class. And like that, lines were drawn in the sand. I didn’t want to risk my grades so close to finals, and I had some issue with the vote and the methods employed by the PSSA—so I steeled myself to break the picket line.

I got to class half an hour early, just in case—but I was hardly the first one there. At least 10 of my fellow classmates were already hovering in the hallway, milling about and nervously shooting glances into the windows of other classes in session.

“They already interrupted that one,” someone noted, nodding in the direction of a closed door across the hall. Voices filter out: angry, upset, arguing. I catch a glimpse of the protestors standing at the head of the class, gesticulating wildly.

“My other class got disrupted,” a man hisses, seething against the wall. “Couldn’t get anything done. It’s infuriating. If they come here, I’m just—going home. There’s no point.”

We aren’t five minutes into class when two of them enter. They explain that there was a democratically voted upon strike—an assertion that draws some incredulous scoffs from the students—and the professor asserts that he will continue class. The two representatives, armed with red squares, leave the class—a couple of minutes later, the waves pour in.

Banging pots and pans. Hitting utensils on empty plastic containers. If they have nothing else, clapping; and all of them, chanting. At first I thought it would be two, maybe three or four of them, like in the other class, but we are treated to a militia of them: 20, at the least, lined around the room. My professor is drowned out by the sound, and exasperated, begins collecting names and student ID numbers from the protesters. Security is called.

At the time, I thought the disturbance would be short-lived. Maybe 10, 20 minutes at most. But the minutes tick by. I cover my ears with my hands—one of the metal-bangers is situated not two feet away from me. They walk around the room in circles, yelling “Hey hey, ho ho—austerity has got to go!” Some students pack their bags and leave.

I stay. I’m curious, yes—that was part of the reason I came today. But with every bang in my ear, with every glance shot my way by protesters walking by, I feel something else bubbling beneath the surface of my skin. Rage.

My head hurts. My ears hurt. I paid my tuition, I showed up for class—and for what? I glare around the room, and the metal clanging next to me continues. One of them brought a whistle, which continues in time. These are the methods I felt so adamantly against. Ignoring whether or not the message of anti-austerity is a good one or not—how is this supposed to win hearts and minds? Who is this supposed to convince? How are we—the students of POLI 313C—supposed to change austerity? What message is this even sending?

After a short vote—which the protestors attempted to vote in, in a desperate attempt to out-annoy each other—we decide to stay for the entirety of the protest. The noise continues for another half an hour before the protesters stop, the apparent ringleader speaking from the front of the classroom.

“We thought there was a more productive way to do this,” she says. “Maybe have a discussion about austerity and the effects it has on education.”

“You want to discuss this now?!” yells one student. “After an hour and a half of noise?!”

“Why didn’t you do that at the start!” cries another.

“You’re holding our class hostage!” says another.

Frankly, I can’t disagree—because they’re right. What the PSSA did on April 1 was, effectively, holding students and their education hostage. And for what? Philippe Couillard didn’t care if I got to learn about the economic policy of the United States that day. In a way, this one disruption wasn’t just “one disruption”: it was indicative of the problem with the anti-austerity movement in Concordia.

Namely, the fact that associations—including the PSSA—aren’t all the peaceful Vietnam War protesters they think they are. For many, their cause lacks clarity: what, exactly, do they want to accomplish? What alternatives do they propose? In addition, their cause lacks support: my full classroom and the apathy of the student body can attest to that. And namely, their actions hurts more than it harms—including its own cause.

For all I know, I might support the anti-austerity cause. I might be willing to sit down and learn the impacts austerity will have on my university and my life, including hearing what other alternatives someone proposes. But right now, the only thing I saw when I saw my classroom disrupted, was childish and petulant behaviour on the part of those who claim to study the politics they are trying to change.

I want to have a conversation—but I can’t hear the other side if the only language they speak is the banging of pots and pans.

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