Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why I'm Not Wearing a Poppy This Year

I used to be a schoolteacher, and every Remembrance Day, I would teach that we remember the brave people who fought for us, but also to remember the tragedies of history so as not to repeat them. This was particularly important, to ease children's fears of death brought on by discussion of war. I taught the children how to make their own poppies out of construction paper.

Remembrance Day has always been important to me. Being of Japanese descent, my Father and uncles - all born in Canada - were imprisoned during WWII by their own government, along with the entire Japanese Canadian community, and when they were released, they pressed for the right to take part in Canada's war efforts to prove their loyalty to Canada, and when granted that right, they did just that. I've always felt obliged to wear a poppy in respect to those who fought to protect our country and our freedoms - especially because a number of those people are my own relatives.

But in recent years I've become aware of the controversies over modern wars, and Canada's involvement of them - not really wars at all, but unprovoked invasions. Canada did not send troops to Iraq, although Chretien wanted to; he was stopped by public outcry. Canada did, however, send troops to Afghanistan to free up American troops to fight in Iraq. The atrocities committed against Iraqis and Afghanis continue to be revealed by a reluctant mainstream media. Nevertheless, the majority of Canadians believe that the Iraq invasion was wrong, that American war resisters are right to refuse to take part, and that Canadian troops must be brought home from Afghanistan. These "wars" are not about conquest or defending our rights and freedoms; they are about stealing resources and keeping the war economy healthy.

On the other side of these facts is a Canadian government which is waging a propaganda campaign with attempts to conceal and minimize stories of our soldiers who have died senselessly. It seems we are reminded to honour the brave men and women who fight for us at every turn, with "wear red" campaigns, "support our troops" ribbons on our cars, highways renamed as memorials, memorial coins in our pocket change (special designs on circulation coins: a loonie, a nickel, and at least three different quarters), and even in the cancellation stamp on my mail this morning. Of course, these campaigns - all showing government involvement - are simply well-intentioned attempts to honour our soldiers. Aren't they?

With so many of these questionable actions - while the government tries to bolster flagging support to keep troops in Afghanistan, it is no wonder the poppy is called into question. So I was delighted, a couple of years ago, to learn about the "peace poppy": a white poppy which specifically emphasizes the message of peace - which I'd felt was an integral part of our familiar red poppy all along. But was I wrong? I'd gotten the impression that the white poppy didn't go over well with veterans' groups; this year, the Royal Canadian Legion, which owns the trademark to the poppy, is threatening to sue distributors of the white poppy. A Legion spokesperson says, "The use of the poppy for anything other than remembrance is not acceptable." Come again? Since when is promoting peace in opposition to remembering our war dead?

The really fucked up thing here is that, growing up in a capitalist society, I'd accept the economic greed argument - that the Legion owns the trademark and wants to protects its poppy sales - before I'd want to accept that veterans are arguing against peace. But that appears to be what is happening. In another of many articles on this issue published over the last week, one veteran criticized those wearing white poppies, saying that they had probably never fought in a war.

Why is it that so many people today think that it is acceptable to try to shut down debate by painting those they disagree with as unpatriotic, or uncaring? Trying to take someone else's voice away - by implying that they haven't the right to engage in debate - is a form of censorship. Correct me if I'm wrong, but freedom of speech is one of the rights that was fought for and protected; we are not going to violate that right for the sake of this little argument.

The whole issue has left a bad taste in my mouth. I no longer feel any sense of obligation to put on a red poppy, and if people can't understand the very elementary message of the white one, well, I won't wear that one either. No one can take my feelings or beliefs away from me, and I won't have them misconstrued by people standing on street corners selling plastic flowers.

And so, on November 11, 2010, instead of a poppy, I am wearing this blog post.

To those who would judge me for having bare coat lapels: judge not, or be prepared for an earful.

To my Dad, who fought to protect Canada, and our freedoms: all my love, respect, and appreciation. I'm so proud of you. I always have been.

