What use is social movement theory during an endless university strike?

The strike at York University is now the longest running university strike in Canadian history. Of course, not all of us are ‘on strike’. The contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants who are members of the strong and militant local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE3903) voted to go on strike in early March. As a result, many tenured faculty, including myself, suspended classes, and many students refused to cross the picket lines.

At a university celebrated for its progressive students and faculty, this social unionist local sees the union as part of a broader struggle for social justice. Beyond wages and benefits, they hoped to fund a sexual assault survivor centre, breastfeeding facilities, various equity initiatives, and significantly, to maintain or increase the number of contract faculty ‘converted’ to tenure stream. Five months in, little has been achieved, – and the campus remains in suspended animation – awaiting week 8 of the winter term, but simultaneously in the midst of an epic battle.

This summer, I was supposed to teach a graduate level course in social movement theory. Most of my students are on strike; class is cancelled.  So I visit the shrinking picket lines, walk in circles and attend yet another meeting. I know only a fragment of what the strikers know. Still, I ask myself, how does social movement theory help? What questions does it ask? What concepts are useful, and where does it fall short?

Can it help understand what is happening? Or how to win, (or even to survive) when an employer refuses to come to the table? The management-side lawyer argued that CUPE3903 wasn’t engaging in ‘proper bargaining’, because of its processes that emphasized openness, solidarity and accountability.  As a result, the university has only bargained for one day since the strike began. It is virtually a lock-out. Before the strike even began, a savvy, and progressive staff member suggested to me – “they are going to wait them out. They will twist in the wind all summer. They are trying to break that union.”

What do we do with such an observation? It suggests that the university is betting on its superior resources. The classic social movement theory piece, “Resource Mobilization: A Partial Theory” by McCarthy and Zald (1977) might support that bet. It points out that in some ways, movement organizations are like other groups – they need people, money, skills, technologies and networks. But CUPE 3903 had the needed strike fund. They had the skilled staff and leadership, they had the members – although fewer than last time, because the university had removed 800 graduate students from the union by offering them fellowships. However, and most importantly, CUPE3903 was able to draw on a wide array of longstanding relationships with other communities, social justice groups and unions. The Ontario Federation of Labour held days of action, as has CUPE National and CUPE Ontario. Other unions have shown up on the picket line in solidarity, framing this as a strike against precarious work, against the public sector and against unions more generally.  The transit workers union facilitated the picket lines, moving their bus routes. Framed as a broader attack on public sector workers, many of these unions and others made financial donations. Community organizations like Jane Finch Action Against Poverty and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty brought food, and solidarity support to the lines.

These relational resources had other effects. Effects that Marshall Ganz, ex-union organizer and theorist would recognize. Ganz (2000) had critiqued the Resource Mobilization theory for overemphasizing material resources, instead showing how groups with smaller resources, but more diverse networks have more ‘strategic capacity’, which can help them to win. This work had helped to trigger a deeper analysis of strategy within the field. What strategy should the union have used?  William Gamson’s classic Strategy of Social Protest suggests that that groups that are both able to disrupt, and able maintain cohesion, are particularly likely to be successful.  CUPE 3903 is more definitely disruptive than many unions. They are also innovative, an asset, according to the findings of Doug McAdam. He found that innovation keeps the opponent off balance, and the energy and attention high. 3903 incorporated influences from social movements versed in anti-oppression politics, cultural resistance, and anarchist, direct action politics, pushing beyond the strike repertoire. This innovativeness illustrated their ‘strategic capacity’, CUPE3903 sent delegations to the offices of Boards of Governors, picketed outside the home of the university president, performed theatre using the Handmaids Tale authoritarian imagery, made various forms of propaganda and cultural work and dug a community garden (Big Gay Garden! CUPE wants to Bargain!).

These tactics gave energy and hope to the union, and drew public attention to the strike in the first few months. However, Gamson’s other warning rang true. Successful organizations are those which can maintain solidarity within their group. This was a challenge. In the 2015 strike, splits occurred between the Unit 1 and Unit 3 members, who are mostly students, and the unit 2 members, the contract faculty. Francesca Polletta’s work that ties identity to strategy is useful here. Within the union, there were militants and moderates; socialists and anarchists; business unionists and social unionists; those who saw themselves as workers and those who saw themselves as scholars. There were dynamics around race, class, gender, sexuality and disability. There were the social scientists and the rest. There were new members on their first strike and the jaded veterans of many strikes. As time passed, some of the boundaries between these different identities hardened. The influence of different categories ebbed and rose as the active members kept at it, attempting to build and strengthen relationships with undergraduates, other unions, and other faculty, meanwhile, the less active became increasingly pessimistic.

