disruption: public spaces

Harkening back yet again to a night of speakers on disruption (The Walrus Talks), the disruption of public space was addressed in two ways.

First, Jon Kim Bell, who is an esteemed composer, conductor, writer, entrepreneur, and (intentionally last) Aboriginal man.  He made a point that resonated strongly with me: disruption is necessary when all the prescribed institutional remedies fail.

The situation he was describing fits my antisystem description pretty well.  After 30 years of waiting and participating on various commissions, task forces, tribunals, studies, and reports, the desperate circumstances of Canada’s indigenous peoples hasn’t fundamentally improved.  Public protest, he argued, is the only effective tool that remains.  Physical disruption of other people’s lives is required to motivate discussion and change.

What needs to change, he argues, is the Indian Act, which locks First Nations people in a patronizing relationship with the Canadian government.  It marginalizes them economically, it complicates the governance of their communities, it discourages employment mobility, it isolates them culturally and politically, and perpetuates epidemics of physical and psychological illness.   However, as Bell came to recognize, the 'system' of assisting these people has behaved like an antisystem, absorbing and suffocating outside efforts to reform, while insulating the core problems from change.  Fundamental change, in this case, requires disruption, he declared.

And, unlike the other kinds of disruption discussed that evening (addressed in my posts on PSFs, food, transport, and cannabis), the action he was calling for was unambiguous.  He was talking about physical disruption of other people’s lives in public places.  Road blocks, like the protest against residential development on disputed lands in Caledonia, or military standoffs like the Mohawk Warriors facing the army and provincial police in Kanestake or Kahnawake, and the various occupations and demonstrations of the Idle No More movement across Canada.

It was strong medicine, powerfully administered to a nervously appreciative audience at the epicentre of mainstream Canadian culture (Isabel Bader Theatre, Victoria College, University of Toronto).  Fundamental change of an antisystem will require disruption.  Period.

The final talk of the evening (and the second way of addressing disruption in public spaces) was by Ken Greenberg on the reconception of public space.  This connects back to Bell insofar as openly public disruptions, words or deeds that compel change, happen out in the open, in the physical or intellectual commons, where their effects are both immediate and profound.  In Greenberg’s case, it was more of an academic discussion about how we rebalance the sharing of space between a 1950’s urban landscape, designed in deference to the needs of drivers, and a 2020 acknowledgement of how cities really work.  In effect, he was saying that Toronto was laid out like an enlarged suburban town and that it was time to accept the costs and benefits of the concentration of the past half century and the further densification to come.  This had some rather obvious implications relating to the conversion of pavement to greenspace in the downtown core.  The objective was to make things more liveable for people who walk or transit instead of driving and parking every day.

As mild and unambitious as that may sound, it begs a question I’ve been struggling with for the past month or so: how do we balance competing rights in the public realm?

It sounds simpler than it is.  Most of the great breakthroughs in civil rights and social equity concern rights enjoyed in private.  The right to vote, granted to women and Aboriginals in the last century, is a right exercised in the privacy of the voting booth.  The decriminalization of various sexual behaviours resulted in freedoms enjoyed without fear in the bedrooms of the nation, as Pierre Trudeau famously said it.  Gay marriage, pay equity, and abortion all pertain to life in private relationships: between life partners, between an employee and their payroll clerk, and between a woman and her doctor. By codifying these rights, we publicly acknowledge that they exist, however they are rights that enjoyed primarily in the privacy and security of safe relationships.

The same cannot be said of rights in the public realmI’ve recently pointed this out in the conflict between cars, cyclists, and pedestrians, which leaves dead or wounded on our streets almost weekly.  Nor can it be said of US gun laws, which forces those who would prefer not to be shot to share public spaces with those who claim the right to magnify that risk.  Is it not also true of sexually expressed power inequities in the workplace, where subordinates imagine they are safe from the imposition of intimacies normally reserved for private times and places, between consenting adults?  The greatest affront isn’t that people love their cars, or keep guns at home, or even that they might sexually proposition one another in privacy, it’s that they bring danger into the environment of others through reckless or aggressive behaviour, trumping their rights with presumed entitlements of their own.

When you listen to urban planners, the public realm is a precious place, a sanctuary, redolent with intangible values derived from heritage, contemporary design, or critical links to other places.  This clashes with the challenge thrown down by Jon Kim Bell, who sees public space as the most visible venue for disruption.

It was no mistake that the Occupy Movement staked out public parks in major cities, nor that the Las Vegas shooter rained bullets down on a public square, nor that the terrorist attack in Barcelona occurred on the city’s most famous pedestrian thoroughfare, La Rambla.  Likewise, it is strategically wise for Canada’s indigenous protests to occur at highway intersections and rail crossings, as well as the more obvious places of power, like the lawns of Parliament in Ottawa.

My father, who spent most of his professional life working with indigenous peoples in Northern and Western Canada, used to speculate about the disruption they could cause if they lost faith in the federal government’s good will.  He had seen the intelligence, skill, and stamina of hunters and trappers who could as easily shut down remote highways, railways, power grids, mines, oil wells, farms, factories, and even missile defence installations, as they could disappear into a snowstorm on the tundra and return a week later with a string of fox pelts.

Given the state of our armed services, it’s probably true, however this is not the tactic advocated by Jon Kim Bell.  The objective isn’t to disrupt things, it’s to enact social change through persuasion.  Disruption is merely a tactic to gain their attention.  To achieve this through fear and deprivation is the wrong starting place.  Hence, the peaceful but highly public protests, strategically located where they draw attention to a specific issue.  Disruption, as Bell described it, has already become part of the long game being played by First Nations to assume their rightful place in 21st century Canada.

This, of all the examples presented at The Walrus Talks, made the clearest causal connection between disruption and social change.  Change happens when people are ready for it, not when it first appears necessary or possible.  It’s too easy to look at arguments, evidence, or demonstration of the need for change, and to call it disruptive, when the change was already well advanced, or fails to occur for a long time after the so-called disruption.

That’s where my ruminations about disruption have led me.  I think of it like a tsunami which is recognized as a cresting wave, smashing over the shoreline and causing mass destruction, when, in fact, the cause was a distant, undersea, earthquake, unseen and unheard.  The time and place of wave generation and its long, slow, build of momentum, is far more important to understand than the momentary peak that occurs just before it strikes and transforms the landscape.

Many of the phenomena that were described as actual or anticipated disruptions have yet to, or will not, produce the tsunami of social change attributed to them.  Persuasion through political and social advocacy, commercial and cause marketing, grass roots campaigns, and clever, practical, mobilization of people, are necessary to start the wave and keep it building.

Persuasion is what influences the direction and pace of change, and though these processes may culminate in a moment that we later recognize as 'disruptive', there are no shortcuts.  There is no deus ex machina for despair.  Redirection and acceleration of change takes clarity, courage, and committed effort.


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