There’s a climate march happening in Halifax this weekend. Marches are happening in Nova Scotia a lot these days. Students marched at Province House to demand affordable places to live. But the provincial government said no. Education support workers have been marching at Province House to ask for living wages. So it’s no surprise that there is a march for the climate this Saturday on Earth Day. Although it may be worth examining the point of marching, even if this one is being billed as a celebration of “our beautiful communities and our continued resistance for love, justice and life on this planet.”
There’s a quote that’s attributed to one of the greatest jesters of a generation, Norm MacDonald, and it goes like this: “It says here in this history book that, luckily, the good guys have won every single time. What are the odds?” There is some debate about whether MacDonald ever actually uttered those words, but in an ode to the late comedian, it may be worth explaining the joke to find out why marches have become so common.
The joke is funny because people’s fundamental understanding of the world is shaped as a child in school, and those children are being taught a one-sided version of history. And if that version of history is too one-sided, it may cause people to learn the wrong lessons from the past, further entrenching the problems into today’s legislation and messing up the future. It’s really quite a funny joke when it’s broken down like that.
We like to think we are immune from such heavy-handed propagandization of history, but we’re not, mainly because it’s taught to us so early we learn to see it as normal. And one of the most egregious forms of propaganda in Western history textbooks involves stripping the nuance out of our historic debate. Nowhere is this more evident than in Canadian public education about the life of American civil rights activist E. D. Nixon and one of his primary hype men, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Everyone knows about King’s I Have a Dream speech, and he is viewed quite favourably by most these days. So it made sense for a car company like Dodge to use a sermon of King’s to try and sell some trucks.
The folks at Dodge didn’t do their homework, so when someone else took to the internet to overlay a different King speech on the same ad, it doesn’t have quite the same message.
OMG someone overlayed that ridiculous Dodge/MLK ad with what King actually said about capitalism and car commercials pic.twitter.com/9IB528mCyt— Astead (@AsteadWH) February 5, 2018
For some reason, a car advertisement doesn’t have the same ring to it with an angry King railing against the evils of consumption and silver-tongued ad men shouting “In order to make your neighbours envious, you must drive this type of car!”
The anti-consumption, anti-capitalist part of King’s activism is usually omitted from textbooks.
One of the things that’s more egregiously omitted is King’s view about what makes an effective protest. There is a debate in academic circles about protest’s role is in democracy. But King believed that the power of non-violent protest was misunderstood by his white peers. While they seemed to believe that non-violent meant pacifist or passive, King believed it meant fighting without violence.
Take the case of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycotts. There were two coercive elements to this protest, and the first is the boycott itself.
Back before every company was a large multinational one, consumers had a lot of power in their local markets. So when the Black population of Montgomery decided to stop riding the bus, 75% of the ridership disappeared, which put huge financial pressure on the city of Montgomery—the boycott is estimated to have cost $3,000 a day, (~$33,000 in today’s dollars). The Coast tried to confirm this information with the city of Montgomery, but was apologetically informed that non-citizens of Alabama are not legally entitled to that information.
A boycott is a coercive form of protest. We, as consumers, have a lot of power. In the case of the Black population of Montgomery, they were 75% of the buses’ customer base. If any business has 75% of its customers disappear overnight, that business needs to adapt to customer concerns or go out of business. It’s also worth noting that we, as consumers, no longer have that power. Companies are now so big, so invasive and so well vertically and horizontally integrated that we no longer have the same power to boycott as the people in the 1950s did. The concentrated collective spending power of the lower classes has been completely funnelled up to the upper classes, and with it, most of the power that comes with having money.
We, in theory, have the power to spend our money where we want, and boycotts are supposed to be how we can come together collectively and leverage our economic power to make companies treat us better. Whether you agree with this method is irrelevant. What is relevant is that in a democracy we, the people, are supposed to have power over our leaders. Our money is supposed to be one of our levers of power. It was used to change the flow of power in Alabama to make life better for Black people. By effectively harnessing the power of the boycott, the Civil Rights Movement changed how people with power treated them.
