On a cold February morning in 2012, 20 McGill students calmly walked from the bus station on Docteur Penfield toward the James Administration building. Many were wearing clown wigs and carrying backpacks, while others brought balloons and a cake. After a hidden student signalled that security was not around, the group passed through the unlocked back door of the James Administration building.
As these students walked up to the building’s sixth floor, they were simultaneously stepping outside of McGill’s inefficient student democratic system to solve their problems. Yet their strategy failed, partially due to a series of serious mistakes on their part. This is why 6Party (as the occupation would come to be known) became a important source of lessons. I present a collection of lessons I took from this moment in history at McGill, realized through research but mainly from interviews I conducted with the occupiers. My hope is that future students can be inspired to take action by 6Party and learn from their strategic mistakes.
The 6Party occupation took place in the volatile 2011-12 academic year. In November, CKUT and QPIRG – two independent student groups – were scheduled to hold existence referendums which would determine if they continue to exist. However, this was not the only concern the organizations had on their mind. In 2007, CKUT and QPIRG had an online opt-out system forced upon them by the McGill administration. CKUT and QPIRG wanted the in-person opt-out system reinstated as it allowed them greater security in the face of financial instability.
Thus, CKUT and QPIRG incorporated their desire for the end of the online opt-out system into their referendum questions. The questions were formatted so that only two options were possible: either the organization would continue to exist and would be opt-outable in person, or the organization would no longer continue to exist. The questions’ wording would later prove to be an issue, but they were approved by various checks and balances and were placed on referendum ballots.
By November 10, the results of the referenda were in. CKUT and QPIRG both won, by 72 and 66 per cent, respectively. This should have meant that both organizations would return to existing outside of the jurisdiction of the online opt-out system. Things did not turn out to be that simple. Two months later, the McGill administration announced that the results of the referendum would not be recognized. The administration claimed that the referendum questions were in direct violation of the SSMU Constitution as they allegedly contained two questions (one regarding existence, one regarding the opt-out system).
McGill’s decision to invalidate the referendum results was an abuse of power. The only body at McGill technically allowed to overturn referendum results is the Judicial Board (J-Board). Two students had launched a case against QPIRG’s referendum results through the J-Board, but this was irrelevant as McGill made its decision on the matter clear. The McGill administration decided to circumvent McGill’s democratic process to impose its ruling.
The cumulative effect of poor administrative decisions that year finally boiled over, leading a group of McGill students to begin planning 6Party. At this point these students had found an important cause that many students were concerned with. Yet from here on out, most of the decisions the students made backfired.
The first mistake the occupiers made occurred during the planning stages of the occupation. Many members of the McGill community saw an earlier occupation in November as threatening due to the masks and black clothes the occupiers wore. The occupiers then decided to make 6Party more positive by styling it as a resignation party; they would wear clown wigs, bring balloons and a cake, and set up speakers to hold dance parties. They would also ‘party’ until their two main demands were met: the recognition of CKUT and QPIRG’s referendum results, and the resignation of Morton Mendelson, the Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), who the occupiers partially blamed for the administration’s behaviour.
This idea backfired as many McGill students did not view 6Party as a fun occupation with a serious message. Instead, they saw a group of seemingly ‘immature’ students dressed up and dancing in the midst of midterm season. Danji Buck-Moore, a former McGill student and 6Party occupier, expressed his frustration with this perception claiming, “What was disappointing I guess was that people saw it as being very childish; that was the word that was being thrown around a lot, or being immature. From my perspective I thought the backlash was almost hypocritical […] Do this one way and it’s perceived as being threatening and violent, do it another way and you’re perceived as being childish and immature.” Rather than preventing the occupation from being threatening, the party theme prevented it from being taken seriously.
The occupiers’ next mistake occurred on the day of the occupation itself. The occupiers set up a distraction rally in support of CKUT and QPIRG to allow themselves easier access to the James Admin building. When they entered the building unimpeded, students at the rally received the news and rushed to the site of the occupation. McGill student and 6Party occupier Solomon* was hidden on the first floor. They ran past security to open the now locked doors, allowing the mass of protesters to flood in. Solomon described the scene vividly, “We were all singing ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ and this huge crowd of people comes in. And then Midnight Kitchen comes in and all these people are there. We’re handing out coffee and we were having such a wonderful time downstairs and we made the administration building our own.”
