Not quite the rev, but we’re getting closer

In 2012, McGill student protesters reimagined the University. In 2017, what can we learn from the mythical Mob Squad?

It’s day five of the occupation – February 10, 2012. Poster board placards and paper signs with witty slogans pepper the linoleum tiling on the sixth floor of the James administration building. It looks as though a group of insurgent clowns – complete with wigs, a birthday cake, and balloons – have moved into a space that, on a regular day, houses the quotidian operations of McGill’s administration. The protesters have radically reimagined the possibilities of the space: students pass the time composing impassioned manifestos, catching up on readings for classes they aren’t attending, discussing strategy, theory, imagining beautiful, queer, classless futurities – the expropriation of private property! The radical redistribution of wealth and privilege! The eradication of systems of dominance and oppression! The dismantling of the white supremacist colonial cis heteropatriarchal nation state! One particularly playful student reads aloud from the Communist Manifesto to the guards sent to keep watch.

A few months later, over 250,000 students would take to the streets demanding free and accessible post-secondary education, among other things. Later still, night demos would begin, in protest of the still-in-effect Law 78, along with the now infamous tradition of banging on casseroles (pots and pans) as a show of indignation. The night demos ran for a hundred consecutive nights. Black Blocs marched beside baby carriages, often to a combination of delight, curiosity, and chagrin from all parties. There were weeks of targeted economic disruption. A provincial election was forced, neighborhood assemblies strengthened, communities forged. It might not have been “the rev,” but the 2012 student strikes achieved a lot, and McGill students, for the first time in a long time, were right on the frontlines.

One particularly playful student reads aloud from the Communist Manifesto to the guards sent to keep watch.

The above image of the 6party occupation is part real, part imagined (the Marx bit is, incredibly, real). It is, however, based off of stories. Stories I’ve read, stories I’ve been told, stories I’ve overhead murmured between song breaks at a basement punk show. This article will focus on the Mob Squad, the name commonly used to refer to the 2010 to 2012 student mobilization committee at McGill, and the role it played during the strikes.

The 2012 student strikes – and the shadowy group of student activists behind them – have become the stuff of myth. And, in a way, the mythographic process of accumulating these stories, experiences, and reflections imitates the way the 2012 student strike is experienced by undergraduate students currently at McGill. But this feature is about the real people, the real situations, and the real challenges behind the mythical Mob Squad. This will not be a nostalgia piece, nor will it try to force some kind of totalizing moral narrative on the past. Historic strategies of resistance cannot be simply imputed directly into our own contemporary context. Even so, it’s important to learn from those who came before us.

How did Mob Squad form?

6party, the infamous multi-day occupation of the sixth floor of the James administration building, was a response to the administration’s unilateral decision to invalidate the results of the Fall 2011 existence referenda for CKUT and the Quebec Public Interest Research Group – McGill (QPIRG). The action developed out of the much larger and more nebulous Mob Squad. The Mob Squad functioned as a mobilization committee similar to ones present at other francophone universities in Quebec – such as at l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) – and was not the first of its kind at McGill. While it was affiliated with the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), having been spearheaded by 2010-2011 VP External Myriam Zaidi and remaining vaguely within the Vice Presidential mandate until its dispersal following the end of the student strikes, the Mob Squad acted independently of SSMU and was not directly answerable to it. While this relationship was not without contention or opposition, it did allow for Mob Squad members to access the considerable resources at SSMU’s disposal.

It’s impossible to provide one totalizing definition of what the Mob Squad ‘was,’ but that’s part of its beauty. The Mob Squad was intentionally many different things to many different people. The group quickly adopted an organizational model that distributed decision making power throughout its members, which allowed for adaptability, self-determination, and spontaneity. Unlike current, global systems of power that operate through domination and control, and wherein a small group of people seize authority over the lives of the masses, a decentralized framework is an organizational model in which each individual is understood to have autonomy over their own actions, and power is dispersed throughout the group rather than concentrated on one individual or a core group of “leaders.” In Mob Squad, a decentralized framework meant that members could pitch actions, contribute skills, or engage in outreach, taking from the group what they found most useful, and giving back according to their abilities. As no one member had veto power to police the actions of any other member, Mob Squad served primarily as a node of common interest, where rad cats could find other rad cats who were also interested in radical organizing, a fluid network of diverse and sometimes contradictory words and deeds. Mob Squad established a space for like-minded student activists and radicals to converge and organize around issues at both a university and provincial level outside of the avenues of conciliation that were being presented to students by the administration at the time.