To the American war resisters - who are putting a human face on an illegal and immoral US invasion: all my love and support. You are the kind of people this world needs, and to those of you I've met: we're lucky to have you in Canada. On Remembrance Day, we should be remembering the horrors of war, present as much as past - and that means talking about your part in history. You give me hope for our future.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

G20 Protests: Why the Police did Nothing to Stop Black Bloc Tactics

As I walked home alone in the dark after an event last night, I came to an odd realization. I felt completely safe on empty streets or where there were other people. The only time I felt in any danger was in the presence of police. Given the events of the G20 weekend, I was justifiably worried that I might be beaten or arrested, simply for being out in public. The horror stories of police brutality continue to spread by the hour - on Twitter, Facebook, blogs - and even in the mass media. (Lesson to Toronto police: if you want the public onside, best not to assault and arrest journalists.)

There is so much to write about the abuses of power and violations of civil liberties over the past few days, but the most important issue has to do with the black bloc protests, and how they were allowed to happen. It is becoming very clear that police had infiltrated the ultra-left and knew what was going to happen. More than a billion dollars was spent on security - much of it for a 19,000-strong security force. No doubt you've seen photos which clearly reveal the scale of this show of force; early in the week, police looked as though they outnumbered demonstrators at the smaller rallies. Police had a newly purchased water cannon at their disposal. On Saturday, hundreds of police in full riot gear (helmets and shields) were backing up masses of officers in regular uniform. So how is it that a couple of hundred vandals were able to burn a cop car and break windows all the way up Yonge Street?

The answer can only be that the police wanted it to happen. Even if you reject the mounting evidence that agents provocateurs were part of the black bloc and were active in starting the violence, there is no argument which can satisfactorily explain how such a relatively small number of people could roam so freely and visibly, doing their damage. But why would the police allow it? Obviously, the mass media visuals - the same shot of the burning police car played over and over as nauseum - were needed to convince a gullible public that the obscene overspending was necessary. But there is a much more important reason: the police and government needed justification to attack the legitimate, peaceful protests.

Let's face it: a young man wearing black and smashing a store window is an anomaly, and insignificant in the long term. In my six years of participation in major rallies, demonstrations, and marches in this city, I have never before witnessed this - or any other - kind of violence. The store window will be replaced, and the act has no impact on any government or politican, local or national.

But the 25-40,000 peaceful demonstrators are another story. The young man employing black bloc tactics is nowhere near as threatening to our authorities as the mother who is calling for Harper's government to change its policy on maternal health, or the young student who is decrying Canada's local and global inaction on environmental issues, or the First Nations elder who is calling for justice for continuing atrocities against the First Nations, or the labour unionist who is demanding protection for pensions and working conditions. Even more frightening is the addition of mainstream, middle-class folk who have never taken part in a protest, but who have been so incensed by the government spending of our tax dollars on this summit that they made a point of coming out - despite the rain and especially despite the fearmongering all week long about sound cannons, water cannons, tear gas, and other police toys at the ready.

Black bloc tactics are employed only at large scale G20-type events where the whole world will be watching. But the black bloc protesters don't even have demands or a message. It is the peaceful protesters who will be back with the same messages, growing in numbers, getting more of the public onside as Harper's assault on our social services, rights, and freedoms continues. And while the black bloc protesters retreat into their isolated world, the protesters with real messages continue to talk every day, to raise consciousness, and build support.

So the vandals were allowed to do their thing, and then the police swooped in and began attacking legitimate protesters (and even passersby). People were threatened, beaten, arrested, and traumatized. Reports from those who were taken into the makeshift detention facility are appalling. Human rights violations were rampant. Those who have been released tell of younger, less experienced protesters (who may be less aware of their rights) being clearly targeted for intimidation. This is how the authorities will attempt to shut down dissent: by traumatizing people so badly that they will never take part in a protest again. And indeed, judging from some of the first-hand reports, they have probably succeeded in scaring a few of these protesters away permanently.