To build and maintain a shared identity, the Executive, the membership and the bargaining team used open bargaining, social events, general members meetings and attractive swag. They brought food to the picket lines, and shared hopeful stories on social media. This all worked to develop a shared story of the strike, the union, the university and the larger struggle for public sector institutions. As Eric Selbin (2010) notes, such storytelling is crucial to movement capacity. Drawing on the research of Jane McAlevey (2016), they engaged in open bargaining partly in order to build trust in the union, and simultaneously put pressure on the employer to settle. However the university refused to bargain once the strike began, and the long wait exacerbated struggles for power. The distinct relationships that each unit had with the Employer and each other began to assert themselves. Last month, after a dramatic series of procedural irregularities and secret meetings, the contract faculty voted to accept government arbitration. Soon, the government will likely legislate the other units back to work.

What seems particularly useful to understand the strike, is the extent to which the context matters. Questions of identity, strategy and solidarity are crucial but the concepts of political opportunity helps to consider why this strike was so challenging.  Sidney Tarrow (1998), with Charles Tilly (2006), David Meyer and others point at what is sometimes called, “political opportunities”, the “consistent but not necessarily formal, permanent, or national signals to social or political actors which either encourage or discourage them to use their internal resources to form social movements” (Tarrow 1996: 54). Indeed, this is where relying on the lessons learned from past strikes hits some difficulty. When such structures are “open”, they offer opportunities for social movements who can play authorities against one another, increasing the likelihood of a successful challenge from below. The two relevant regimes here were the university administration, and the provincial government. The university administration was uninterested in bargaining with CUPE3903.  In 2018, the university administration centralized power in the Board of Governors and the President’s office – limiting movement and potential pressure points.  The administration was clearly minimizing the leverage of the union. Indeed, it argued that the union was overly militant and not a ‘real’ union to the provincially-appointed industrial inquiry.

In contrast, on the eve of an election, the provincial government itself was in flux and vulnerable. In the first few months of the strike, the union was able to stop the Liberal government from legislating them back to work. They were able to use the competition between the Liberals and the NDP for the votes of liberals and leftists to avoid being legislated back until the Parliament closed. But university workers are not seen as easy pickings for a right wing government. After the Province elected a Conservative majority, back to work legislation appears inevitable.

To overcome the stubbornness of the university administration and use the openness of the provincial election, the union tried to mobilize its networks. Although the undergraduates were divided about the strike, the union built alliances with sympathetic undergraduate students, who refused to cross picket lines, argued with their counterparts on social media and most dramatically, reclaimed the Senate Chambers for months under the #ReclaimYork hashtag. In the Senate Chamber they held town halls, and teach-ins. These students had their own demands – pressuring the university for a tuition rebate. Other student organizations joined in, seeking the legitimacy and voice that the #Reclaimers achieved, joined in and the York Federation of Students, representing over 50,000 undergraduates declared ‘non confidence’ in the senior administration.

CUPE 3903 also drew on their relationships with tenured faculty, partly through its union, the York University Faculty Association. Even before the strike began, department after department in the social sciences and humanities released statements suspending classes. While the university refused to accept these statements as policy, a high proportion of faculty succeeded in arguing that they could not, in such a context, offer classes with academic integrity. Although most of the teaching in the university is done by those on strike, students have the right not to cross the picket lines without penalty. Sympathetic tenured faculty tried to get the Senate to suspend all classes, as had occurred in previous strikes, but failed because of the centralization discussed earlier. The faculties representing the majority of the departments in the university voted ‘non-confidence’ in the President and the head of the Board of Governors. Many faculty showed up to the picket line, departments held fundraisers, ‘picket parties’ and raised money for the occupying undergraduate students and for the union’s hardship fund.

Despite this solidarity – the university knew that the longer the strike went on, the divisions between units would increase. They exacerbated these tensions by undercutting the union leadership as unreasonable, and by suggesting that if Unit 2 settled, they would get more work. Playing the long game, the university had the resources to win the fight. The union used its past knowledge to anticipate the Employer’s next move. Normally, when such strikes begin to cut into numbers of enrollment, tuition dollars and reputation, the university would move to end the disruption. Not this time. Even if it wounded itself, a multi-million dollar institution would survive. It seemed as if those in charge believed that it was worth sacrificing all these resources in the short term, if it succeeded in crushing the union. If it did that, the next strike would not occur, and the university would rebuild. Those in charge bet that collective memory is short.

The social movement literature I would have taught this summer can help to understand many of the pieces of this mobilization – how identity and strategy were constructed and challenged; how resources played out; and why the structure of the university matters, and how it interacted with the election dynamics. There are other smaller questions that more research could help with – how the length of the strike mattered? How the timing affected strategy and identity, and how recent movements around anti-Black racism, gender, immigration and international struggles that members were familiar with influenced the strike. I also would love clearer insight into how temporal dynamics played out in these relational dynamics, how the new subway line weakened the power of the picket lines, and how social media affected the involvement of undergraduates, faculty and members. These questions could be explored. Social movement theory can help. But we need to build on and go beyond social movement theory to figure out what could have been different. How the union might have won, and how it could win next time. How the economic moment mattered. How power can be understood; how culture operates; of interaction, and of emotion. We know so little, and that, my friends is a collective project I want to be part of.