It’s impossible to provide one totalizing definition of what the Mob Squad ‘was,’ but that’s part of its beauty.

Plans for the 2012 student strike date back to at least 2007, when the government announced a tuition increase of $500 over five years. When it became clear that the strike planned in response to the hike wasn’t going to be successful, students started planning for the next one – and this time, they would do it right. Opportunity arose when, in the spring of 2010, the Quebec Liberal Party, then under Premier Jean Charest, announced in the budget that, among other cuts to social spending, his government planned to increase tuition by 75 per cent – the largest tuition increase Quebec had ever seen. Things began to escalate from there, as a series of interrelated events took shape which would lead to the radicalization of many students on McGill campus, solidifying growing interest in developing a McGill Mob Squad. An encounter with police brutality by a McGill contingent at the G20 summit protests in June of 2010 incited many to apply their experiences in Toronto to foment dissidence in Montreal. In October 2011, students participating in actions taken by striking McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA) workers became interested in further organizing. On November 10, 2011, over a hundred riot police brutalized students on McGill campus during an occupation of the James administration building. The Mob Squad attracted students from diverse groups on campus: some were environmental activists, others worked with CKUT radio, QPIRG-McGill or other social advocacy groups on campus, but most had very little experience organizing. The learning curve for Mob Squad members was steep, but the process lead to a series of victories and powerful actions that put McGill on the map of the student movement.

Both Myriam Zaidi and Joël Pednault, who sat as VP External of SSMU during the 2012 student strikes, saw their position within the group as one of facilitation and resource provision, as opposed to one of leadership. Because of its decentralized framework it would be wrong to call Myriam the group’s “founder,” as that language inaccurately implies authority or hierarchy. That said, Myriam’s background as someone who grew up in Montreal meant that she was already familiar with the Quebec student movement prior to arriving at McGill. Her experiences with activism through CEGEP organizing meant that she was acquainted with the culture of militant organizing that is particular to Quebec, and her ties to other francophone universities in the province – many of which have a long standing culture of mobilization committees – convinced her and many others that McGill needed to step up its game.

Myriam and her peers established the Mob Squad to make space for students who wanted to be involved in activism on campus. McGill is notorious for attracting and arguably incubating an apolitical student body, especially when compared to more politically militant university populations at Quebec’s francophone universities, colleges, and CEGEPS. McGill’s administration is deeply committed to maintaining its image as an ‘elite,’ ‘apolitical’ institution, and this student apathy works to its benefit. “It is challenging [to organize students on campus],” Myriam told me in a telephone interview, “but at the same time, when we did start this Mob Squad, I knew that there were activists on campus. There are student activists, there are people who go to demonstrations, there are a lot of very critical students and so it was just a question of putting them all in the same room and being like, ‘This is happening. The tuition hike is going to come and there’s going to be mass mobilization against it and we just need to organize.’ And people wanted to organize.” For Myriam, the newly minted Mob Squad wasn’t in itself revolutionary, but it was a vital step in combatting the effects of austerity on campus.

‘This is happening. The tuition hike is going to come and there’s going to be mass mobilization against it and we just need to organize.”

Despite the stereotype of the “McGill bubble” full of apathetic Anglos, Myriam doesn’t buy that students weren’t active on campus before 2012. “Yeah, maybe we don’t have decades of student organizing and strikes at McGill, but we had gender neutral bathrooms. We had things present at McGill that were absent from a lot of other campuses in Quebec.”

What Mob Squad fought for and against

One of the student activists who became involved with the Mob Squad was Molly Swain, who graduated from McGill and now runs the “unapologetically Indigenous, unabashedly female, and unblinkingly nerdy” podcast Métis In Space. Molly first became involved in Mob Squad in October 2011 when, like many of her peers, she was drawn to the group for its solidarity work with striking MUNACA workers. Once the MUNACA dispute was resolved, many students were starting to question what role McGill students would play in the inevitable student strikes that were just around the corner. “We started talking about what McGill’s role was in Quebec as kind of an Anglo, white-supremacist institution, very elitist, and what its history has been in student strike and student movement stuff,” she told me, recalling conversations happening within the Mob Squad at the time. “We wanted to use our power and privilege as McGill students to fight these tuition increases and to fight against these austerity policies of the government.”