But these tactics have strengthened the resolve of many to keep fighting - and likely awakened many more to the issues that were being protested, as well as spawning new discussions and protests over police brutality and violations of civil liberties. While no protests had been planned after the G20 ended on Sunday, more than 4,000 people showed up on Monday evening in front of Toronto Police headquarters for a rally decrying the police actions - an event called on less than 24 hour's notice. Another gathering is planned for tonight to bring together the victims of police violence, to share stories and show solidarity.

Harper, McGuinty, and police chief Bill Blair are likely congratulating themselves on a mission accomplished. But for all their collective cunning, they have not been very smart. There are already calls for a public inquiry into the debacle of Toronto's G20. Even if there is no public inquiry, social networking and YouTube are publicizing the issue, spreading images and video and starting discussions about agents provocateurs, hired troublemakers, and ulterior motives on the part of both police and government. The movement of average citizens demanding change is now poised to grow, despite - or perhaps because of - police brutality and repression.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Turning Point for Pride Toronto

In 1981, Toronto police raided four gay bath houses. The gay community was accustomed to harrassment, but the scale of these raids pushed the community past a breaking point. As with the 1969 Stonewall riots in NYC, gays in Toronto finally stood up for their rights and fought back. Massive protests and rallies led to the annual Pride celebration which has become one of the largest of its kind in the world.

I occasionally re-read the accounts of the protests, and admire the activists who won us our rights and paved the way for the degree of acceptance that the gay community enjoys today. I wish I had been able to participate in those protests, but at that point in my life - still a teen - I was still deep in the closet, deep in denial.

Now out and proud, I've come to enjoy Toronto Pride immensely. Coming out relatively late in life, I now find it important to get out in the streets during Pride, and surround myself with my community. For one week a year, I get to experience being a part of the majority; it is an experience I savour. I've always thought the size of the celebration was a good thing. The more people, the better.

Yet complaints about Toronto Pride have become commonplace, and it seems they increase each year. "It's too big." "It's too corporate." "It's too crowded." Many of my gay friends have lost interest, and no longer attend the parade itself. A couple of friends used to invite me to a big Pride brunch with all their friends, and then we would all make our way over to watch the parade from start to finish. A few years ago, they stopped the tradition. They no longer attend Pride at all - even going out of town on the big weekend. This slow trend has been alarming for me, as I feel increasingly abandoned - alone at a dance with a crowd of strangers. I've wondered what to do to reverse that trend, but the corporatization of Pride has seemed inevitable and unstoppable.

Until now.

Pride Toronto, the committee which organizes Pride, has bowed to pressure to try to ban the group QuAIA (Queers Against Israeli Apartheid) - which has marched peacefully for the past two years. The first move was to try to set up a system of "approval" for each and every placard or banner to be used in the parade. When public outcry forced them to rescind that decision, they reverted to banning the words "Israeli Apartheid", which would effectively silence QuAIA's message. Or so they thought.

The response has been swift and powerful. 23 current and past recipients of Pride awards and honours have made public statements and attended a news conference to return their awards until Pride Toronto's censorship decision is reversed. Numerous other prominent members of Toronto's LGBT community have condemned Pride Toronto's action; many have pulled out of Pride events.

Pride Toronto has done its best to counter the criticisms, claiming that they have no choice - that without this act of censorship, funding and possibly permits will be withdrawn by Toronto city council. The instigators of this whole debacle, zionist activists, including Martin Gladstone, lobbied city council with a misleading videotape which paints QuAIA as a scary and violent organization. This propaganda has also scared some of the general public and even some of the LGBT community itself - especially those unfamiliar with details of the Israel/Palestine conflict.

There are also ominous claims of great financial losses as regular Pride participants have supposedly pulled out for 2010 or threatened to pull out. None of these participants have been named by Pride Toronto. Pride Toronto has also made no mention of the participants who have pulled out in protest of the committee's own censorship action.

Even many of those who may not agree with QuAIA's specific message have come out in their support, on the basis that Pride has always been - and must continue to be - about free speech and political messages. It should be noted that while the list of statements against Pride Toronto's action grows daily, there have been no notable statements in support of their censorship.

