The body, the mind, and dissent

5 May

by Kiley Goyette

For many people, a picket line is the essence of a strike, without which a strike might as well not exist. What a picket line means, the shape that it takes, and the power that it holds will all vary depending on the moment, the place, the people, the cause. As we discovered during the student strike at Concordia (Montreal), it depends on the body as both a form of political expression but also a strategic tool.  This is echoed in our course readings on feminist geopolitics, such as Sara Koopman’s (2011) description of how the presence of privileged bodies beside those threatened by violent repression in Colombia creates opportunity for hopeful change.  Judith Butler (2011) discusses the prerequisite of the body in politics in the context of the Occupy movement.  Although I have experienced the almost surprising power of embodied politics during the strike, it is difficult to ignore the essential role of the mind in this process. During arguments with angry students, encounters with security, or mobilizing groups of strikers when scenarios suddenly change and next actions are unclear, an agile mind and an in-depth understanding of the situation at different scales is required —  not something that is possible for all bodies.  Additionally, the intellectual and emotional demands that accompany picketing can ultimately deter people from participating in picket lines.

From the first General Assemblies, Geography and Environment undergrads made clear that this strike must be “peopled” (to borrow from Koopman, p. 280).  Previous limited-term strikes at Concordia, such as the one-day strike on November 10, 2011, had felt like more of a ‘snow day’ than a protest and the students voting for an unlimited strike wanted to ensure this was not simply an excuse to stay home and watch TV. To some, demanding hard picket lines addressed this issue, but others found this to be too confrontational, potentially violent, and alienating to students who might not be comfortable participating in this way. To leave room for the entire range of expectations, the term used in the strike mandate was “active strike”.   After voting to strike and evaluating our options, we chose to block professors from classrooms while allowing students to enter as desired.

Although our policy was not to block students, most chose to remain outside, especially when it became clear that the professor would not be allowed to enter. The picket line became a space of confrontation between opposing positions on the strike.  It is here that the role of the mind became key.  In lieu of violence, opponents launched charges of idealism, rights violation, stupidity, and fiscal irresponsibility, amongst others.  Strikers could have chosen a silent picket, which would have required no response and no intellectual engagement. I am certainly not suggesting this would have improved the picket lines.  However, I do want to highlight how intellectually demanding the picket lines were, and the role this played in participation in the pickets throughout the strike.

The early days of the strike were filled with engaged dialogue. Speaking for myself, I had spent the previous weeks becoming informed on the issues, understanding the details of the funding plan, the counter-arguments, strike strategies and the history of strikes in Quebec.  In addition to this information, I had the energy and the ambition required to engage people with opposing views at length.  The pickets created both a time and space for these discussions to take place.  I admit my position was somewhat evangelical, despite my personal commitment to listening to opposing views and weighing them seriously and fairly.  Was there space on the picket lines for people who were perhaps less well-versed these topics, or less willing to engage in confrontational dialogue?   I think most people stuck with what they knew, sharing their personal motivations for getting involved and distributing printed information, but not having a ready response to a barrage of accusations takes an emotional toll on the individual.

To a certain extent the intellectual and emotional resilience of a person is dependent on the body.  Lack of basic needs such as sleep and food, combined with elevated stress levels definitely contributed to our mental/emotional performance. This became evident as we noticed difficulty putting our thoughts into sentences or became more likely to burst into tears in confrontational situations.   After my first experience of burn-out after only one week, I promised myself I would take better care of my body in order to better serve the strike.  Apparently I was not successful, as less than a week later I had fallen ill and was still pushing myself to be present at pickets, meetings and marches.

In the third week I had forced myself to rest and finally felt physically, mentally and emotionally normal. However at this point I had seen evidence that the hours I had invested into conversation with my peers had been wasted.  The same arguments were being raised, from the same individuals who I had spent so much energy discussing these things weeks ago. Arguments were based on perceptions of the world that were now so far from my own I could no longer understand from what direction to approach them. Although I had the capacity to engage in these types of conversations again, my self-confidence had plummeted and presented a mental barrier that prevented me from putting my body into positions of verbal conflict.  I managed to participate in a few picket lines in the final week of classes, during which I spoke very little but observed the reactions of my peers.  The responses were short, and often rude. Perhaps this was due to lack of patience or physical exhaustion, but the level of intellectual investment on the picket line had definitely been reduced to nothing.

