Two days ago, on Saturday, 21 December, 2008, when I chose to participate in and do video documentation of a protest in Montréal organized by Block the Empire/Bloquez l’empire, like anyone else taking part, and those against it who did not take part, I had to ask myself “What for?” That the temperatures remained at about -14 degrees centigrade, with some added wind chill, and there had just been a heavy snowfall, and that this also was a Saturday afternoon, and that I had only 1.5 hours of sleep the night before, certainly made the question seem a lot more pointed. Definitely, this was something I could not miss.
Not a large number of people took part (more on this later), but the atmosphere of those gathered was great, even if in the initial moments there seemed to be more people with cameras and microphones than shoe throwers. We also saw the participation of Amir Khadir, a prominent recently elected member of the Québec National Assembly, from one of the more left wing parties in the province, Québec solidaire. He is an excellent speaker with a deadly aim. The police presence was light and unobtrusive, its primary apparent function being to direct traffic, especially as all movement of vehicles was stopped while the procession passed, en route from the U.S. Consulate on rue St-Alexandre and then along Boul. de Maisonneuve to the Canadian Forces Recruitment Centre on rue Ste-Catherine. The protest itself, and the speeches, like a lot of Montreal was bilingual, in French and English.
Even before the protest took place, it was beginning to gain the attention of both national and international media, for example:
- “Shoe In,” Stefan Christoff, CBC’s Hour.ca, 18 December, 2008.
- “Flying footwear a virtual shoo-in at Montreal protest in support of Iraqi reporter,” Canadian Press/Yahoo.ca, 18 December 2008
- “Shoe thrower sorry for ‘ugly act’,” Al Jazeera, 19 December, 2008.
- “Anti-war protesters will be hurling shoes,” The Chronicle Herald.ca, 19 December, 2008.
- “Sa famille n’en démord pas,” CBC Radio-Canada, 19 December, 2008.
After the event, more coverage followed:
- “Anti-war protesters target U.S. Consulate,” The Canadian Press/CTV.ca, 20 December, 2008. (As I expected, the words of speakers at the protest were taken out of context or misquoted — one can easily verify this fact by reading the article and then listening to the actual statements spoken in the video at the bottom. This article was repeated across a wide range of Canadian newspapers, including the Toronto Sun, the Ottawa Sun, and the Edmonton Sun.)
- “Des manifestants lancent des souliers en solidarité d’un journaliste irakien,” La Presse Canadienne, 20 December, 2008.
- “Solidarité pour le lanceur de souliers,” CBC Radio-Canada, 20 December 2008.
- Ken Regular on the protests: CTV Toronto, 20 December 2008, video.
- “Protesters hurl shoes in solidarity with jailed Iraqi journalist,” Jessica Murphy and Tamsyn Burgmann, The Globe and Mail, 20 December 2008.
- “Lancers de chaussures devant un consulat américain à Montréal,” Le Matin.ch, 21 December 2008.
- «Lancers de chaussure devant un consulat américain au Canada» Le Monde (France)
For a cause
The organizers planned the event for serious reasons as an expression of solidarity with imprisoned, and some now say beaten and tortured, Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi, who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush in Baghdad a week before. While Bush misstepped, and erroneously took the opportunity of al-Zeidi’s act of defiance as proof that America had, yes, really given Iraqis a liberty they never enjoyed before…he “forgot” the obvious: there is no such liberty, al-Zeidi took it, and the state imprisoned him promptly. That some on the right wing of North American political commentary should confuse imprisonment with liberty should be no surprise. The protest was intended to add public expression of support for al-Zeidi, occurring in different places around the world, calling for his immediate release from prison and to denounce his abuse in custody.
Al-Zeidi now faces an unbelievable conviction that could send him to prison for up to 15 years. Clearly the Iraqi state wants to make sure that it never again has to face opposition from a journalist with a strong conscience. His brother, who visited Muntadar in jail, asserts that Muntadar has been tortured for 36 consecutive hours, including with electric shocks, beaten about the face, has a bleeding eye, and was forced to sign an apology against his will (source).
The protest included solidarity with al-Zeidi, and went beyond it. At no point was it conceived or designed as “anti-American,” though some chose to understand it that way regardless, in part because the first stop of the protest was at the U.S. Consulate, and some initial advertising of the protest (which I saw only about three days before), might have been understood to suggest that shoes would be thrown at the Consulate. The focus beyond al-Zeidi was the continued occupation of Iraq, and the continued war in Afghanistan that Obama wants to continue and expand. Canada has its armed forces directly involved in Afghanistan. The protest thus took aim at the Canadian government as well, personified by Prime Minister Stephen Harper who continues to ignore the will of an overwhelming majority of Canadians by continuing Canada’s involvement in the war. Supposedly, Canada is to withdraw in 2011, but with continuing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calling publicly for Canada to stay longer — just how long does the U.S. plan to stay there? — there is already doubt that a Conservative government would resist such calls for long, or even a Liberal government for that matter. In addition, Canada continues to perform a supportive war in the U.S.’ so-called “war on terror”, and my Québec-Vermont post touched on one aspect of this collaboration.