A town hall meeting on Monday at the 519 Community Centre was packed - standing room only. The point was not to reach consensus - an impossible task given the many different viewpoints on this controversy - but to establish the need for change, both from within and without, and to get people together and get them started on networking and connecting to share and implement alternatives. Some will conduct a split - alternate marches and events not sanctioned by Pride Toronto; others will be taking part in official Pride events, especially the parade, but with messages of solidarity with QuAIA - and perhaps defiance.

There is so much more to say about this issue, and it would be a full-time job to report it all, as there are new developments each day.

To my non-political friends, I am trying to provide a quick summary here. Even if you are not inspired to take action on this, you'll do well to be informed.

For myself - my energy and desire to remain involved in activism are renewed. As many are saying, this is a turning point. Pride must not be allowed to continue on this track - where critics and sponsors are allowed to dictate what we can say and do; if we had given into that in past years, we wouldn't be here now. Pride Toronto is not defending - nor speaking for - our community. If we let this go, where will it end?

Below are some links on the developments so far, thanks to Rick Telfer and his Facebook group, "Don't sanitize Pride: Free expression must prevail", which I would recommend joining. I doubt anyone will read all these links, but I would at least urge you read through this first one - the speeches and statements from those who returned their awards to Pride Toronto, and their reasons why:

Video of the speeches

Video of Town Hall meeting:

Pride Toronto's arguments are also effectively refuted in many of these links:

NEWS: "Rachel Epstein, Sky Gilbert and El-Farouk Khaki are just three of the more than 20 past honoured dykes, grand marshals and award recipients who will return their honours to Pride Toronto."
► STORY: http://j.mp/dbjOJM
► EVENT: http://j.mp/b6F16q (on Facebook)

STATEMENT: "Open Letter to Pride Toronto, from Superdyke.com/Michelle Walker, declining 2010 Community Service Award"

NEWS: "Toronto mayoral candidate and gay community bon vivant Keith Cole is the latest in a growing number of artists and activists to withdraw from Pride Toronto’s Pride celebrations."

NEWS & EVENT: "Sasha Van Bon Bon organizes event to directly compete with official Dyke March"

STATEMENT: "Wise Daughters Craft Market withdrawing participation: Funders must not be permitted to dictate Pride"

STATEMENT: ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) expresses support for the right of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) to participate fully in Pride Toronto events

COMMENTARY: "Pride Toronto: Disingenuous or Inept?" by Sara Malabar (former Pride Toronto staff member)

STATEMENT: "Aswat, Palestinian queer women group, condemns the Israeli military attacks on the Freedom Gaza flotilla and call people all over the world to exercise their right to protest the apartheid regime in Israel and elsewhere."

COMMENTARY: "The myth of Israeli morality"

NEWS: Protesters demand Pride Toronto reverse censorship decision

NEWS: Decision to ban use of 'Israeli Apartheid' angers gay rights activists
► http://bit.ly/cZ7RI0

VIDEO: Protest at Pride Toronto press conference

EMAIL CAMPAIGN: Say No to Censorship at Pride Toronto

NEWS: Dr. Alan Li rejects appointment as Pride Toronto grand marshal

NEWS: Jane Farrow rejects Pride Toronto honoured dyke title

STATEMENT: Open Letter to Pride Toronto from founders of Pride in 1981

STATEMENT: Queer Ontario Opposes Censorship by Pride Toronto at 2010 Pride

NEWS: Pink Triangle Press tells Pride Toronto to reverse "Israeli Apartheid" ban

EVENT: "Take back the Dyke" (march)

STATEMENT: Glen Murray, MPP for Toronto Centre on "hate" and censorship

VIDEO: QuAIA's Tim McCaskell on Pride Toronto's censorship

VIDEO: Pride Toronto's censorship

PROPOSAL: Pride Community Contract

COMMENTARY: Who is Martin Gladstone and why has he been trying to de-fund Pride Toronto?

ESSAY: The radical roots of Pride