Lesley Wood, York University, July 14, 2018


Gamson, William. 1975. The Strategy of Social Protest. Dorsey Press

Ganz, Marshall. 2000. “Resources and Resourcefulness: Strategic Capacity in the Unionization of California Agriculture, 1959-1966.” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 105, No. 4 (Jan., 2000), pp. 1003-1062

McAdam, Doug. 1977. “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 6 (Dec., 1983), pp. 735-754

McAlevey, Jane 2016. NO SHORTCUTS: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, John D. and Mayer N, Zald. 1977. Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 82, No. 6 (May, 1977), pp. 1212-1241

Meyer, D. 2004. “Protest and Political Opportunities”. Annual Review of Sociology 30: 125–45

Polletta, Francesca. 2002. Freedom is an Endless Meeting. University of Chicago Press

Selbin, Eric. 2010. Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story. University of Chicago Press

Tarrow, Sidney (1998 [1994]). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly, C., and S. Tarrow (2006). Contentious Politics. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.


G7 – Protest as threat

I would imagine that police officer was uncomfortable wearing his gas mask under that riot helmet. Not just physically, but because he was absurdly overdressed. He was ready for a fight that wasn’t happening. Less than 1000 G7 summit protesters marched in Quebec City – some making demands around climate change, indigenous justice, gender equity and poverty. Others holding banners for the Proletarian Revolution and the end of capitalism, chanting against the police and for the elimination of elite institutions like the G7.

Clearly, he was not allowed to take off his riot helmet. Facing down the G7 protests this weekend were 8000-9000 RCMP, Quebec City, SQ and Canadian Armed Forces officers, 3000 of whom had been flown in from around the country. There were riot units, with new shields and batons, helicopters, and Colt C-8 assault rifles that cost $2,500 each. There were 40mm grenade launchers that could be used to deploy tear gas or other less-than-lethal ammunition. There were dogs, drones and fences, lots of fences.

Even though the world leaders were safely helicoptered behind a fence 200 km away, the police in Quebec City prepared for the worst. In some ways, they can’t be faulted. Their job is to protect world leaders, while facilitating ‘lawful’ protest. To do this, they would be likely to use something like the RCMP’s Harmonized Threat and Risk Assessment Methodology. This would begin with identifying and assigning value to the assets they need to protect. Presumably the world leaders and their meetings have some value. Significant value. As a result, this jacks up the need to protect them, and be seen to protect them, by any means necessary.

This leads into the Threat Assessment Phase. To do this police must “list all threats that might affect assets within the scope of the assessment at an appropriate level of detail.” The overall threat level was normal.[1] Nothing to see here. However, threats don’t just mean terrorism. For the last Canadian summit, documents revealed that it also included organized crime and “embarrassment to the Canadian government”. Oh dear. Protesters can be embarrassing. They can threaten the legitimacy of authorities, pose a threat to silence, and a threat to a seamless appearance of consensus. That’s the point. As a tool for making change, social movements emerged as grassroots challenges to authorities. If you are in a country with no protest, be very afraid.

There is a long history of disruptive protest that blocks streets, or railways, disrupts meetings, buildings and interferes with business as usual. Such protesters got women the vote, ended slavery, stopped wars. They are now celebrated on stamps and by politicians. But when such protests, target ‘critical assets’ like the G7, they are understood as a threat to national security. Indeed, because the RCMP considers disruptive protest a threat, their job is to eliminate it.  There are different ways that protest can be defined as a problem.  Consider this discussion of the definition of domestic subversion in the RCMP Integrated Threat Assessment framework:

“activities directed toward undermining by covert unlawful acts, or directed toward or intended ultimately to lead to the destruction or overthrow by violence of the constitutionally established system of government in Canada”.

There is little surprising here. And the manual also contains explicit provisions to protect lawful advocacy, protest and dissent. But the document continues, “even entirely legal behaviour, such as lawful picketing and pamphleteering, may warrant analysis within a Threat and Risk Assessment project to help mitigate the impact on productivity, public opinion and employee expectations.”

Hmm. Do we really want the police mitigating the impact of protest on public opinion?

There is also the most straightforward category of criminal activity, which includes “an array of illegal activities that constitute threats to public order, the administration of law and justice, public morals, private citizens, public officials, property, currency, contracts and trade amongst other tangible and intangible assets of value.”

The discussion notes that this includes unlawful assembly, spreading false news, mischief or riot. Sometimes those who engage in politicized criminal activity are labelled ‘criminal extremists’, not a flattering brand.  Such a lens considers all unpermitted protest, especially disruptive protest, as a threat. In Quebec City, two protests were declared illegal, and small numbers of activists arrested. But even the permitted, protests were surrounded by gun toting riot units.