The first floor occupation had evacuated by the next morning, leaving only 20 occupiers on the sixth floor. 6Party was not large enough, even for an occupation unconcerned with mass representative democracy, because it did not present a serious financial or logistical threat to McGill.
Due to 6Party’s failure to present a serious financial threat to McGill, it should be classified as a symbolic action rather than a direct action. Current McGill student and 6Party occupier Alex Lacroix described this distinction in relation to 6Party claiming, “People have this divide between symbolic actions and direct actions. So like, ‘No, I’m not going to go on a march, I’m going to go smash a bank window.’ […] These people shouldn’t be fooling themselves. That’s not a real action. That’s what will show up on the news the next day. So that means they go in trying to have this incredibly direct action and what they get is probably the most highly mediated action.”
Though 6Party was more of a symbolic action, a symbolic action can be as effective as a direct action. Yet as a symbolic action, 6Party was even more lacklustre than as a direct action because it failed to gain mass popular support.
Primarily, the 6Party occupiers failed to use social media properly. When the occupiers entered the James Administration building, they knew they would be faced with an uphill battle. Most McGill students are fine with ignoring student politics until they can’t; then, they typically crack down on whoever caused them to have to break their routine and pay attention. In this case, the culprit was the 6Party occupation. The reaction to the party theme Buck-Moore mentioned made it difficult for students to listen to the occupiers’ actual demands. Yet the press source that came to represent 6Party, and which would have been crucial for a successful symbolic action, made the occupiers’ public image even worse.
In the opening hours of the occupation, 6Party had no means set up to communicate with the outside world. A blog started by McGill student on leave and 6Party occupier Ethan Feldman, known as the Milton Avenue Revolutionary Press (MARP), inadvertently filled the communication void. MARP offered a live blog of what was going on inside the James Admin building with a satirical style, mimicking pieces of Maoist propaganda. Feldman claimed that other “extreme leftists” critiqued the blog calling it “too masculinist, too stupid.” He added that MARP “was vulgar and vile and it didn’t really fit the super positive party theme.”
MARP’s inflammatory content became a serious problem for 6Party when McGill sent a mass email to all staff and students linking to the MARP on the second day of the occupation, claiming that the occupiers’ demands could be found on the blog. At this point, thousands of students were exposed to the MARP’s content, permanently scarring the face of the occupation. Solomon expressed frustration with how seriously the blog was taken, stating, “People who went to MARP and pulled out stuff and then used it for whatever they were going to argue, we were just like, ‘No! Don’t go to MARP cause MARP is just calling everyone fascists.’ [laughs] Whoever is not part of the communist revolution is a fascist! That’s what MARP was talking about. And if you can’t recognize the absurdity of that then…” Yet Solomon also added that the blog’s intentions didn’t matter when it was being received in a far different way by most students.
By the time the administration linked to MARP, official 6Party press sources existed that provided relevant information. So, McGill certainly used their email system to deal a strategic blow to 6Party. While this was inappropriate, it should have come as no surprise to the occupiers who were well-versed in the administration’s shady behaviour.
Though the occupiers’ action, and lack of proper media strategy, made it easy for McGill students to react negatively, an organized opposition arose to ensure that 6Party would fail as a symbolic action. The opposition’s first move was creating a Facebook event titled “The James 6th Floor Occupiers Do NOT Represent me.” The event warned of a group of radical students taking over campus politics who had to be stopped, and was an effective display of clicktivism. Over 2000 students marked themselves as attending this event in the first couple days of the occupation.
The students who created this event, however, were no more in line with the “silent majority” than the occupiers. Most of these students had taken part in organizing politically motivated opt-out campaigns against CKUT and QPIRG in the past, which were not broadly supported either. Still, the medium of activism these students used was perfectly designed for largely apathetic McGill students. Solomon explains the troubling nature of the opposition’s tactics saying they were “coming at it from a neutral perspective. They were saying they were the voice of reason and […] moderation. One of the most insidious ways of making your voice seem like it’s not the oppressive voice is to hide it in the veil of tolerance [… ]I think if we were to decouple [them] from this, we would have had much more power […] All the liberals on the fence listened to them. The best thing to do is to win over the people on the fence; the liberals.” The conservative opposition had gained mass support from the general “liberal” students, at least on paper, destroying 6Party’s ability to be a successful symbolic action.