There were two other specific situations that scholars would describe as ‘embodied politics’ that highlighted the importance of the mind. The first was on the picket line, but specifically in the context of the University’s use of security personnel.  The second was following the failure of the CSU’s second Special General Meeting to make quorum and renew the undergraduate strike mandate. In both situations information, misinformation, and an understanding of the strike at various scales were manifested into the decisions of the individual in those moments.

Deploying security personnel at picket lines with the intent to charge students under the Code of Conduct was one of the more effective tactics the university employed.  It succeeded in intimidating many students who feared for their academic standing.  Strike organizers scurried to disseminate information about what security is able to do, the rights of students charged with an offense and other tactical information. However, the integrity of this information turned out to be questionable, and much of students’ understanding of their rights was based on hearsay. For example, a common claim was that security did not have the right to film or photograph students without their permission. Although before the security ramp-up began the legal committee of the national level student coalition CLASSE stated via email that this was incorrect (Bourbeau, 2012), many students continued to make these claims loudly when confronted with security, potentially escalating the situation that could work against them if a charge were made against them.  Students were also told they did not have to disclose their name or id number, although our student ID cards state that they must be provided when asked.  I have some understanding of the reasoning that lead to this conflicting information, but it is not their details that I wish to discuss.

In a situation where a student must decide how to respond to a security guard, she does so with the information she has at her disposal.  In this situation, I chose to cooperate with security in providing my name and ID, based on my belief that my cooperation would work in my favor if I were charged.  On the other hand, I did not cooperate with their requests to move from the doorway, in full knowledge that obstructing the class was a violation of the Code of Rights and Responsibilities. I believed that the threat of being charged was being used as a deterrent, based on the amount of additional work the process would require. Did I make the right call? Weeks later, I have not yet been charged. Would another student with different information have made the same decision?

The last example moves away from the picket lines, but for me it was a moment of epiphany about the role of the mind in embodied politics.  After one week of general strike at the CSU level (undergraduates of all departments), a second meeting to renew the strike mandate was scheduled on an outdoor terrace to avoid the need for video-relaying, as the first General Assembly had started an hour and a half late due to technical difficulties. Many people planned to arrive late because of the delay at the previous meeting, while those who arrived on time did not stick around to wait outside in the freezing cold. An hour after the scheduled start time, the CSU reps announce that the meeting was not able to meet quorum and was therefore cancelled.  The two hundred or so bodies that had accumulated in this space, waiting in the cold to ensure their strike efforts were not in vain, were angry.  Some direct their anger at the student council representatives, others shouted out locations to occupy. Lowy’s office! Charest’s office!  People wanted action and we had the bodies to do something. Anything.

At this moment a fellow geography student and key player in our strike organizing committee took the microphone.  She spoke of her own desire for action, but underlined that whatever we do, it should be strategic so that our energy not be wasted.  She proposed we move inside to create a strategy so that we could act in a coordinated and deliberate way, and everyone present voted in favor.  In this moment I felt as though some angel of rational thought had descended upon us. I know this individual is human and theoretically imperfect, and simply has access to her personal history of experiences and knowledge.  The miracle was that she could convert that knowledge into action at that crucial moment.  I was also in that place at that time, I could identify that blindly marching to occupy some office building was not strategic, but I did not contemplate taking the microphone to suggest something more constructive (if I had even thought of any such suggestion).

As many people have said, student strikes are new to Concordia, and we are experiencing something of a learning curve.  Many look to the francophone universities for their experiences, but the fact remains that we have our own context and our own challenges.  Regardless of the number of bodies we have participating in our collective action, this is not independent from the demands on the mind.

References:

Bourbeau, A. (2012, March 25). More info about legalities: Fwd: texte AJP. Message posted to: mobilizeconcordia@googlegroups.com

Butler, Judith. (2011). Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street. European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies. Retrieved from: http://eipcp.net/transversal/1011/butler/en

CUPFA (2012, March 3). CUPFA Response to Student Class Boycott. Retrieved from: http://www.cupfa.org/response-to-student-class-boycott/

Koopman, S. (2011). Alter-geopolitics: Other securities are happening. Geoforum 42, 274–284.

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