I got angry again, so I started writing. The epicenter of my anger is some miscommunication. Misdirection even. There was a flare up on campus that was completely avoidable. It was violent and unnecessary and has no place on a University campus. Everyone concerned handled himself or herself poorly, in my estimation. At the very least, many of them could have managed the situation better. That includes the protestors, the police, and in particular our AMS student representative and lobbyist, Stefanie Ratjen. That being said, this address is not meant as an indictment of anyone involved, but an analysis of where our student governing body is headed and the roles and responsibilities of student activists.
The grassy knoll has some ardent lovers on campus, and it should. It has been the site of priceless social and activist endeavors, not to mention the stands for Storm-The-Wall spectators. Furthermore, the knoll represents to students a space that is their own, and not belonging to the “corporation.” Knoll-Aid 2, a student run rally to save the knoll was a largely happy and successful affair until it ran aground of some rather nasty rocks.
They started a bonfire of questionable merit or legality. No problem really, but it was the seed of miscommunication. The fire department arrived. The students refused to cooperate. The fire department saw it as an irresponsible and dangerous fire and called the police to intervene so the problem could be resolved. The police showed in force. The students took this display as crushing their right to demonstrate. The students did not respond peacefully. Neither did the police.
Where was the reasonable student activist on a megaphone telling the students to sit and peacefully be arrested, if it came to that? Where was the student telling the others to back down in front of the fire department and the police who originally had the safety of the community in mind, and only that? A good candidate was our AMS student representative. She was busy intervening her body between hose and fire. She may have been calling for a reasonable assembly. Even so, she put herself in the spotlight of a violent protest.
Alex Lougheed, AMS secretary, also stood up for something he believed in. That was, a fault in our AMS electoral system that allows for repeated student voting. He made this fault explicit by writing his name numerous times on the anonymous ballots. He was not attempting to cheat; he could have done so anonymously. In fact, that is the problem he raised. Alex is not an idiot. However, Mr. Lougheed had a number of options available to him. He could have written: “This system is a sham,” a hundred times and submitted them. Possibly signed by Democritus. He could have addressed the problem in an audacious manner while not endangering his political career – and more importantly without engendering students’ mistrust.
I love that our AMS representatives are standing up for what they believe in. A University is a place where we should be able to bear our opinions freely but peacefully, even in the face of legal opposition. Our government isn’t always right (some would argue it rarely is) and it has historically been the position of university students to stand their ground: the 1988 Student Uprising in Burma, Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, untold others. As students, we take very much from our country. Taxpayers cover most of our tuition. Most of us have very little in the way of familial, financial, and time-consuming obligations. Instead it is our obligation to use the knowledge we gain for the good of our country. Our world.
Violent protest is the last recourse of an activist. Getting arrested for such violence is a major tarnish on one’s reputation, especially if the person in question has political aspirations. I just marched around San Francisco with thousands of very angry people fighting for the independence of a nation, and human rights the world over. There was no violent outbreak like happened at UBC. Is the knoll so out proportion in its worth to students at UBC that they had to resort to violence when millions of people being slaughtered in Burma, Darfur, and Tibet can raise a protest largely free of violence? I feel and understand the position of our UBC rioters. You have some knowledge that you want to put to good use. You’re angry that big business steals away your freedoms for someone else’s profits. You want to show the world your anger. There are so many good reasons to get arrested in this world and the grassy knoll does not rank in my top five.
Additionally, our AMS representatives are not just students, but also politicians. And they have an image to uphold. In the face of heated and passionate protests it is not easy to keep one’s cool, uphold one’s image. I don’t demand our AMS figureheads have Ghandi-like composure and vision, but our representatives knew that their jobs would not be easy. When our lobbyist is fighting for our demands with the provincial government her image can’t be of spouting her mouth off in some cop’s face, however justified. Alex plainly shot himself in the foot. These are hiccups in their political lives that have not been (and will not be) easy on either of them, but the lessons they carry are invaluable.
Michael Duncan, our AMS president, entered a shit-storm when he took office: six weeks of trials over Alex’s situation and now this with Stefanie. A rather extraordinary situation, and it calls for extraordinary leadership. Duncan needs no call to action; he is working fervently. What he does need is the support of students. And he needs trust back on council. As a student body, we need to admit the wrongs of some of our young and passionate politicians, and forgive them their stumbles. These are good students with vision. I applaud Alex and Stefanie’s courage and wish we could see some hints of the same life in our country’s politicians. They have learned hard lessons and will be so much the better for it in serving our student body.
The stage is set for Duncan to become a great AMS president. He has some shit-disturbers for coworkers, a student body that is increasingly waking up, and the charisma to lead. Although undervalued by some, he is also alarmingly clever. Whatcha gonna do Duncan? We’re watching.