Once threats are identified, their likelihood is assessed.  To do this, evaluators look at past events, internationally. This neglects the significance of different political cultures and contexts or moments, as it seeks ‘worst case scenarios.’ Last summer in Hamburg 200,000 marched, and there was a massive black bloc, property destruction and confrontations with the police. That event was branded “Welcome to Hell.” But that is Germany, birthplace of the black bloc. Research has shown that the vast majority of most summit protesters are local. Even at Toronto’s G20 summit, the black bloc numbered no more than 200. Even if that is our comparative case, there are significant differences from 2010 in downtown Toronto.  That event was thrust on the city by a hostile Prime Minister – and triggered widespread property destruction, police panic, record numbers of arrests. Lawsuits and human rights condemnations continue to this day.  The 2001 Summit of the Americas was also frequently mentioned in the local media, and by police spokespeople. That event, at the heyday of the global justice movement, involved a widespread national and international mobilization with tens of thousands people marching through the city, confronting a security perimeter fence, and being repelled by hundreds of canisters of tear gas. These distant and past clashes clearly helped the police to justify spending of hundreds of millions of dollars on security preparations.  “It could happen here.” But Quebec City is not Hamburg, and 2001 was a long time ago. The global justice movement declined after 9/11. The aggressive policing at Toronto’s G20 summit was widely condemned.

There was evidence to suggest that this would not be a large and militant mobilization. The lack of a strong left wing, anti-Trudeau movement, the fuzziness and timeliness of the G7 as a target, and the distance between larger cities and Quebec City, and Quebec City and the summit each contributed to the small scale of the mobilization.  Nonethless, the police spent $420 million for security. Those who did mobilize were flanked by riot police. They were watched by drones. They were stopped from talking with passersby by the wall of security. They were understood, and presented as a threat. When the protesters arrived at the media centre on Thursday night, burned the G7 flags in the middle of the street and then dispersed, journalists were kept inside ‘for their safety’. Yes, flags were burned, and the next day, protesters did try to disrupt the summit, by blocking two roads, including the one road to La Malbaie with a burning couch. But the couch was extinguished. No one was hurt. No harm, no foul.

But is there no harm? The militarized policing in Quebec has consequences. Not only in terms of the tax dollars siphoned into the hands of the military and defense industries; but in terms of future possibilities for dissent. In an increasingly unequal society, the forces for the social good must be encouraged, not quashed. When the police surround protests with guns and fences, it creates a chilling effect, making it harder for these movements to build, to connect with new people, and to communicate their ideas. Those most vulnerable may be particularly likely to stay away. Movements can shrink, voices are silenced, and authoritarian tendencies gain strength. The G7 summit brought together the most powerful leaders in a crisis seared world. The police shouldn’t scare critics away.

[1] http://toronto.citynews.ca/2018/05/16/up-to-9000-police-officers-on-hand-for-g7-summit-in-quebec-on-june-8-9/

Senate should cancel classes during the 2018 CUPE3903 Strike

In response to a motion put forward at LA&PS Faculty Council, asking the York Senate to cancel classes.

I speak in favour of the motion.

First, because the University Senate must fulfill its role. As the most representative and inclusive body on campus, it is there to ensure the academic functioning of the University. It needs to make this call, and it has done so before.

Second, because classes need to be suspended because we are in a university where 60% of the teaching is done by contract faculty and TAs and they are on strike. These striking members of our community have erected picket lines which students have a right not to cross. This makes running an academic program impossible. Even if a student were able to attend one class, they would not be able to attend another. With only some faculty, and only some courses and only some students, academic integrity is impossible.

There is another way that holding classes affects academic integrity; the academic integrity of the university. It is widely understood that there is a longer term struggle underway for the soul of academic institutions. This battle is between those who see universities primarily as a business, which sells degrees and skills to paying customers and those who see universities as a site of critical thinking, exploration, research and a space that attempts to build a more just society.

Thus, in the short term, and in the long term, suspending classes is about supporting our present and future students – their abilities and their hopes.

Third, I want the university to return to the bargaining table, and the strike to end. Not only so I can sleep, teach, write and relax. But because things may get better. A strike is a tool that can be used to make things more fair.  I think we would agree that it is unfair that some faculty make far more and teach far less than others; and that these faculty are more likely to be women and people of colour; it is unfair that teaching assistants are treated with disrespect and that most MA student jobs were eliminated in the past few years.  The strike is a tool that CUPE 3903 is using to try to make our university more just.  I want that too. I want the university to get to the bargaining table and bargain fairly. I know that suspending classes is likely to speed this up by increasing the pressure on the Administration. If we simply pretend that there is business as usual, the pressure is less, and the strike if likely to continue.

