As Quebec’s student strike – now the longest and largest in Quebec history – wraps up its 11th week and the stakes get higher, much is being made of the movement’s “violence.” Last week, Education Minister Line Beauchamp called on student associations to denounce violence by student activists. In response, CLASSE – the student association representing almost half of the striking students and the most left-leaning of the three major student associations – adopted a nuanced position that condemned deliberate violence against people except in cases of self-defence, while affirming the importance of civil disobedience and denouncing what they call the systemic violence of police repression and discrimination in access to education.
For many people outside of Quebec, last Friday’s heated demonstration against Plan Nord was the first they saw of the movement. Since then, news coverage has continued to focus on vandalism. On CBC, images of smashed windows and masked protestors played repeatedly as the reporter condemned the students’ “violence”. Rarely is it mentioned that, over the past ten weeks, students have suffered broken arms, broken legs, broken ribs, the loss of an eye, concussions, bruises, sprains, and seemingly endless rounds of lung-destroying CS gas at the hands of the police. Indeed, on that very day, police were firing rubber bullets into the crowd.
There seems to be a widespread belief that, in order to be legitimate, a protest must maintain civility at all times, abide by the rules, and even turn the other cheek when met with increasing hostility from the powers that be. In other words, the legitimacy of the cause is said to be determined by the way in which it is expressed. In the feminist blog spaces I frequent, we call this a tone argument: women are often told they must be less “shrill” to be heard, and people of colour are told they’re too “angry.” Whether the topic is an individual complaint or a 300,000-person movement, this argument only serves as a way of shutting down dialogue. If you truly believe someone is right, you don’t call them a liar because of the tone they use. If you truly believe a cause is justified, you don’t say things like “I used to oppose the tuition hikes, but now students’ tactics have turned me against them.”
Because the thing is, those rules about how to behave? They’re created by the people who profit from the status quo. The people who benefit from women being silenced and people of colour being oppressed and universities being havens for the rich and ruling-class. You can’t win with them: no protest will ever be peaceful enough, docile enough, non-threatening enough to suit their wishes. Expressions of anger against the status quo will always be called disruptive, even violent. Meanwhile, we live in a system that privileges the accumulation of capital over the value of human life, and oppresses us according to our gender, race, ability, age, or class in order to sustain that accumulation. This system enacts daily violence on both those who defy it and those who simply live within it. This violence may be physical – such as the police brutality, surveillance, and disproportionate arrests experienced by student protestors and also by communities of colour, queer communities, and others on a routine basis. Or it may be less tangible but equally destructive, such as the effects of being systematically excluded from higher education, higher-paying jobs, and the possibility of economic “success.”
It should be obvious to everyone that smashing a window is hardly equivalent in severity to using riot shield or baton to beat a student and send them to the hospital unconscious or with a broken limb. But while students have been demonized for the former, police have regularly done the latter with impunity from the government and most media. However, beyond the distinction between property damage and physical harm, we must recognize that one is an act of resistance, which seeks to open up new spaces of possibility, while the other is an act of oppression reinforcing and upholding the unequal status quo. Moving beyond the idea of violence as an individual action allows us to focus on the systemic oppression perpetrated by policies such as the proposed tuition hikes, which would restrict education and opportunity only to those whose families are already in positions of privilege. By naming that oppression, we can recognize the necessity of actions that resist those policies – whether they are free teach-ins organized outside the oppressive framework of institutional education or physical attacks on the structures that uphold and promote an unequal society.
As the government claims a moral high-ground in its denunciation of “vandalism,” I hope that students and their allies will continue to condemn the violence that this government’s policies – and the police force employed to defend them – perpetrates on everyone with a stake in a just society.
Mona Luxion is a PhD student in Urban Planning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A previous version of this article stated that CLASSE is the largest Quebec student association. Rather, it is the Quebec student association representing almost half of the striking students. The Daily regrets the error.