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Putting the “PR” in Protest


Terry O'Flynn.

In 2016, members of Black Lives Matter briefly held up Toronto’s Pride Parade to protest police mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people of colour in the city and police presence at Pride. Earlier this year, anarchists protested gentrification in Hamilton by throwing rocks and eggs through the windows of small, locally-owned businesses. In Vancouver, three Edmonton residents were arrested after climbing a bridge to disrupt oil traffic, blocking all marine traffic in the process. Each of these events were met with scorn and derision, both online and in op-eds across the country, and led us to question the effectiveness and use of protests in a modern age.

In many protests, collateral damage is severe. For Hamilton, small businesses run by locals lost time and money fixing up their vandalized storefronts. In Vancouver, marine traffic importing and exporting all manner of goods was disrupted. People’s livelihoods and wellbeing were challenged. Protestors may have brought attention to their causes, but lost a PR battle in the process.

The modern protest can take many forms, from hashtag campaigns to outright violence in the streets. Some of these are effective in drawing attention to important issues, like the #MeToo movement. Others risk losing people’s support for not thoughtfully engaging in what is happening. In Hamilton, the only piece of communication was a sign that read “We are the Ungovernables.” Hardly helpful.

The fact is that protestors can – and should – engage with institutions in a more positive way, be that petitions, letter writing campaigns, or town hall meetings. Protesters can also engage in legal, nonviolent protests like those seen at Toronto’s Pride Parade, which led to issues being heard and policies being changed moving forward. There is, after all, a big difference between holding up a parade for 15 minutes versus threatening the livelihoods of regular, working class people through violence and property damage.

Then we have the “anonymous” protestors that comfortably sit behind a computer screen and complain endlessly on social media – or worse, leave inaccurate reviews and misinformation online that harms businesses and reputations. How many times has a story been shared or gone viral, soliciting thousands of comments and calls for the boycott of a business, when the real story remains buried under the burning vitriol?

Modern dissenters must learn that to be truly effective, they have to show up in person and engage in legal activities. Speak up all you want. It is a democracy, after all, but don’t hide behind a computer. Don’t damage the lives and livelihoods of others. Don’t be so careless as to damage the very cause you are protesting. Most of all, accept that because this is a democracy, the best both sides can hope for is middle ground.

With a step back and a more thought out and thoughtful process, protesters can – and will – be heard.

Continue to dangle from bridges and throw stones, however, and you will lose the PR battle before your cause gets the coverage you seek. Remember, it’s a protest, not a temper tantrum.