Let’s do the right thing.

For these reasons, I support the motion.

No More TASERS – Achieving Zero Harm/ Zero Death – An Examination of Less-Lethal Force Options, including the Possible Expansion of Conducted Energy Weapons (CEWs) Deputation Submission- to the Toronto Police Services Board October 18, 2017


I’m going to speak against the expanded distribution of Conducted Energy Weapons (CEW) within the Toronto Police Service (TPS). I’ll be using my research on police decisions to adopt new less lethal weapons and police militarization in my deputation. The Toronto Police Services’ admirable goal in considering TASER expansion is Zero Harm/Zero death. Seeing TASERs or CEW as part of a strategy to reach this goal is misguided. Conducted Energy Weapons are weapons. Weapons that cause harm and death; we must reject their expanded adoption and use.

I’m going to give three reasons to be careful about any proposed expansion

  1. Evidence suggests that adoption of TASERs or CEW do not result in reduced lethal force incidents or injuries to suspects.
  2. TASERs business and marketing strategy makes it difficult to evaluate the weapon clearly. Many studies on this matter are often tainted by TASERs involvement, sponsorship and influence.
  3. TASER/Axons’ changing position on the risks posed by TASERs to broad sectors of society, including in those with mental illness are worrying and significant. They imply that those most seriously impacted, are those already marginalized.

I know that the Toronto Police Service has been considering the case of expanded TASER since at least 2000, when the RCMP did its first pilot. Since that time, TASERs have been widely adopted by police forces. Often that adoption comes on the heels of a high profile shooting and inquiry or lawsuit. When passions are high and a solution is demanded from the broader public.  I am glad that the TPS has been cautious on this front. I am glad that oversight bodies and social movements have refused to simply get on the TASER bandwagon. I am also glad to have the opportunity to speak against the expanded adoption of TASERs at a moment when most police forces have them, but some are choosing to reduce their use.

TASERs are not a way to get to Zero Harm/Zero Death. Indeed, a recent Reuters report  documented 1,005 people who have died in the United States following encounters with police in which Tasers were used either on their own or, more often, as part of a larger mosaic of force. In at least 153 of those cases, Reuters found, coroners or medical examiners cited the Taser as a cause or contributing factor in the death.[1]

One of the ideas most cited by TASER proponents is that using TASERs saves lives. That their use reduces gun deaths. However, ss you’re probably aware, statistics obtained by Canadian Press and reported in the CBC found in 2007 that the number of police shootings remained consistent in cities that had recently adopted TASERs, while the use of TASERs had rapidly increased[2]. Indeed, despite the notion that TASER’s will reduce police shootings, TASER/Axxon’s International VP of Strategic Communications Steve Tuttle noted “TASERs are not a replacement for deadly force.” [3]

In fact, cardiologist and electrophysiciologist Dr. Zian Tseng of UC San Francisco’ Medical Center looked at the effects of Tasers in his 2009 study. He looked at sudden death rates in 50 California police departments five years before, and five years after TASER introduction. He found that sudden death incidents increased by 600% in the first year. That number eventually dropped down to a 40% increase for the four years after introduction. He argued that the TASER actually escalated situations where you need to use a firearm, and slightly increased their use.

The second reason that you should be wary of expanding the distribution of Controlled Energy Weapons in Toronto is the way that profit motives are driving the adoption of the weapon. The Global Less-lethal weapons market was $6.32 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $11.85 billion by 2023.[4]

Reading the annual report of the company is revealing. They aim to ‘penetrate the market’, and expand sales, come what may. As Police One, the marketing site notes” TASER uses PoliceOne to “to build the business case for TASER use at departments nationwide… [and] educate the market on the return of investment of adopting TASERs by disseminating case studies outlining the reduction of officer injuries and decreased liability for departments using TASERs. (PoliceOne 2013)[5]  As Reuter’s in depth study made clear, and shown in my own research, TASER/Axon’s approach to promoting its product is far reaching. When someone is shot, TASER offers its products. When someone who is TASERed dies, TASER offers advice and resources. Taser/Axons “blurs the lines between its corporate interests, police affairs and scientific research, often enmeshing itself in investigations where its stun guns may be implicated in deaths.”

I’m sure that others will speak about the medical evidence that TASERs pose, and the debates around this. But regardless of your interpretation of this mountain – what I would like to draw your attention to is the way that the company has backed away from its earlier claims of CEW as a non-lethal weapon. As deaths and especially as lawsuits piled up – TASER adopted a new risk management strategy in 2009 and added warnings to the weapon – but in ways that haven’t trickled down to the average police officer. Whereas  originally the weapon was offered as a flexible and multipurpose tool – today the company warns not to use it on the chest area, for repeated or prolonged exposure, if there are cardiac risks and that it shouldn’t be used against those who are old, young, frail, agitated, exhausted or suffering from an array of mental or physical health conditions.[6]

Evidence suggests that these risks hit marginalized and vulnerable populations more. Expanded TASER use will hit racialized communities, drug user communities and folks with mental illness hardest. Gau, Jacinta M., Clayton Mosher, and Travis C. Pratt’s 2010 research suggests that resistance and race affects the use of TASERs.[7] In a context where the TPS is trying to rebuild relationships with Black and racialized communities, the question of who gets Tased is important.