High tuition fees act as a financial barrier to students who desire to learn and contribute to society, but who lack the financial resources to do so. Student activists at McGill applied an intersectional approach to their analyses of tuition hikes, with the understanding that high tuition disproportionately impacts racialized and Indigenous students. Federal governments have been chronically underfunding the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP), a federal program that allocates funds to subsidize education for Indigenous students seeking to pursue higher education. Education is a treaty right, and it is a disgrace that the government continues to deliberately underfund this program. The Indigenous populations of Canada are the highest growing populations, meanwhile Prime Minister Trudeau has yet to follow through on his promise of $50 million per year in funding for the PSSSP. Inaccessible education affects the composition of our campuses; it’s no surprise that closing off access to post-secondary education behind a multi-thousand dollar paywall will target the poor and underprivileged. As Canada’s deep income divide tends to fall along ethnic and racial lines, it’s not hard to imagine that without a radical reconsideration of what the educational system can do and who can access it that these divides will only become increasingly entrenched. Many Mob Squad members believed in the goal of free and accessible post-secondary education, while simultaneously questioning the trend of university diplomas being a necessary precondition for fulfilling and fair employment, as well as the racial and class dimensions to increasing tuition fees.

“We wanted to use our power and privilege as McGill students to fight these tuition increases and to fight against these austerity policies of the government.”

Mob Squad organizers weren’t just in it for free, accessible post-secondary education. They were also interested in radically reimagining what a place of education should be. Mob Squad members believed that they deserved a say in how the University was governed, and took issue with the increasing privatization of publicly funded institutions. McGill administrators were doing nothing to stand with students and protest fee increases. Mob Squad members felt this was a betrayal, and organized campaigns to try to shift this power dynamic.

At their best, the student strikes in 2012 were fighting against the ongoing neoliberal process of austerity, which cuts funding to social services such as healthcare, childcare, and affordable housing, as well as to education. The Mob Squad members who I spoke with stressed that the struggle for free, accessible post-secondary education must simultaneously be a struggle to reform the very foundations of a society dominated by the predatory and extractive logic of neoliberalism.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that the student movement at the time was uniformly anti-colonial and anti-racist. In fact, certain student leaders were advocating for the allocation of funds garnered from the Plan Nord, an imperialist resource extraction project which would directly impact Indigenous peoples in the region, to be used towards funding post-secondary education in the province. Jean Pednault has written a great response to this in the collection “This is Fucking Class War,” and many other students were organizing against Plan Nord at the same time.

How the Mob Squad fought: Direct action and education

The Mob Squad’s actions ranged from direct action to community outreach. They organized class talks providing students with information about upcoming strike votes and possible means of engagement, they put together informational leaflets, and – once faculties and, later, departments started having successful strike votes – the Mob Squad organized to pass further strike votes and to convince students to respect the strike and not go to class.

However, the Mob Squad is most famous for its participation in direct actions. The distinguishing feature of direct action is that it implies unmediated activity, exerting power directly towards the desired goal. In contradistinction to reformist actions such as lobbying, voting, or attempting to capture political clout through the media, direct action is a way for activists to assert their own power while refusing to concede to the illegitimate authority of existing institutions which maintain the status quo. Some direct action tactics include blockades, occupations, wildcat strikes, and the destruction of property. Students in 2012 participated in all of the aforementioned actions, and often disrupted the day-to-day functionings of capitalism as a way of exerting pressure on an already buckling political order by arresting the free flow of capital and the mercury-smoothness of the machinations of state power.

It was a way of exerting pressure on an already buckling political order by arresting the free flow of capital and the mercury-smoothness of the machinations of state power.

Molly Swain is a firm believer in direct action. “I believe it’s an incredible tool, not only to get your message out there and to get people talking, but to also just directly affect what’s going on,” she says. “It changes your relationship to where you are, because suddenly everything seems possible. You feel like you can win. And it’s amazing. All of your preconceptions, everything they tell you you can’t do falls away, because you’re doing it!”

