Yesterday students, faculty and administrators began to react to the police invasion of campus and their abuse of students, protesters and faculty. There is much to report and much to say.
1. Here’s a CBC story, with video. What they left out was that Greg Mikkelson did try to leave campus and was blocked from doing so by riot police. I find it interesting that the police representative a) blamed the victim and b) justified their presence on the university campus on the basis of events that happened outside of it.
2. As the video shows, a group of us met on the steps outside James Admin Building, discussed what to do, signed a (n admittedly imperfect but eminently necessary) letter, and then tried to deliver it to the principal. As usual, I was there for awhile and then had to leave before it got to the delivery part, but this is clearly just the beginning of dealing with the issue. By the end the principal refused to meet with the crowd but allowed one professor and one student in to deliver the letter. The conversation did not go particularly well.
3. The reports I’ve heard from students (especially) have been positively horrifying. I don’t know who is comfortable saying what in public, but the response to the protesters seems to have gone beyond proportional to harassment and intimidation, and not just because of the pepper spray and tear gas.
4. The principal’s response has been totally insufficient. I will cut her a little slack for the CBC interview simply because I know how news is cut and edited, but this “a pox on both their houses” stuff connects two events that have little to do with one another, and suggests that there is some equivalence between them. Here is the English text of the letter she sent to all McGill staff and students yesterday:
(Une version française suivra.)
Message on behalf of Principal Heather Munroe-Blum
I write to you following the disturbing events of yesterday. I was not on campus and did not witness the events firsthand.
Based on what I have been told, I have today asked our Dean of Law, Daniel Jutras, to conduct an independent investigation of the events and to report back to me on his findings by December 15, 2011.
I am taking this action based on the following information provided to me today:
Late Thursday afternoon, a group of protesters entered the unlocked James Administration Building and forced their way from a reception area outside the offices of the Provost and the Principal, pushing staff in the process. Some of them were masked and hooded. They refused to identify themselves.
Security personnel were called to deal with the situation. Over the course of a few minutes, they ushered most of the protesters back to the reception area, but a few refused to leave my office. These individuals were carried out to the reception area under protest, where they were then left undisturbed.
As a protest grew outside the building, apparently encouraged by social media messages from the protesters within, all exits to the building were effectively blocked by protesters, and employees who were trying to leave the building to go home could not do so. It was clearly a tense, stressful situation.
Security personnel called Montreal police. Four officers arrived to survey the situation. Police in the building did not speak with the occupying protesters or interact with them in any way. At no time were the protesters detained by McGill staff.
I understand that the Provost and Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) spoke with the protesters more than once asking them what they wanted, and, about their plans and, ultimately, their desire to have the event end peacefully and safely. In exchange for a promise to leave immediately, quietly and peacefully, the Provost and Deputy Provost assured the protesters they would be allowed to leave the building with no consequences, including criminal charges, identification to police or disciplinary action on the part of the University. After consultation amongst themselves, they agreed and were escorted out by the Provost Anthony Masi and Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson.
The situation outside, and the presence of the riot squad, which dispersed the protesters by its usual means, was entirely directed by the Montreal police service.
The presence of riot police on our campus is shocking.
We as a community, need to fully understand the events and the responses to them and I trust Dean Jutras will conduct a thorough, impartial review.
I appreciate that the time pressure may have made this message less perfect than it could be (as was our letter), but here are some of the issues in what she wrote:
–> first and foremost, she failed to condemn the actions of police. I’m sorry, but there is no other possible moral position. “Shocking” is a hedge, and a bad one. The police action was excessive and condemnable. Anything short of that is complicit with it.
–> In 1997, students occupied the principal’s office and it didn’t go down like this. (thanks to Wendy for the link)
–> by their spokesman’s own account on the CBC, the presence of the riot police on campus had nothing to do with the occupation of the principal’s office
–> eyewitnesses describe McGill security directing police to disperse protesters. Someone even told me there is video on this but I have not seen the video.
–> this “a pox on both their houses” talk is inappropriate. Nonviolent occupation of administrative offices is a time-honored tradition of protest. Furthermore, THERE IS NO COMPARISON BETWEEN SOME UNARMED UNDERGRADUATES LOCKING THEMSELVES IN BUILDING AND ARMED POLICE ATTACKING, INTIMIDATING AND ABUSING PEACEFUL PROTESTERS AND BYSTANDERS.
–> by all accounts Dean Jutras is a good dean and a decent and collaborative person. But he reports to higher administration. Someone completely impartial, or a committee made up of administrators, staff, faculty and students (with equal representation) would have considerably more autonomy than a single person who is subordinate to people with whom he might need to find fault. The investigation needs to be a real investigation.
Let us hope she does better in her next communiqué.
5. I haven’t had much praise for higher admin here lately, so let us take a moment to appreciate that the provost and deputy provost negotiated peacefully with the students occupying the building, and that they offered the occupiers amnesty in exchange for ending the occupation. This is an important step, because it shows that university administrators can follow principles of nonviolence and de-escalation in moments of conflict. I would encourage them to think in the same terms as they encounter future conflicts with both unions and student groups, rather than escalating, as they have so many times this fall through PR messages and through actions like the injunction against the union.