But no textbook includes a handy guide on how to use the power of your paycheck to upend the status quo. So we didn’t notice when that aspect of our power had been taken away. We notice it now when we have to pay $40 for chicken.
I beg your pardon pic.twitter.com/3IIlc7xtY6— Siobhan Morris (@siomoCTV) January 4, 2023
The other form of coercive protest was lawsuits. Not to get too Poli-Sci 101, but Western liberal democracies have three formal bodies of power in our government: The legislative branch (the people we vote for and, federally, the senate), the executive branch (the prime minister/premier and their cabinet) and the judiciary.
The short version of Rosa Parks’ story is that she didn’t give up her seat, and then segregation on the buses stopped as if by magic. But it wasn’t magic; it was the Browder v Gayle class-action lawsuit, in which Parks was one of the complainants. Parks was also the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
One of the other members of the NAACP, E.D. Nixon, believed that the American court system could be forced into giving Black Americans equal rights. He and another organizer, Jo Ann Robertson, are cited as the masterminds of the bus boycott and the segregation-ending class-action. The plan was brilliant in its simplicity: Wait for someone to refuse segregation, make sure they had no skeletons in their closet, and then get the judicial arm of the government to force equal rights for Black Americans through the legislative and executive branches.
Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse segregation and be arrested. She did, however, have one of the strongest legal cases. The NAACP shrewdly postponed its legislative fight when it found out its first star claimant, a 15-year-old girl, was pregnant. The NAACP understood that the power of the protest wasn’t sitting in the “wrong” seat. The power was in the lawsuit, because if it were to be successful, it would force the government to treat Black people as equals.
Protests led to arrests, arrests led to lawsuits, and lawsuits led to real legislative change. The NAACP’s plan was never the protests, they were just a mechanism to start a legal process.
So, what is the point of marches today?
This brings us back to Saturday’s march. Although there is latent frustration in this piece, the frustration is not really directed at the organizers of this parade. Because there is a part of a march that is incredibly useful if we are to be successful in surviving climate change. We need community, we need people to come together and organize. But we need to channel our efforts into things that will actually coerce change.
Having a march may make us feel good, and it may connect us to our community, but marches and parades are insidious in their undermining of democracy. A protest in the streets, with no coercive mechanism like a lawsuit or a boycott, is a performative protest. It will not lead to meaningful legislative change. That’s why our politicians love it when we protest in the streets and do nothing else. They can show up, pay their respects, get some credit for doing a good deed and leave without having been forced to do the legislative part of their job.
And if organizers channel their efforts into performative non-violent protest instead of coercive non-violent protest, and if people who volunteer have finite time and energy, are organizers inadvertently making things worse by asking people to waste their energy on ineffective forms of protest? Even with the best of intentions, yeah, a little bit.
So what is there to do if you care about the planet and have some time this Saturday? For those interested in coercive protests, there is a (tedious) way to force the city to do things. Fair warning that it’s boring, it takes longer than Earth Day, and it’s not nearly as fun as a parade, but it goes like this:
Step 1: Figure out what your community can do to save the environment.
Step 2: Knock on doors in your community to find out who cares as much about the environment as you do.
Step 3: Organize enough people with enough time, money and/or expertise to set up a community group with Nova Scotia's Registry of Joint Stock Companies.
Step 4: Contact the city and tell staff you would like a community area rate to do the plan from Step 1.
Step 5: Pay your slightly elevated property taxes and enjoy the benefits of your activism.
The only limiting factor of the first step is your imagination, but it will likely have more success if it plays to a current failure of the municipal government.
For example, the city has an integrated mobility plan on the books, but every summer the city repaves a whole slew of roads to make sure cars remain king while pretending the IMP doesn’t exist. Right now, the only real pathway to coerce the city into making sure the IMP applies to your neighbourhood is to force them with a community group and area rate. And the best time to do some organizing for that would be on a Saturday afternoon.
If you can walk or cycle to Saturday’s parade it should be a fun time and a good opportunity to build community and start organizing. But if you have to drive a combustion engine car from your rural or suburban community to downtown to participate, maybe ask yourself if there’s something better you could be doing with your Saturday afternoon to save the planet.