That the protesters at the rally chose to repeatedly shout through the streets of Montréal, “Bush, criminal! Harper, accomplice!” is a choice that is right on target, though I worry that someone might construe this to mean that Canada is a mere puppet or pawn. Canada also has an imperial agenda as a geopolitical actor akin to the UK, France, or Australia, and certainly no less “innocent” than the U.S. merely for possessing smaller armed forces.
For the theatre, and for the record
The protest was also designed to provide some street theatre, which attracted the attention of many passers by, some of whom stopped to spectate, and I saw at least two go to pick up shoes from the piles and hurl them. That is one reason why estimates of the size of the protest are blurry, some reports saying 40, one report saying a “handful,” and in my estimate the number hovered around 100. Either way, it was not what I would call a “mass protest,” but what lacked in large numbers the protesters more than made up with their enthusiasm and excellent humour, creating a party atmosphere, with clapping, horn blasts, and even the accompaniment of an accordion. The video I present shows this.
However, unless we are talking about shoe sizes, size does not matter in this case, precisely because the event was mediated and recorded.
That brings me to my compulsion to take part, to produce a video record. No longer is the event finite in time and space. It is not over. It was not just “here.” Instead it gets repeated/replayed, re-viewed, time and again, in many locations, sometimes many times and in many places simultaneously, by virtue of being digital video online. It therefore achieves permanence and diffusion, the number of participants and supporters now swelling to numbers we can never really know for certain. Those bothered by the event, angered by it, opposing it, and who urged prospective participants not to take part, now have to live with this permanence.
The mass media played their part too:
- They distorted elements of the protest and the speeches, demonstrating precisely what the protest speakers were emphasizing: that the idea (the Canadian Press article above writes “ideal,” a big difference in meanings) of neutral and objective journalism is a sham. Journalists have been embedded with the military, or in bed with the military as one speaker stated. Another stated, and the fact he referred to should matter to an ethnographer, that journalists have slept in barracks with the troops and shared meals with them. On this blog, we have debated the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System that embeds social scientists with military units in counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only time online, right wing, pro-militarist commenters bawled about a lack of objectivity was when John Stanton began to reveal details that did not sit well with their idealized representation of either the military or HTS. However, without a single exception, in no case has there been any media report on HTS that was merely neutral and impartial — I choose my words carefully. I know that some mistake an absence of a political perspective as being “objective,” when in fact it is impossible. The only plausible objectivity is one that is honest about its bias, meets with a certain measure of inter-subjective agreement, and refers to verifiable aspects of reality that stand outside the head of the writer. One can therefore have an openly political agenda, and still produce objective reporting. Europeans have understood this for a long time, but North Americans are still stuck in their infancy in understanding the relationships between politics, ethics and analysis, still enamoured with some cartoonish image of a Professor Beasely in his lab coat, mixing chemicals, surprised by results he never could have anticipated. For many on this side of the world, everything is to be conceded to the state, to the powerful: objectivity is de facto that which aligns itself with the military, with industry, and with the state. Anything that criticizes any of these, or raises uncomfortable questions, or brings out their “bad sides,” is thus automatically, by reflex action, classed as “subjective,” and the position really is as demented as it sounds. I am still baffled that adults, even educated ones, hold so dearly to such vapidly adolescent beliefs. The more sophisticated call of the protesters was for something much more laudable: a journalism that is professional because it is principled and socially responsible.
- The media, while playing the role the protesters accused it of performing, were nonetheless of value to the protesters, for the same reasons I mentioned with regard to the video record. The media made the event wider, of longer duration, and documented. The protesters also did one very clever and powerful thing in inviting journalists, “off the record,” to pick up shoes and throw them: they were encouraging the journalists to remember how one of their own was being abused in Iraq, to take sides with a fellow journalist, and to question their role in the service of empire. The media were thus both targets and tools, and of course they had an agenda of their own in covering the protest.
For the wrath and the witness
Yes, there was a lot of good humour and cheer, no doubt. However, let us not lose sight of the intentional acts of symbolic violence represented by throwing shoes at images of the faces of Bush and Harper. Had there not been this undertone of violence, there would not have been as many online commenters and in-person hecklers trying to quell our disturbance, trying to put out our fire, trying to pacify us, or trying to humiliate us. Opponents of this protest should be grateful: it was a theatricalized canalization of violence, not an eruption of “the real thing.”
