Former U.S. President George W. Bush has decided to join the public speaking circuit, because he’s oh so good at that. His first venture brought him to Alberta.
Maybe it’s telling that my stomping grounds, Canada’s “Little Texas” were deemed the safest place for him to try playing elder statesman. Devoutly conservative, with an oil-driven economy and a Provincial government with an environmental record that would make the man who bragged about being “the world’s largest polluter” proud, Calgary’s the kind of town where even moderates are closeted for fear of being deemed “liberal,” “commie” and “fascist.”
But we brought out the moderates (and liberals) today to give him a not-so-warm unwelcome.
Of course, there were obstacles. It was a weekday afternoon, which automatically removed opportunity from many to attend a demonstration. The temperature peaked at a balmy 2 degrees celsius (35 for you folks on Fahrenheit) and there was Calgary’s world famous parking rates (3rd highest in North America prior to the January increase), and Park-and-Ride / Transit hikes to contend with. Even so, some four to five hundred protesters lined the pavement of Stephen Avenue outside the Telus Convention Centre.
The fact that he arrived here at all is an issue to many. Lawyer Gail Davidson of Lawyers Against the War fought to either bar entry to the former president or to press charges, an internationally-defining step that Canada was unwilling to take, politically. Apparently, authorizing the use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique, advocating the use of cluster bombs and depleted uranium, targeting vital infrastructure during war, incarcerating people for years without trial and little things like Guantanamo kind of hurt ones human rights record a little.
Canada brags that it refuses entry to war criminals, although when Apartheid-era doctors accused of experimenting on gay and lesbian soldiers and forcing some to undergo sex reassignment surgery come here to be rewarded with professorial tenure at the University of Calgary, one has to wonder (to be fair, said doctor has not been convicted of anything, as he fled South Africa before an investigation could be launched). In reality, its record on that is not so good. Canada’s pretty good at keeping out the war resisters, though. Apparently, Dubya-era America is not the only nation with its priorities backwards. (Incidentally, folks, the vast majority of us involved with the protest do not extend similar antipathy to the American people — our beef is primarily with the Bush administration and to an extent with any government regime that engages in oppression, torture and subversion)
So given that the Canadian government wasn’t about to intervene, the protests went ahead. Organizers from PeopleVBush.ca and ProtestBush started as far prior to the speech as Wednesday March 11th, with the display of two large banners — a black one reflecting sentiments about various pasts that has been stolen, and a white one commemorating hopes for the future. Protesters were not allowed to hang the banners up anywhere, though, and had to carry them through the lunch hours when they wanted them visible.
On Saturday, a mock trial was held at the Uptown Theatre. Actors ended up mostly reading their lines from script, but the event was designed to make a point, highlighting the abuses that occurred under Bush’s watch, and generally authorized by his own pen. On Monday, a discussion forum was held. Meanwhile, shoes were sent in from all across Canada for the main event — shoes sent from as far away as Vancouver and St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The City had originally planned to force protesters to stay a block away at Olympic Plaza, but realized that might elevate tensions with protesters. 60 members of the Calgary Police Service looked after the streetside protest, while the RCMP arranged security detail inside. 1500 people had reserved seats for the $400 per plate event sponsored by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, and although they were told to arrive by 10:30 in order to go through the heightened security, the precautions and protests delayed the dinner by nearly two hours. Still, the media will probably be calling the speech a success (which is easy to do, as they were barred from the event, so the only evidence they have to go on is the attendance).
There were Bush supporters, too. Three of them. The CBC was quick to try to make it sound like a major clash between factions, but the reporter on site couldn’t construe it that way, because we’d actually largely ignored them. Two carried matching signs that declared that the world is safer because of Dubya, and a third carried one which read: “ImpoRTanTanT [sic] BibLe Prophecies aRe being FulfiLLed In IRaq, which began In 1990 aNd wiLL exTend InTo The FuTuRe: JeRemiah wRote abouT These days Thousands of years ago: God has used both oF The Bush adminisTraTions To do His will and Fulfill His woRd:” Way to evangelizeize, there, Mr. Wingnut, sir.
When the media reports on the protests, they focus on the four arrests that were made, charging people with breach of peace, obstructing police, and public behaviour. The first of the people arrested tried to cross into the Convention Centre to make a citizen’s arrest. A second was arrested for casually throwing a flip-flop sandal at the building. After that, all one really had to do to be arrested was to step out onto 1st St SE, where the arrested person was taken and ushered into a van (and a significant distance from the entrance to the Convention Centre), in defiance of their orders — at one point, I witnessed the Calgary Police Service practically daring people to do so.
One of the arrested people was a communications officer with the Canadian military, who’d stepped out into the street to verbally defend another protester.
Overall, the protest was largely peaceful, and filled with speeches, costumed protesters evoking images of Abu Ghraib, and the Raging Grannies singing to tunes of old classics like Oh Susanna: “… we’ve seen your wanted poster up, but you’re not wanted here.” Protesters also took the opportunity to make statements about other issues, such as the wrongful conviction in the U.S. of journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal (who is on death row) or the local skinhead group’s plans to march on the International Day to Eliminate Racism and try to claim it as a “white pride” day.
For those familiar with the Royal Canadian Air Farce (which ended their television series this past New Years) and the classic Chicken Cannon, of which Dubya has been a popular target since 2002, you can probably appreciate the culmination of the protest (although everyone was a bit subdued by the cold by then): the shoe cannon (which was a little buggy) and shoe-throwing event.
In the end, both sides are declaring the day’s events to be a victory, and comments are all over the board. But if there is one thing that many of us would like the international community to take from this event, it is that a great many Canadians (probably a majority, once you factor in the rest of the country) do not approve of and will never truly welcome someone of the warmongering stature of George W. Bush.
(crossposted to the Bilerico Project)