Molly’s words remind me of some of the strategies deployed by the Situationists in the late 1960s as part of the rising New Left political movement, which rearticulated and expanded upon classical Marxist theory. The Situationists proposed to subvert dominant culture by radically reimagining the possibilities presented to them by their environment. Similarly, direct actions undertaken by Mob Squad members reorganized and recontextualized their relationship to the geography of Montreal. Bridges, sixth floor offices, and public streets were transformed from their daily ‘apolitical’ uses to become spaces for a radical engagement with democracy. By demonstrating that space could be used in ways that transcended – as opposed to merely criticized – the status quo, the protesters expanded the window of acceptable discourse and acceptable action. As Molly described, through direct action the protesters self-transformed from docile, consumptive bodies into playful, active agents. The protesters’ habitual ways of moving and being in urban spaces had been disrupted by traumatic encounters with police brutality. In response, a burning cop car or a smashed bank window opened up a new world of seemingly limitless possibilities: a new relational framework between self and other, self and space.

Through direct action the protesters self-transformed from docile, consumptive bodies into playful, active agents.

It is important, however, to resist the hierarchy of activism, where direct action is seen as the most important, legitimate, or effective form of dissidence. Migration status, race, job precarity, trauma, and other forms of precarity all factor into someone’s decision whether or not to take up direct action. Jaime Maclean, another Mob Squad member, also supports direct action. She emphasized, however, that at the time she believes there was a pervasive and problematic belief that direct action was the only effective tactic. “There can be this valuing of direct action as ‘the best thing.’ But no, it’s one tactic that’s being often used during this movement because it’s one tactic that’s actually effective right now,” she told me. A successful direct action is one node within a constellation of successive actions, strategies, and tactics towards a larger, long-term goal. Often the best way forward is through a diversity of tactics which allow for broad-base participation – and Mob Squad’s decentralized structure allowed for such a range of tactics. Stapling together the same two pages for five hours to produce a flyer or manifesto isn’t particularly glamorous work, but it many ways it’s that kind of grunt work (often, if unsurprisingly, undertaken by women and femmes of colour) that provides the groundwork for any successful action. You can’t hold a demo without bodies, but the movement will flounder if all energies are devoted solely to mobilization while educational and agitational work suffer, and the organizers of Mob Squad recognized this. Molly refers to this work as “paperwork for the rev.” Sometimes it’s just as vital and insurrectionary to pass out leaflets as it is to blockade a classroom, and the Mob Squad took on both roles.

Community standards, or lack thereof

Establishing trust and solidarity within emergent communities of resistance is perhaps the most vital and yet most challenging aspect of organizing. At McGill, fragmentation, individualization, and competition is endemic to the academic culture. It doesn’t help that these traits are further validated and condoned by a neoliberal system whose survival depends on our isolation, consumption, and rivalry. Trust developed organically amongst Mob Squad organizers through necessity – often it was incited by the binding power of collective experiences of trauma through exposure to the appendages of state violence, as well as the discursive violence of being a KSR (Known Student Radical) on an often openly hostile campus. A core group of Mob Squad organizers was unofficially established, and members began to rely heavily on each other for both emotional and political support, and many of the friendships forged through struggle remain to this day.

The Mob Squad, at the best of times, was an assemblage of mutual and multiplicitous networks and freely associated individuals, and spawned and supported a diversity of opinions, tactics, and ideologies that generated both insurrectionary discourse and praxis. Mob Squad was a site of lively debate and contestation between different analyses and strategies for praxis. Factions and differences in ideology were at times clearly defined within the group, but most of those I spoke with insisted that these differences lead to a richness of debate and diversity of tactics which contributed to their strength as a community of resistance.

However, the Achilles heel of decentralized organizational frameworks is that they lack accountability measures. Activism does not happen within a vacuum, and activist spaces are not immune to the same systems of power and oppression articulated within dominant culture. Every member I spoke with noted that, regardless of the “best of intentions,” often organizing meetings would be dominated by men, with the role of regulating those behaviours falling to the women, femmes, and people of colour in the group. Many expressed their wish that there had been more discussion around mutual care and accountability, both to prevent burn out and to create safer activist spaces. While many of those in the group held anti-hierarchical beliefs, to say that the group itself was non-hierarchical would be to erase the very real, though sometimes subtle, power dynamics which existed.

Most of those I spoke with insisted that these differences lead to a richness of debate and diversity of tactics which contributed to their strength as a community of resistance.

