Montreal Student Strike: Being Cool is Overrated

This is a repost from June 2012. It seems timely given the return of student striking in Montreal. 

uqam, student, strikers
Masked students terrorizing students at UQAM.

Montreal Student Strike: Being Cool is Overrated: I’m surprised no one is making the connection between masked student strikers and the school shooters who have left their mark on Montreal.

Why isn’t this happening?

I think it’s because the strikers are way too cool.  And their admirers are partaking of said coolness by heaping praise on their new BFFs. Despite the love-in, however, someone messed up and forgot to invite the truth.

So here’s my thought for the day: Being cool is overrated.

September 13, 2006, the day of the Dawson shooting, didn’t start well for me.  I woke with a migraine and took my prescribed medication. Because of its potency, my usual strategy was to wait until after I taught, but on that day my condition was such that I didn’t think I would make it to work at all. So I went through my first school shooting accompanied by sickening waves of fatigue, side-effects of the drug that allowed me to show up in the first place.

For me, two moments from that day are frozen in time. The first happened while I was evacuating my students. They were walking toward me as they headed to an exit and it occurred to me that if the gunman came around the corner, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. There was nowhere to hide and the hallway was filled to capacity with students who were moving far too slowly.

The second occurred in the moments after I heard the gunshots that killed the gunman, Kimveer Gill. I was outside and had the experience of watching a huge crowd trying to disperse with very little success: no one knew precisely where the shots were coming from so where could they run? In the minutes after that, as I slowly made my way out of the vicinity, I noticed there were a number of students who appeared to be having seizures. The noise from the crying and wailing was deafening. It was pandemonium.

I’m bringing this up because I read Margaret Wente’s column in the Globe and Mail the other day. Her depiction of the disruption of classes at UQAM is notable:

On Wednesday, a masked enforcement squad swept through the campus at the Université du Québec à Montréal, hunting for students who had dared to show up for class. Wherever they found a class in session, they broke in and shouted “Scab!” in the students’ faces. The enforcement squad was defying a court injunction that ordered the university to open. They jumped on desks and tables and spray-painted slogans on the classroom walls. They grabbed two female students by the arm and told them to get out. The intimidated professors fled. Later, as law student Christina Macedo tried to explain to reporters what had happened, they drowned her out. “Scab! Scab! Scab!” they shrieked.

From the MTLblog: a video that shows why some student strikers need to stay in school. Click here to read more.
From the MTLblog: a video that shows why some student strikers need to stay in school. Click here to read more.

Montreal is a city that has seen three school shootings in the last three decades. In 1989, Marc Lepine shot 14 women studying engineering at the École Polytechnique. In 1992, Valery Fabrikant shot four of his colleagues, also in engineering, at Concordia. In 2006, Anastasia deSouza was shot to death at Dawson. There were, of course, many wounded survivors in each incident.

There is something unsettling about the confluence of events here: I’m referring to the violent disruption of classes at UQAM happening within the larger backdrop of these shootings. I’m wondering why it is so easy to minimize violence against students and teachers in Montreal. Why is it okay to terrorize us?

I mention the students and their seizures because, to my knowledge, this has never been written about.  “Freaked-out people having seizures” does not make for a newsy headline, particularly when it’s competing with “Shots Fired.”

As events unfolded that day, myself and another teacher, along with some students, made our way up the steep inclines of Westmount. Some in our group were hysterical and needed help walking; none of us could get through to anyone on our cell phones. My feet were heavy from the medication and reality, memorably elastic that day, seemed to play out very slowly.  We hailed a taxi-van and all of us piled in. The driver drove us down past the streets close to Dawson and again I saw the seizing students. I remember thinking that not all of them could be epileptic. What then, could be the cause?

I’m not a neurologist, but I think it’s fair to say that anxiety ratcheted up to intolerable levels is one explanation. In other words, I saw panic shifting from a state of mind to a state of body; people were literally “flipping out.”