By the same token, one could very convincingly argue that the protest caused no real harm to the dominant system. What was achieved? We did not defeat U.S. imperialism. We did not get foreign troops booted out of Iraq and Afghanistan. We did not get the immediate release of al-Zeidi. We did not even get a mass protest. And, we got very cold. (I still think of the wafer-thin young female student whose booming voice you can hear during the street march segment of the video, who must have taken in vast amounts of cold air when leading the shouts, and I wonder if some of these people were very ill the day after.)
That’s right, we achieved none of those things. What we did do is register — that in our corner of this world-system, we are aware, we are in touch, and we take the time to express ourselves politically and publicly in solidarity. We refused to remain invisible. We refused to remain quiet. We made our presence felt. We served witness, and we served some wittiness at the same time. By not being glum and somber, we made it clear that we are not beaten down, demoralized, turned in upon ourselves. We do not concede laughter to the powerful.
From an anthropological perspective, we also served to further transnationalize and popularize the Arab shoe of contempt into a global symbol of protest and resistance. That one man, Muntadar al-Zeidi, should have had such an impact, for such an arguably simple act, puts to rest theories that the individual does not count, and that symbolic action is empty action.
For the concreteness of realizing democratic practice
Almost as soon as The Globe and Mail put up its article, in came the rush of comments, useful for revealing what some Canadians think of democracy, echoed by a couple of hecklers encountered on the march. “Get a job!” — the right wing sorely needs to expand and update its database of slogans. “Keep quiet!” Does one see the link there? Work, don’t complain — it’s a classic fascist statement, and by classic I mean Mussolini and the Italian Black Shirts of the 1930s. “Let’s work, let’s not complain,” was also a command painted by the Guatemalan military under the junta of Ríos Montt, in towering letters on the side of a mountain, on the road leading west from the capital as I saw it in the 1980s. With echoes of past dictatorships in the background, others turned to unsolicited parenting: “Don’t you have anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon?” Others asked that we instead mail our shoes to Bush in protest, a suggestion so stupid (see it on Facebook) that it is obviously meant to be effectively anti-protest given the individual, invisible, unregistered, and even expensive nature of such a faux protest.
Get a job — a distinctively Anglo-Saxon Protestant value, that if one does anything it must be work to generate money. Anything else is incomprehensible. That suits this five-second democracy of ours, where silently lining up for five seconds at the ballot box can only minimally be allowed to interfere with the working day, the time spent in non-democracy serving a boss. Not even a whole working day, once every five years, is allowed for the practice of democracy. People organizing and voicing protest, publicly, “unproductively,” is anathema to the system, and that is another reason why it was worth participating.
But some of the most striking comments, for me, were those that reflected the increased Americanization and militarization of right wing Canadian political discourse. Increased Americanization is seen in the protests of supporters of Conservative PM Harper, and in the words of Harper himself, who insist on this notion that Canadians choose their Prime Minister, which they absolutely do not. In this parliamentary system, you vote for a party, and the party with the largest number of seats selects its leader, who thus becomes Prime Minister.
The militarization enters with the notion that we owe everything to the military, including democracy, and that killing Afghan villagers is protection of democracy in Canada. In actuality, the military, a fundamentally undemocratic institution, gets its funding through coercive extraction of capital, from anyone who pays taxes, and that means anyone with an income, a house, and anyone who buys anything — it exists as a matter of an undemocratic lack of choice. That it is still owed something is a surprise to me. Moreover, the military is used to impose a political program on others, to use violence to bend the wills of others, both abroad and at home. The Canadian military has been used to overturn the wishes of the Haitian people in removing a democratically elected president. They are used to impose a developmental program on Afghanistan. And they have been used at home to stifle opposition from Québec sovereigntists and from First Nations protesters.
There is a thread to these arguments, and that is a subtle but very bitter resentment of democracy. This line of thought was best expressed by one comment: “Since they were all in one place, its too bad we couldn’t have rounded them all up and sent them to Iraq. But we live in a democracy where we can express such feelings, thanks to the blood let and spilled by our country in previous wars! Never forget.” Too bad this is a formal, paper-thin democracy, too bad, but even if we are to praise it, let’s do so on one condition: that we surrender to the military the fact of our democracy, because on our own we are nothing, incapable of realizing democracy.
And for that reason, more protests are needed. In the meantime, this one lives on with all its laughter:
Shoes Against Bush and Harper (Montreal, December 20, 2008)
“This is a farewell kiss, you dog!”
CKUT, The A-Infos Radio Project
Produced by Aaron Lakoff
(par/by Anirudh Khul)
(par/by Pierre-Luc Daoust)
(par/by Darren Ell)
A Global Shoe Fly Zone: Shoes at Bush: From Iraq to Quebec
Le lancer du soulier ou la mémoire d’une « bushrie »
(a great compilation and interpretation)
Vodpod videos no longer available.