Robert Fulford's column about OCAP and The Toronto Star

(The National Post, June 18, 2001)

At first glance the top story on page one of Sunday's Toronto Star, with its six-column headline, "Labour gearing up for battle," appeared to be a report on plans for anti-government demonstrations by unions and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). But on closer examination it turned out to be something quite different -- a detailed, 2,400-word expression of sympathy from Thomas Walkom, national affairs writer, for violent protest from the left. It was also an unprecedented front-page endorsement of "direct action," a vague umbrella term that now covers just about everything from occupying politicians' offices to hurling lethal rocks and gasoline bombs at police lines.

The piece apparently signalled a new turn in the policy of Canada's biggest newspaper. With its treatment of Mr. Walkom's extreme views as an ordinary piece of news, the Star effectively welcomed one of the most disturbing trends in the recent history of public life in North America and Europe, the mixing of political demonstrations and mindless, anarchic violence.

The street demonstrations of the past two years (Seattle, Quebec City and Gothenburg this past weekend) have ceased to be expressions of opinion; they now look a lot more like a dangerous and widening crack in the tacit agreement that makes peaceful societies possible.

Mr. Walkom not only described this tendency with respect, he told us what to think about it: "Get used to it," he wrote, using the smuggest catch-phrase around. It's hard to recall a time when a major Canadian daily urged its readers to settle for the presence of violence in our cities, acquiescing in what has already happened and accepting in advance whatever outrages the future will bring.

Last Tuesday, 50 anti-poverty protesters barged into the Whitby, Ont., constituency office of the provincial Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. On Thursday, the Star editorial page solemnly declared that by this action the coalition (on which the Star normally beams with approval) had crossed the line. "Without regard for the four female staff in the office, the group overturned filing cabinets, threw Flaherty's furniture into the street, and painted obscenities on the walls ... no rationale can justify such destructive acts ... It's not only wrong, but futile, to try to promote civility with violence."

But something apparently happened at the Star between Thursday and the weekend. Sunday's front-page story read like the work of a cheerleader, not a reporter or analyst. He made it clear he saw nothing wrong with what the poverty coalition did in Whitby, and quoted its leader, John Clarke, on why it was necessary. He even quoted, unchallenged, the view of Sid Ryan, Ontario president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, that the Star editorial was nonsense. In placement, length and passion, the Walkom piece entirely overwhelmed the editorial.

Mr. Walkom leapt through rhetorical hoops to make the protesters sound reasonable. He said that when they painted "F--- your corporate pride," on the office wall, they did it "carefully." Furthermore, the furniture thrown out the door was not damaged. He wrote that the Whitby office invasion was, in effect, "a rough form of street theatre."

Actually, it wasn't on the street and it wasn't theatre: In normal usage, "theatre" means symbolic or fictional action -- this was literal.

That phrase itself is a warning sign. When political writers start radically misusing language, we can be fairly sure they are trying to slip through some pretty dubious notions. Mr. Walkom also referred to these illegal acts as "the techniques of anarchists and other direct-action aficionados to get things done." Here he misused "aficionado" to make crime seem friendly -- "aficionado" means a fan, or an enthusiast, not a lawbreaker.

Mr. Walkom's story, which gave every sign of being fuelled by impotent anger and a hope for violence, derided the normal and mostly peaceful public demonstrations of the 1980s and 1990s -- marches, meeting at the legislature, etc.

They were, he has now decided, "a kind of minuet."

He acknowledged that "OCAP doesn't play by the usual rules. It is direct, in-your-face and occasionally rude. Where other protest groups try to make their points by holding demonstrations in authorized public spaces ... OCAP tends to take the fight right to where its enemies live." The OCAP people push, they shove, they provoke the police.

Mr. Walkom had the outrageous effrontery to call the actions of OCAP "civil disobedience backed by muscle."

He is not an ignorant man and he must know civil disobedience, as a term and as a strategy, carries echoes of some of the great figures of the 20th century. It recalls Mahatma Gandhi, audaciously persuading the Indian National Congress to adopt civil disobedience in 1930, then using it as a way to win both the hearts of the Indian masses and the admiration of elites in Britain.

His idea was to avoid harming police officers and public buildings while overloading official bureaucratic procedures with large-scale acts of non-violent illegality. He broke rules, not heads and not even fences.

Martin Luther King Jr., inspired by Gandhi's example, started out with a bus boycott in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., and brilliantly maintained the practice of passive resistance through triumph after triumph, until his murder in 1968.

It's obscene to appropriate the much-honoured language of civil disobedience to describe the thuggery some leftists have now decided to tolerate or encourage.

But the carefully restrained leadership of Gandhi and King doesn't impress the impatient direct-action people of today. It's not fast enough.

OCAP, after all, has important work to do: changing the agenda of the Ontario government and getting rid of the Premier. How long is OCAP supposed to wait? It's been, my God, six years since Ontario last had a left-wing government, and opposition to Mike Harris, no matter how loud and furious and self-righteous, still hasn't made him go away.

Gandhi's task was merely to wrest a gigantic sub-continent from the British Empire. All Martin Luther King Jr. had to do was make a fundamental change in American attitudes to race.

Patience was apparently all right for them, but not for Mr. Clarke. He wants the left to begin "fighting to win" because "the issue is no longer about criticizing governments but of doing something. People are looking for ways to actually stop them."

And Mr. Walkom tells us: "The funny thing is that he may be right."

No, that's not the funny thing. The funny thing is that I read that sentence in the Toronto Star.

After left-wing rioting threatened to break up a European Union meeting in Gothenburg on the weekend, Prime Minister Tony Blair called the demonstrators "this anarchist travelling circus" and said: "It is very important that we don't concede an inch to these people."

Who is the "we" in that sentence? The "we" he's talking about is nothing less than civilization.

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