We do need to raise questions about the way that people with mental illness and TASERs interact. The TPS strives to become a pre-eminent police service in the field of mental illness and policing. And yet, we know that TASERs are often used against those with mental illness. In Toronto in 2015, as you know, nearly half of the incidents in which police used a Taser in 2015 involved an “emotionally disturbed” person[8]. This is particularly worrisome when we note a 2016 study noted on the effectiveness of TASERs suggested that individuals with mental illness received shocks significantly more times than those without.[9]

These three reasons I have outlined are giving some police agencies pause. In response to a ruling in the US that erratic behavior and mental illness should not trigger TASER use, agencies are limiting TASER use. In Baltimore, police used TASERs 47% less in 2016 than in 2015. Similarly TASERs were used between 60 and 95% less in 2016 in some cities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia.[10] Boston’s police chief from 2006 to 2013 explains that the increasing restrictions helped him decide not to issue TASERS.

I ask you today to follow this trend of limiting, rather than expanding TASER adoption.

Lesley J. Wood is the author of Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing.


[1] Reuters 2017. “The Toll” Reuters Special Investigative Report. https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-taser-911/

[2] Canadian Press. 2007. Tasers don’t reduce shootings, despite police and politicians’ claimshttp://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/tasers-don-t-reduce-shootings-despite-police-and-politicians-claims-1.645110

[3] Berlatsky, Noah.  2015. “Tasers may not kill like real guns but they’re not a cure for police brutality.” Quartz. https://qz.com/559889/tasers-may-not-kill-like-real-guns-but-theyre-not-a-cure-for-police-brutality/ Nov 27, 2015


[4] Non-Lethal Weapons – Global Market Outlook (2017-2023) https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/non-lethal-weapons—global-market-outlook-2017-2023-300506362.html

[5] PoliceOne, 2013. “PoliceOne Marketing Program Drives Rapid Adoption of the TSER”

[6] Reuters 2017. Shock Tactics Series. “The Warnings”. https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-taser-legal/

[7] Gau, Jacinta M., Clayton Mosher, and Travis C. Pratt. “An inquiry into the impact of suspect race on police use of Tasers.” Police Quarterly 13.1 (2010): 27-48. See also White, Michael D., and Jessica Saunders. “Race, Bias, and Police Use of the TASER.” Race, ethnicity, and policing: New and essential readings (2010): 382-404.

[8] CBC. 2016. “Taser use on ’emotionally disturbed’ people a ‘serious problem,’ Tory says” Mar 17, 2016 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/taser-report-toronto-police-emotionally-disturbed-mayor-tory-1.3496833

[9] Cassandra A. Bailey, William S. Smock, Ashlee M. Melendez, Rif S. El-Mallakh. “Conducted-Energy Device (TASER) Usage in Subjects with Mental Illness.” J. Am Acad Psychiatry Law 44: 213-217.

[10] Reuters. 2017. Special Report: Shock Tactics. https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-taser-911/

50 at 150 – Unsettling a Centennial Baby

I am a Centennial baby, born the summer of 1967 in Canada. My family photo album includes a newspaper clipping with a photo of a newborn that looks like me, alongside a poem that sings of a national dream.  It tells a story of creating a new prosperous, dynamic, just, and multicultural society.  My parents had just arrived. The book on their coffee table was entitled Canada: The Foundations of its Future. Its first chapter called, “The Empty Continent.”  This lie made this dream come easier. It erased the killing of so many – by disease, by displacement, by hunger and straight up murder. So hopeful was the belief that an improved European nation state could be built by assimilating everyone, that taking children from their families, displacing people from their lands and banning the existing languages and cultures could be seen as noble acts by some. “Kill the Indian, save the child.”

I am a Centennial baby, a child of the 1970s. I believed Pierre Trudeau, the CBC and my teachers who argued that we could be a mosaic, rather than a melting pot. This mosaic would allow us to co-exist in peace and harmony. But a mosaic is flat and not everyone agreed to its design, nor its ingredients. Every spring, like so many other families, we would join “Toronto Caravan” and troop from the Trinidad and Tobago Community Centre to the Ukrainian, to the Greek and the Japanese. We tasted the food, tried the dances and enjoyed the stories. But not all the stories were included. Being white and English speaking, I didn’t notice that the stories about slavery and exploitation, about racism and power were missing. While I loved the totem poles of the Royal Ontario Museum, I didn’t notice that their storytellers, and the stories of their theft had themselves been silenced.

