The context ignored by journalists at Quebec City’s racist/antiracist protests

When Donald Trump condemned “both sides” for violence in Charlottesville, he was widely, and correctly, condemned. Heather Heyer was murdered and 19 others were injured. Racists were armed. Police strategically sat back. It was a horrifying image of “two sides” in confrontation.

Antiracists rally outside Complèxe G. Inside, La Meute waited for several hours.

Naively, I thought that perhaps the media was learning to get past this two sides fallacy. Nazi punching is back in vogue. Racists’ identities are being exposed and they’re losing their jobs. The violent rhetoric of these groups is finally leading to consequences. But until we puncture through the mainstream consensus that there are “two sides” to every story, progressives will never win the air wars.

That’s because access to free speech isn’t equal. It takes nearly nothing for our events and our rallies to be ignored, sensationalized, obscured or ruined.

Today, the mainstream media consensus is that anti-immigrant, white supremacist group La Meute was the true winner in Quebec City yesterday because a handful of people smashed glass and threw patio chairs. I watched it happen as the police stood back and allowed it.

Not far from where this happened are sons, widows, friends and neighbours of six men who were murdered by an individual inspired by the kind of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic beliefs spouted by La Meute.

Unlike Heather Heyer, they weren’t killed while they were protesting. They were simply living and specifically, praying. Their very existence was resistance and they died in a space that is sacred and holy, one where no one should ever feel threatened or face violence.

Survivors of that attack still struggle with that horror. Families remain in mourning. Racists continue to send threats and violent messages to the mosques in town. And yet, when La Meute marches and antiracists march against, all of this context vanishes.

The events yesterday shouldn’t have happened in the way they did. When the police declared the rally illegal, they intentionally didn’t act on their declaration. No one was arrested because they were participating in an illegal march. When a dumpster was set on fire and glass thrown towards fully-protected police, police did the bare minimum to make sure no one was hit. They didn’t put out the dumpster fire. They didn’t dispatch firefighters. They didn’t arrest anyone for vandalism. They allowed it to happen and journalists flocked to the chaos.

Declaring the rally illegal was not intended to keep the peace. It was an act of PR. Today, the police have promised that they will be arresting people perhaps later on, maybe tomorrow.

When Jaggi Singh was arrested, police knew that the cameras would turn to him, that he would absorb the news. Nevermind that he was released without charge the same day, on the other side of town. The stories were already published. Don Macpherson at The Gazette congratulated Singh on Twitter for handing victory to La Meute, as if Singh had begged the police himself to arrest him. As if his arrest wasn’t an egregious attack on his free speech.

Police tear gassed protesters. They chose a violent tactic meant to injure protesters, rather than simply arrest and ticket people for protesting during an illegal rally.

When La Meute finally emerged from the parking garage, their protest was “peaceful” and “legal.” Perhaps it helped that some of their placards expressed solidarity and support for the RCMP.

Journalist Desmond Cole tweeted: “until more people understand that these white supremacist marches are a form of violence, we’re in big trouble,” and really, that is the heart of this struggle. It is impossible for La Meute to have a “peaceful” demonstration when they’re calling for an end to immigration and the maintenance of a white Quebec, and impossible for La Meute to have had a victory yesterday, without journalists handing that victory to them directly.

To argue that La Meute won requires a few ingredients. You first must believe that they have furthered the cause of a white Quebec. That, in the eyes of Quebecers, immigration is less popular today than it was on Saturday. Second, you must believe that hiding out in a parking garage for several hours, is a marker of a successful rally. Third, you must ignore that La Meute was outnumbered, somewhere between 3:1 and 5:1 by antiracist protesters. Fourth, you must uncritically carry La Meute’s own PR as news, while you denigrate the “other side” for being violent.

Last March, when antiracist protesters (me included) took over a La Meute rally despite being outnumbered, the media didn’t declare that we “had won.” We were simply present. We did “everything right” and no journalist declared us the victor.

The real violence in this city goes only one way: from skinhead groups who post online that they’re training for street fighting, to the new white supremacist boxing club that they’re setting up. From attacks at mosques to racist banner drops. From the “peaceful, lawful” racist rally on Saturday that went unchallenged to the fight against a Muslim cemetery. It’s as if the mainstream press and politicians are so far down the vortex of white supremacy that they can’t think clearly.

Or, that they benefit so much from white supremacy that they cannot untie themselves from it to conjure up a sober assessment of it.

Heather Heyer may have triggered a North American reflection and fightback against fascism but has been the result of the murder of six racialized Muslim men? Have we managed to not only have learned nothing, but instead sanitized the mundane hatred of a “peaceful, legal” rally?

The fallacy of left-wing violence is that it creates this narrative: progressives are to blame for the rise of extreme right-wing sentiment. That, if only the broad left had been quieter, larger, less aggressive, more peaceful or whatever, La Meute would not have been able to “declare victory.” Maybe this makes sense from an ahistorical, contextless position. Maybe this makes sense from a position that assumes that journalists cover events fairly and proportionate to what happens, but both are fallacy. The Left will never be peaceful enough, nice enough or lawful enough because we are made illegal or we are marginalized the second the state has the chance.

And worse, for the hundreds of people who rallied yesterday “peacefully,” without incident, their presence and voices have been erased. Their actions rendered futile. If I worked as a mainstream journalist, perhaps I’d lay the blame at the foot of the Black Bloc. But it was orchestrated to go down the way it did.

The state wants us to stay home next time. We know better than that, though. We just need to be larger and better organized next time. And the next time after that. And resist the narrative that we are ourselves to blame for the hatred and racism that we fight.