[From Hasana Sharp and William Clare Roberts.]
We want to update readers on developments at McGill since our last post.
We have a clearer, but not yet complete picture of the chain of events that led to the riot police using pepper spray, truncheons, and tear gas to clear students from the square in front of the James Administration Building on Thursday, November 10. We know that campus security officers – who have no policing powers – manhandled several of the 14 students who occupied the office of Heather Munroe-Blum, and that it was the communication of this mistreatment via cell phone that swelled the crowd of students who gathered in front of the building (and occupied one of the lower floors). We also know that it was security who initially called police.
What remains opaque is the decision to clear the student gathering. We do not know whether the Montreal police officers who were inside James ordered the crowd cleared on their own, or whether they consulted with McGill security or administration. Nonetheless, we know that after approximately twenty bicycle police arrived to disperse the crowd, and the crowd did not budge, at least one officer used pepper spray on the front ranks of the students. This is the same pattern we have seen play out so often of late: a large group of nonviolent protesters, or a few among them, refuse to obey a police order to disperse, and the first police recourse is to inflict pain in order to gain compliance.
There will be an official investigation, of course. It will be an internal investigation headed by the Dean of the Law Faculty. It will assign no blame. It will be a mix of fact-finding and suggestions to prevent a recurrence. We can hope that it will teach us more about what happened. We cannot hope, however, that it will shed any light on the meaning of what has happened. We would like to focus on this latter task.
Two matters of critical importance were revealed on November 10. First, the world inhabited by the upper administration is quite alien to the one inhabited by the students, faculty, and front-line staff. When the 14 student occupiers burst into the Principal’s office, they might as well have arrived by transporter beam from another planet. They were aliens, and were greeted as such. There is no doubt their appearance and actions frightened some members of the office staff. And, while this was not their wish – the students never really considered that they might be frightening – they should not have been surprised by it.
Paradoxically, it is unsurprising for the same reason that it never occurred to them; they did not know the staff and the staff did not know them. They were self-consciously invading a space where they did not feel welcome to go, and the staff responded in kind. The physical distance from the square out front to the fifth floor offices of the Principal and Provost is only a symbol for the social and cultural distance between the students and the administration. The multiple layers of bureaucratic and physical insulation between administrators and their staff, on the one hand, and student life, on the other, has lead to mutual alienation, mistrust, and fear.
This fear has been witnessed and reinforced in a hundred small ways by events throughout the fall. In an e-mail to all staff and students on September 1, the first day of the ongoing strike by non-academic staff, a senior administrator suggested that the strikers might pose a threat to students and other employees of the university. He wrote; “McGill will ensure that you can enter the campus safely. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel threatened or unsafe, please call Security [...] and someone will escort you across the [picket] line.” When some faculty members moved their classes off-campus so as not to cross a picket line – a common practice in Canada – another e-mail (“Communiqué on teaching during labour disruption,” September 20, 2011) notified us that we would be suspended without pay for going this route.
Amongst other reasons given, it noted “the right of students [...] to ‘safe and suitable conditions of learning and study.’ [...] Off-campus locations are not covered by McGill’s insurance policy and travelling to and from unofficial off-campus class locations increases risks for our students.” Another e-mail, this one from the Principal (“We are all McGill,” October 18, 2011), accused union members – without citing any evidence – of “defacing Martlet House, hurling insults, swearing and throwing objects at senior administrators, and behaving aggressively and threateningly toward guests, including elderly alumni” during Homecoming.
Messages like these communicate that the striking workers, and their faculty supporters, pose a threat to students and to anyone who crosses them. And since November 10, the administrators’ comments have stressed the fear felt by their staff during the occupation. In one case, the (mostly female) staff is represented as a threat to the students. In the other, the students are deemed a threat to the (mostly female) staff. The common refrain, of course, is that the administration’s critics are scary, and it is the administration’s job to protect us from the scary ones.
But the signs of alienation and fear are elsewhere, too. For example, the fear of being filmed. One of the McGill Security tactics that most upsets students and faculty is the tendency of security guards to hover around demonstrations and teach-ins videoing all the participants. But when faculty and students tried to deliver a letter of protest to the Principal the day after the police riot, the security guards who wouldn’t let us into the James Building repeatedly objected to being filmed by students. They didn’t want their faces on YouTube, they said. In a further irony, one of the reasons the occupiers were supposedly so frightening is that some of them had handkerchiefs covering the lower half of their faces. The reason? They planned to film a video communiqué, but some were scared to have their faces on YouTube!
The tragicomic punch-line to all this fear of being captured and circulated in ones and zeros was supplied by the riot police, who seemed to aim their pepper-spray especially at those student protesters who photographed or filmed them.
This brings us to the other bit of meaning we might wring from these events. Confronting and dealing with this mutual fear is the greatest challenge facing the University. The challenge can be put in terms of an existential choice: university or police?
University, we like to think, is a space of critical thinking. The conditions of possibility of such critical thinking are disruption, dissidence, and dialogue. Most professors we know are a bit gleeful at the prospect of disrupting and unsettling the assumptions and opinions of their students. This is not (only) because we are sadists. Rather, most of us adhere to some version of the quaint notion that our job is to prepare our students to interpret, question, and challenge what is presented to them, the various social texts that make up our shared world.
We – most of us – don’t want to mold our students, or preach to them. Rather, we want them to be able to use all of the tools of critical rationality that we cherish in ourselves and admire in one another. We can do this only by making our students uncomfortable in some ways. And we like to think, at least, that we appreciate it when the tables are turned on us – when we are interrupted, contradicted, and forced to give some account of ourselves by students and colleagues. This is only possible with communication and some measure of mutual trust. The traditional forms of address, and the distance and proximity between different members of the university community, are changing rapidly with email, facebook, blogs, and other new fangled media. There are so many capillaries for contact that separating university and non-university life can seem impossible. There is communication of so many orders that one of the central features of university life is rather disorderly.
And that’s fine. The university, of all places, must be comfortable with a certain amount of disorder.
The McGill administration has lost a large measure of trust because people perceive it to be imposing a rigid order on the expression of dissent. The administration has used its access to email lists to condemn traditional protest demonstrations as uncivil and hostile to university life. But it is this very accusation that seems uncivil, in the radical sense that it is not befitting relations amongst fellow citizens to speak in a way that cannot be answered.
Every effort of the administration to impose a quiet order on the strike has – predictably, we think – aroused more confrontational responses from striking staff, and their student and faculty supporters. This logic of escalation culminated in the arrival of the riot police. The worst mistake we could make, in the wake of the past weeks, is to strive for more order than is befitting an institution of learning. Occupations are not going away. So we need to find a way of coping with this fact that does not involve calling in the anti-university, the police.
Hasana Sharp, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
William Clare Roberts, Assistant Professor of Political Science