Political disruptions can generate social media buzz and break through a stunningly biased media sphere on international affairs.
In under a minute the US Secretary of State and Canadian foreign minister fled the cameras. Their plan to buy cheese, chat with merchants or stroll the Jean Talon market scuttled.
At 8 PM on October 27 activist Dimitri Lascaris called to say Anthony Blinken and Melanie Joly were scheduled to appear at the iconic Montréal market the following morning. We immediately spread the word to allies to go ‘shop’ there at 10:30 AM.
When Blinken and Joly appeared for a photo op on a balcony above the market stands some began yelling “no foreign military intervention in Haiti” while others questioned the proxy war with Russia or simply declared “Yankee go home”. As the politicians fled for an enclosed area the media gaze turned to our signs and messages.
By entering the market — instead of rallying outside as a dozen comrades did — we greatly increased the opportunity of creating a political confrontation conducive to sharing on social media. More significantly, we boosted our odds of puncturing the state/media disinformation bubble on international affairs. In essence, we sought to exploit the politicians’ power to convene the media to direct some of the coverage towards our message.
The disruption was successful. More than a half dozen stories, published in dozens of outlets, mentioned the opposition to military intervention in Haiti. Days later a clip of the disruption was played as part of a discussion of Haiti on Québec’s most widely watched current affairs program, Tout Le Monde en Parle, (everybody talks about it). With many fewer people and less time expended, disrupting Blinken and Joly garnered far more attention than a boisterous Montréal march to oppose military intervention in Haiti a week earlier.
The action was part of a series of disruptions a number of people have carried out over the past eight months. On March 21, I interrupted Joly to denounce Canada’s role in escalating violence in Ukraine, opposing the Minsk peace accord and promoting NATO expansion. My video of the disruption went viral and was covered by numerous international media outlets.
Last month the activist who informed me Joly was speaking to the Montréal Council on Foreign Relations, Tamara Lorincz, interrupted Defence Minister Anita Anand with a sign reading: “Trudeau, Freeland, Anand and Joly Stop lying. Stop sending arms. Stop NATO. Stop the war. Peace in Ukraine. Peace with Russia.” For four minutes Lorincz just stood next to the moderator and Anand, which eventually prompted the minister to take a pause. A Reuters reporter watching the live feed of the event from Washington DC reported on the sign and disruption. Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn, who moderated the talk, also wrote about it and the disruption was viewed over 100,000 times on Twitter.
In recent weeks US activists have employed similar tactics and messaging. A month ago, two protesters interrupted Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ town hall to criticize her support for the US proxy war with Russia and expressed fear at it turning into a nuclear conflict. The three-minute video has 7.7 million views on Twitter and received significant media attention.
In one of my easiest impactful interventions, I interrupted Canada’s environment minister to challenge his approval of the Baie du Nord offshore oil project. During a July press conference, I asked Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace spokesperson, how he could justify okaying the extraction of up to 1 billion new barrels of oil amidst a deepening climate crisis, which Canada is an outsized contributor to. I yelled “climate criminal” and, with the cameras in mind, held a sign next to the minister with the words “Criminel Climatique”.
TVA, La Presse, and Journal de Montréal all published good stories about the disruption while Le Devoir, Calgary Herald and Washington Post mentioned it. A Global News clip of the interruption was viewed 74,000 times on Twitter while a corporate radio station had a seven-minute discussion titled “Steven Guilbeault a-t-il renié ce qu’il était avant de faire de la politique?” (Has Guilbeault renounced the environmentalist positions he advocated before entering politics?)
I only found out about Guilbeault’s nearby press event an hour beforehand and the whole thing took 15 minutes. The “Criminel Climatique” placard was in storage from an earlier action.
In the year before the COVID-19 pandemic a group of us created a loose information sharing alliance called Disruption Network Canada. Activists in different cities shared information about disruption opportunities, which can take significant time to find. (The daily briefs published by Hill Times and Politico are helpful. So is putting individuals’ names into 24-hour Google searches and registering for various email announcement lists.) In 2019 Disruption Network Canada members interrupted two dozen speeches/press conferences by the prime minister, ministers, opposition party leaders and others to question their militarism, anti-Palestinian positions, imperialism in Haiti, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, climate policies and efforts to topple Venezuela’s government. A number of these actions garnered corporate media attention. Clips of almost all of them were widely viewed on social media.
There are many ways to confront a politician or political figure. It’s generally best if one individual focuses on filming the challenge while others speak. Depending on the context, it’s good to have each individual make their speech one after another, which extends the disruptive impact. If there is media in the room, try to get directly in front of the camera and position a sign in a way that is easy to film. If one is uncomfortable about speaking in public write the message out or simply stand next to the politician with a placard. While better to divide tasks, it is possible (and often the only option) to film oneself challenging a politician. Or after filming another’s interruption film oneself making a statement. In some cases, it’s best to try to film oneself interrupting while simultaneously pulling out a placard.
Some have paid to enter events. Often you can email or call to register for the media list. Though I have asked others to register to find out the location of an event, I don’t impersonate anyone or give false information. I always put down my own name and a publication I’ve written for to get on a media list beforehand or on sight for media only events.
If you are blocked from entering, you can still make yourself heard. I’ve been stopped from entering events with the prime minister or ministers recently where I yelled loudly, knocked on the window and put up a placard to ensure those inside heard the message.
The police or security usually eject you from the venue after a short period of interruption. There shouldn’t be any legal ramifications since there’s nothing illegal about speaking loudly. But, in April I was arrested in a bid to enter a speech by the US ambassador and the police ticketed me for yelling at an outdoor event with Justin Trudeau during the 2019 election.
Just before the 2019 election campaign — a time when politicians are particularly accessible — RCMP agents came to my house. Two large men in suits asked for me and when my partner said I wasn’t there they asked who she was. They came back the next day but backed off when they received calls from a lawyer and journalist.
In order to show politicians, the media and even many progressives that some of us are hostile to Canadian foreign policy we need to raise our voices and be disruptive in the cause of international solidarity. People are often reluctant to demonstrate their international solidarity because they think their voices will not be heard. In my experience these people crave signs of resistance. And acts of resistance generally beget more such acts.
With the dominant media refusing to cover critical perspectives on important international issues, this is one way to put forward our message and push back against government policies. It also is a bit of a headache for decision-makers.
Disrupting ministers and politicians at public events can be a high impact form of international solidarity and is an example of much needed direct-action democracy.
Beginning November 22 Yves Engler will be touring in southern Ontario, Vancouver Island and the lower mainland.
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