And right now, like them, I’m feeling a bit flipped too, like a turtle stuck on its back. My legs are thrashing madly in the air and I’m hoping some kind soul will come along and turn me upright again. To translate: as a teacher who’s experienced the genuine trauma of workplace violence, I feel powerless over the media machinery that’s defining the students’ actions as “cool”. There is a story arc out there about what they are doing and it is misleading. There is nothing cool about masked people entering a classroom and terrorizing students and teachers.

My colleague Ken Fogel on the student strike: If you are a teacher and masked people enter your classroom then there is only one course of action, call 911 and ask every student with a phone to do the same thing. Do not call the school's security office, do not try and negotiate with the intruders and do not justify their actions as free speech. What they are doing is called assault in the criminal code. Assault does not have to be physical to be illegal. As someone who counted the shots at Dawson while hiding in a room adjacent to the shooting I can say that a school must be a safe and secure environment. Masked intruders are a threat to everyone and only the police are equipped to deal with them. Finally, please stop calling students who do not attend class a strike. If I walk out over labour conditions its a strike. Students are boycotting. Calling it a strike implies some protection in the law for their actions. They are simply choosing not to use a service that the government provides. That's a boycott.
My colleague Ken Fogel on the student strike: If you are a teacher and masked people enter your classroom then there is only one course of action, call 911 and ask every student with a phone to do the same thing. Do not call the school’s security office, do not try and negotiate with the intruders and do not justify their actions as free speech. What they are doing is called assault in the criminal code. Assault does not have to be physical to be illegal. As someone who counted the shots at Dawson while hiding in a room adjacent to the shooting I can say that a school must be a safe and secure environment. Masked intruders are a threat to everyone and only the police are equipped to deal with them.
Finally, please stop calling students who do not attend class a strike. If I walk out over labour conditions its a strike. Students are boycotting. Calling it a strike implies some protection in the law for their actions. They are simply choosing not to use a service that the government provides. That’s a boycott.

But how is this skewed version of things delivered and supported?

Social media has been heralded as the new force of democracy in the world. And, indeed, it is changing the way we view things. But what are its limitations?

What a lot of us actually living in Montreal are discovering is that now, monopolizing the media and creating a fabricated narrative of events is not only the province of the powerful. iPhones and social networking sites are putting power into the hands of ordinary folk; however, in all the excitement, the idea that everything works better when people tell the truth seems to have gone AWOL.

To wit: a parade of people banging pots and pans might be the new global symbol of the fight against political oppression, but that symbol is being sorely abused here in Montreal. Canada is not a third world country, and the students’ equating their demands with the demands of those suffering genuine oppression is offensive. It’s just a different kind of lie.*

As someone who has bothered spending time in the third world, I can say this with some conviction: travelling to poorer and less liberated countries was an integral part of my education as a young person. I came away from that experience knowing what real suffering looks like.

I am tired of this label of “cool” being afforded a group of young people willing to do violence for a cause they don’t fully understand. I’m tired of pundits from other cities and other countries telling us Montrealers what we are experiencing. We already know. In case you haven’t noticed, I want to say to them, it’s our highways and our metro systems that are being shut down.

I also want to tell Mick Jagger and the cast of Saturday Night Live, who were wearing red squares in support of the students, to smarten up. There’s a limit to how cool anyone needs to be and we need to put this violence in the context it deserves: alongside other forms of school violence.

After the shooting and once classes had reconvened, I noticed that one of my students—from the class that had been interrupted—wasn’t bringing her books. She said she was too afraid to go to her locker. It meant she would have to go back to the atrium, the central hallway that defines Dawson, the hallway where the shooting took place. So I gave everyone a 10 minute break and walked down to her locker with her, holding her hand. Her body was humming with anxiety and she was struggling not to cry.  She was 18 years-old and her best friend, one of the survivors, was in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound.

I hope that young woman wasn’t in one of the law classes described by Margaret Wente.  As a student, she,  like the rest of us, deserves much, much better.

* I’m referring here to the idea of a “Maple Spring.” I lived and traveled through the middle east in the early 1980s. The comparison to the Arab Spring is inappropriate.

Related: Montreal Student Strikes: Being Cool is Overrated and Romancing the Riot

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