I am a Centennial baby, and a teenager of the 1980s. I grew up knowing that the US was the country of greed and war. We sang the songs of Stomping Tom, and DOA, making fun of the USA.  We thought we were so different. That Canada meant something better, more peaceful, and more just.  When I protested US imperialism, free trade and the cruise missiles, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that the Canadian dream I wrote on my picket signs was poisoning the water and raping the earth. But the centre did not hold. My centre did not hold. And all that was solid, began to melt.

I am a Centennial baby and when I was 22, the Mohawks confronted the police and then the military in Kanesatake at Oka, Quebec.

I was already in love with the forest, the lake and the rock.  I was already grieving its destruction.  I found succor and nourishment amongst the trees, and spent summers planting trees and trying to repair the raw wounds of clearcuts. Immersed in fresh water, my heart ached. I had followed the path laid out by the Group of Seven. But this wilderness was not empty. I learned how the Teme-Augama Anishnabai, the Haida and others defended the old growth forest in their struggle for sovereignty.  The Innu of Labrador blocked the NATO test flights that made the caribou miscarry, and the fish leave.

In Kenya a man asked me, “What language do Canadians speak?” He dismissed my answer, pushing me ‘not you Europeans, Canadians.’ I remembered I did not yet know this place or its peoples.

I am a Centennial Baby. Who met another Centennial baby, named for Canada’s first Prime Minister.  Like me, he loves and grieves; learns as he tries to repair and reconcile. We are Centennial babies, now 50 at 150. We were born on the long inhabited territories of the Huron-Wendat, Petun, Seneca and, most recently, the Mississauga of the New Credit peoples. We were born on lands covered by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Haudenosaunee and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the lands and resources around the Great Lakes.

The dream of 150 is one of ending the nightmare and beginning a new dream.  Of asking forgiveness. Of stepping back, and refusing to be the centre of the story. Of listening and of beginning.  This, this is my hope as a Centennial baby. That now we as settlers will begin our work for a decolonized land and for a more just society. That is a dream I will celebrate.

What do we need to do? Shock doctrine and direct action

Social media is a vortex that drags me from thought to deer-in-the-headlights paralysis. People are occupying airports. There is a call to shut down the US Consulate tomorrow. Immigrant justice activists are creating petitions. Women are marching. But what do we need to do that will make a difference? How do we keep our heads amidst the avalanche of announcements about immigration, pipelines, parks, police, and choice? How do we know how to stop it? How to react? It is clear that Trump is enacting the Shock Doctrine treatment described by Naomi Klein (2007). He is trying to overwhelm and disorient us. Then, while we totter, he can, as Klein argues, aggressively push through unpopular “free market” measures. This moment requires both immediate and strategic responses. It must use a range of tactics and choose the right targets. These are words that are easy to say.

This weekend we have seen the short term success of lawyers from the ACLU when they attempted to stop the immigration bills a habeas corpus challenge. We have seen widespread public outrage shutting down airports in Boston, NYC, DC, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere. We have seen taxi drivers in New York refuse to take passengers from JFK Airport for one hour stating, “We cannot be silent. We got to work to welcome people to a land that once welcomed us. We will not be divided.”

Each of these actions is powerful because of the way it activates particular relationships. The power of protest is both in its ability to put pressure on existing relationships by increasing their cost, and in its ability to communicate. Protest is never only about its targeted institution – in this case, Trump.  It is also about the participants themselves – bolstering confidence – saying yes we ARE standing up! and saying ‘this is what we don’t want.  It is a message to bystanders, saying, “It’s okay to act. Join us.”

Protest is also a message to other powerholders, elites and authorities who might choose to maintain their relationship with the target, or distance themselves; sensing a change in the wind. Right now while the target of protest is formally Trump and his Trumpets, our protest is and needs to be a message to Trudeau, currently celebrating pipelines, to the British PM Teresa May, and to the governors and Congress people wondering if the Affordable Care Act is really going to be cancelled. The protest is a message to businesspeople promoting pipelines, building walls and jails. It is a message to the alt-right and Neo Nazis showing their strength. These signals cannot simply be about catharsis, about feeling powerful. They need to be threats. They need to say – if you do this, there will be no more business as usual. The power of protest is not in its permits nor in its size.  The power is in its ability to disrupt, and to communicate. When protest is successful, authorities and their allies become uncertain. Their allegiances become costly. They will try to stop the uncertainty or they will look for a way out.

We need to create that uncertainty, and once we do, we need to be ready with the next step. Not simply to defend the old systems of inequality we already know, but to organize for something better, healthier,  more nurturing of diverse beliefs and lives, something that recognizes how unjust power and inequality screw things up, and something that is smarter and more just.