Finally, the McGill administration’s response to the occupation prevented it from becoming a successful symbolic action. The administration’s most important decision was to refrain from calling in the police immediately as they had done earlier in the year, which had led to students and professors on campus being pepper sprayed and beaten indiscriminately. Instead, the administration used other tactics to force the occupiers out. This included cutting off power, internet, food access, and eventually bathroom access for the occupiers. Though there was some backlash to these events, it did not do much damage to McGill’s public image.
Eventually the administration decided to use the threat of force against 6Party. On the sixth day of the occupation an eviction notice came knocking on 6Party’s doors. McGill security guards and several police officers informed the occupiers that they had five minutes to gather their things and get out of the building and off campus. The occupiers complied with police demands. There was little outcry regarding the police presence on campus used to force the occupiers out, as the administration had let the occupation drag out until it lost momentum. Buck-Moore claimed, “We were there [6Party] very clearly in a moment when we weren’t welcome to be there. There weren’t any people who ‘weren’t doing anything wrong’ who got police action brought against them. That was very much a difference from November 10 […] There was a massive moment of the student body feeling unsafe on November 10 […] Whereas in February […] I don’t think anyone else felt like the police presence affected them on campus.” 6Party ended six days after it started, with none of its demands met and the issues the occupiers had fought for still at stake.
In the coming days and weeks, the issue was settled through the system the 6Party occupiers sought to avoid. The J-Board case launched by two McGill students concluded with QPIRG’s results being invalidated. Though many doubted the legitimacy of this ruling due to the plaintiff’s history of political opposition to QPIRG, it was clear that the official system had disagreed with the occupiers’ belief that the referendum questions were legitimate.
However, during the occupation the McGill administration announced that the existence portion of CKUT and QPIRG’s referendum questions would be recognized. Still, if these organizations wanted to have the online opt-out system revoked, they would need to hold another referendum. CKUT announced they would be holding another election in March. They failed to win this referendum, with only 42 per cent support, a notable drop from the 72 per cent they had previously held. QPIRG chose not to hold another referendum. The online opt-out system is still in place for both organizations.
6Party likely contributed to CKUT’s loss of support, as many students ended up associating CKUT and QPIRG with 6Party. Louise Burns, a board and staff member at CKUT, described the negative effect of this connection. “I’m sure there was a negative backlash,” she said. ‘It was bound to have a negative backlash just in terms of students who, practically speaking, were inconvenienced, or from people who perhaps would have felt neutral towards CKUT or QPIRG who now had a reason to be annoyed or irked by us.”
The occupiers were also aware that this connection may have been possible. Some directly stated that the occupation probably did harm CKUT’s referendum, while others noted that they couldn’t be sure, but felt it was a possibility.
I perceive 6Party as a cycle of sorts. The occupiers were enraged by McGill’s disregard for student democracy. Due to this, the occupier’s launched 6Party as a means to empower themselves to solve the issues they had, without waiting for a system they felt was stacked against them. However, the action failed. Because it wasn’t destructive enough financially, it had to rely on the force of public opinion for its impact. Yet most students at McGill seemed to be against 6Party, which prevented the administration from having a serious crisis on its hands. The occupiers’ failure caused them to come full circle back to the inefficient system they despised to resolve the issues they had. Their action stacked this system even more against them than before, partially causing none of their demands to be met.
In my interviews with the occupiers, it was clear that they took their movement seriously and are not unaware of its deficiencies. In fact, they were quite open and frank about where 6Party failed, and what could have been done better. In terms of judging 6Party by its explicit demands, most of the occupiers agreed that it was a failure. Yet, the occupiers also listed ways it succeeded including the connections and friendships they made through it, the feeling of support they got from some fellow students, and its potential to inspire others in the future.
6Party’s potential to inspire is its most important feature. While 6Party failed, it did no serious damage to CKUT or QPIRG, as both organizations continue to exist and have attempted to make up the funds lost through the online opt-out system by raising their student fees. As for the occupiers, though they were forced to go through trials, most of the occupiers came out with a mere warning as punishment. As such, 6Party did no permanent damage to the occupiers, CKUT, or QPIRG.
The issues the occupiers partied for are still plaguing McGill. This is why the need to inspire is so important. Unless students are willing to take a few moments out of the daily grind of academic life, McGill’s student politics will only continue to deteriorate. While they certainly could have done things better, the most important thing the occupiers did was make a moment in history that McGill students won’t forget. As long as the problems 6Party fought for continue to exist, students who are troubled by them will as well. If 6Party can provide these students with the spark needed to set a political fire to McGill, it will have been a worthy venture. Until then, it’s clear that the party isn’t over.
*Name has been changed