The core group of organizers developed an informal and only somewhat effective model for discussing their feelings and attempting to work through conflict, but Mob Squad was a nebulous and endlessly mutating group. Depending on what was happening at any given week Mob Squad meetings could see a turnout of eight to sixty students. With that kind of fluidity, it can be difficult to establish binding accountability measures, especially when taking into account the frenetic pace with which the strikes moved. Strategy, in general, seemed to be of the “by the seat of your pants” variety. I spoke with Jaime about the effectiveness of this method. “There were instances of macho aggressive behaviour which, over a period of time, is a little abusive. Especially when they’re people you’re friends with and have relationships with outside of this political argument.” She says members never thought of group dynamics as being “identified as ‘we all need to be accountable to one another’ or ‘we need to work through conflict,’ so much as ‘we all have a lot of feelings today and we’re going to try to get together to talk about it.’ And it wasn’t super successful, because it wasn’t as important to some people as it was to others.”

Most conflict resolution depended on members’ willingness to participate in debriefs or community discussions, and there weren’t concrete measures in place to regulate who had access to these spaces and when. The ineffectiveness of this method became horrifically apparent when, after the strike had subsided, a number of sexual assaults were disclosed. Many women and femmes had been forced into daily contact with their perpetrators, some of whom were very involved within the student movement. Jaime confides that “there were a lot of instances of sexual assault during the student strike among student activists who were doing the strike everyday for months. After it was all over and the dust settled a little bit […] it came to light that there were all of these people who were crossing boundaries and causing harm to one another. Because it was a really misogynistic environment.”

The ineffectiveness of this method became horrifically apparent when, after the strike had subsided, a number of sexual assaults were disclosed.

Is this the rev? Or, what happened after

By late spring of 2012 things had become hectic. Those I spoke to describe the harrowing details of their lives once the strike was in full swing: early morning studying before 6 a.m. manif-actions, running late to class covered in pepper spray, actions on campus every day and night demos every night. Most sacrificed all other pursuits and dedicated themselves entirely to the strike. The Mob Squad began focusing on organizing departmentally, focusing on smaller scale strike actions, mobilizing students around strike votes, and convincing students who were on strike not to go to class.

Self-preservation is essential to any sustainable movement, but most of the Mob Squad-ers I spoke with admitted that self-care hadn’t been high on their priorities. Myriam pointed out that activists are not immune to the ideological indoctrination that they receive as members of a neoliberal society. “It’s hard to resist the capitalist idea that your worth is determined by how much you produce,” she says, highlighting that this way of measuring worth is exclusionary to people whose positionality, (dis)abilities, or other traumas might circumscribe their ability to engage in activism in conventional ways.

For many, once things were heating up and more and more people were becoming involved, it really did feel like the “rev.” They describe a frenetic, forward-oriented momentum that devoured all that came in its path. When the students voted not to go back on strike in August, for many it was initially devastating. Eventually, most redirected their energies towards different community-focused organizing. One ex-Mob Squad member I spoke with has dedicated himself to nurturing the anti-oppressive, anti-capitalist rave scene in Montreal. Danjo Francistico, who met me in the back of Casa Del Popolo, is a DJ and community organizer. He recalls the strikes as being a time of intense learning and growth, of radicalization and trauma, but, above all, a time of beauty. “Even the tear gas, yeah, that was beautiful too,” he says with a hint of nostalgia.

“Even the tear gas, yeah, that was beautiful too.”

Nostalgia, however, is deadly for communities of resistance. The line between thoughtful reflection and forward propulsion can be challenging. The Mob Squad members I spoke to all saw their participation in the 2012 student movement as a continuation of past resistance movements – from anarchists in 1930s in Catalonia, to the revolutionaries of May 1968, to the Occupy movement that was simultaneously sweeping the globe. Historic strategies of resistance cannot be simply imputed directly into our own contemporary context. It is, however, arguably still an important project to know about those who came before us, what their challenges were, what they saw their goals as, what became of them when those goals weren’t necessarily realized. This compounded history of the Mob Squad and its affiliates has been just one more addition to an already overflowing activist library that tries to retrace the student movement at the time of the strikes, and has been in no ways extensive or definitive. But just as they were hungry for theory, for history, for new ways to imagine the world around them, we too must be hungry for stories which remind us that there is institutional memory within the student movement. The work of the Mob Squad can help us to imagine radical, just futurities, and if we really try, we can learn from their successes and failures so that this time, as every time, we have something of a fighting chance.