It is too easy to be disoriented right now. To feel like we have to know exactly what to do. But we already know the basics. We need to disrupt the existing system. We need to build collective power. We need to fertilize the seeds of a different world.



Police Impunity and Beyond

Police brutality feels like an epidemic. In the last two weeks in the US, thousands have been in the streets marching and raging against the impunity of police in Ferguson after the grand jury decision not to indict the white police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, a young unarmed Black man. Facing pepper spray, flash bang grenades and mass arrest, protesters in 90 cities grieved as they occupied the highways and streets. In the midst of this, another white police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a twelve year old Black boy in Cleveland. Then yesterday, a grand jury in New York City refused to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold, despite clear video evidence. The streets filled with people chanting Garner’s last words;– “I can’t breathe” in despair. The question is, when a system is so fatally flawed, where do to turn for justice?

When it comes to shooting Black men, the oversight bodies are far too weak to make a difference. In New York City during the 2011-12 period, the Civilian Complaint Review Board closed 2518 cases of complaints against police officers, only 27% of which were full investigations, and only 74 of these 671 (3%) were found to be substantiated (CCRB Report January – June 2012). In Washington DC, none of the 579 complaints against officers in 2012 led to criminal conviction. Instead of using police oversight bodies, people are turning to lawsuits in seek redress. In this regard, complainants are more successful, but through cash settlements, not the enforcement of new policies and practices related to changes to police behaviour.

Unsurprisingly, across the Global North, public trust in the police has been falling since the mid 1990s. A 2013 Gallup poll (US) found that only 42% of non-whites and 60% of whites had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police. This has declined significantly since 2006, when 48% of non-whites and 68% of whites felt confident in the police. Similarly, in 2005, only 61% of US respondents and 67% of Canadian respondents had a great deal or ‘quite a bit’ of confidence in the ability of police to defend them from violent crime.

Despite this distrust, fear and security remain political gold. Elected officials in the US, Canada and elsewhere continue to support a mandate to increase the number, arms and funds for the police. Most of the time, this trajectory is not questioned by the broader public, even when yet another young Black man is killed. However, the widespread rage has created a political crisis. Political authorities now face pressure to be seen doing something about the police. However, they are trying to solve the problem without challenging its very foundation. The US federal government has continued to refuse to condemn the police, turning instead to technical fixes and task forces – none of which will question the root causes of police violence.

In the wake of militarized police operations against protesters last August, Obama directed an investigation into how local police forces were obtaining such weapons. The conclusion of this investigation revealed little, instead recommending better record keeping. A similar “Band-Aid” solution is proposed in order to counter the shootings of unarmed civilians, as the White House is asking for $263 million to provide police departments with body cameras and training. Such approaches, while nice contracts for the producers of such cameras and training workshops will do little to reduce police violence. This is made abundantly clear by the irrelevance of video footage in the killing of Eric Garner.

Now Obama is convening a task force on policing, with the goal of “combating crime while building public trust in local law enforcement agencies (Liptak CNN December 1, 2014)” This task force has been given a broad mandate. Although his choice of Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey will allow some to believe that black leadership will mean that policing isn’t racist, public trust in the police is unlikely to increase.

But increasing public trust in the police is not the goal.

It is not appropriate to trust the defenders of the racist, exploitative system. Today’s police agencies are not the originators of racism or state violence. Rather, they are a block in the pyramid. Political elites and the wealthiest in our society have built – and continue to build — their power through industrialization and colonialism –exploiting paid workers and slaves. These authorities established the police and justice systems as part of efforts to “keep the peace” when ordinary people resisted their exploitation. In the name of the rule of law and legitimate state rule, these authorities armed a tiny fraction of the population (the police) and directed them to ensure order.

Today, society is increasingly divided by race and class and the more unequal a society is, the greater the likelihood of police impunity. Right now, this impunity is being called into question. In the coming days, months and years, police oversight bodies will try to call into question police powers, resources, and legitimacy.. They will face serious challenges.

This doesn’t mean we abandon the oversight bodies. We need more and better ones – they may save the life of a young father, may challenge a budget increase, may stop the adoption of a new weapon. However, we know that these reforms and bodies cannot and will not end police impunity, racism or violence. For those types of changes, we need to transform the foundations of our racist and unequal society. The current level of state violence cannot be accepted. The status quo is not a realistic option.

We need to build communities and societies that are fair, equitable and compassionate. The potential and desire for a different world is with us already. We can see it in the widespread protests against police violence and in the ways that ordinary people, people of colour in particular are converging, imagining and building community institutions that manifest trust, compassion and equality. In Missouri groups like Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) and Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) and others are organizing for both reform and future transformation. In New York City and elsewhere there are many such projects. These groups, by moving beyond the horror that is today, and starting to build to the future, offer us a way forward.

Lesley J. Wood is the author of Crisis and Control: the Militarization of Protest Policing