Sunday, March 30, 2008

In Ottawa, Democracy is across the street

I had wanted to make this post for a while. In fact, I thought I had done so months ago.

You see, back in September, when everybody was caring about Burma, there was a march from the Human Rights monument to the Chinese embassy.

Not having been to such a march before, I was quite surprised when the group was met at the Chinese embassy by two RCMP officers. They told the two or three people at the head of the 100-strong group that the protest had to be held on the other side of the street, in accordance with city by-laws and protest permits. (Seriously. You need a permit to hold a protest?!?)

RCMP officers meet the protesters
Now, I don't know if you're familiar at all with the Chinese Embassy, but in front of it is a public sidewalk, and between the public sidewalk and the public street is a strip of public greenspace (technically referred to as a "boulevard") about five or six metres wide. Plenty of space to protest, without even blocking pedestrians or motorists from getting by. Then you have St. Patrick street, which itself is very wide.

Below is a Google view of the scene. The Chinese embassy is the monstrous complex on the top of the image, and across the street is a fenced-off green space. It's hard to see there, but the fence is only a few metres away from the curb of the roadway, leaving little room for any significant protest to gather. (I believe you can find Falun Gong protesters there on a regular basis)

Now, say what you will about terrorism (this law was initiated at the behest of the U.S. embassy after 9/11), but a law that prevents people from congregating on public space is a pretty big affront to democratic society in itself. Or, as Andrew Nellis said to the police officer shortly after the above photo was taken, "horseshit." If it's a public space, you should be able to protest there. Period. No permits needed, no threats of state violence, and nothing else that will draw comparison to police states.

The mere presence of police (especially those in paramilitary riot gear) serves to discourage people from partaking in democratic activity, through the implicit threat of arrest, charges, or direct violence such as tear gas. Hell, I shy away from larger protests myself for just those reasons.

Nellis dropped his complaint and left that protest shortly thereafter, as, he said, he didn't want to hijack these people's protest about China's actions in Burma.

I bring it up now because I saw a small gathering of protesters today across the street from the Iranian embassy on Metcalfe. As I'm sure you know, I can't help but be morbidly attracted to sights as absurd as a group of people politely protesting against the actions of a cruel and powerful entity. I immediately snapped a photo of the surreal scene.

As with the other protest, there was an RCMP officer talking to the protesters at the Iranian embassy.

I went up to the protesters and started talking to a couple of them. I learned that they were protesting about something that Iran was doing in southern Azerbaijan. I asked them what they thought about not being able to protest on the same side of the street as the embassy, even though that sidewalk was public property.

The answer was somewhat surprising. A couple people agreed that since the parade permit required them to be across the street, that's where they should be. One man said he'd like to go inside and do damage, but the law requires him to stay across the street and protest peacefully. That particular man had difficulty understanding the fact that laws are created, and aren't just some monument that must be accepted as they are. When I told him that vile states like Iran do not have a monopoly on unjust or arbitrary laws, he regurgitated some platitudes about Canada being democratic, and thus he was justified in blindly following its laws.

One man seemed particularly interested in what I had to say. I'm not sure if he was one of the leaders, or if he was a spy or something, but from the expression on his face, it looks like he "got it."

I asked them some rhetorical questions about democracy, and the origins of law. The laws are passed by the government, which is elected by the people, so if the people dislike the law, we should be able to get the government to change the law.

I think I finally broke through to a couple of them when I made the contrast between the way laws are made in Iran and in Canada.

Of course, as with Nellis at the Burma protest, my goal was not to get these people to move across the street, but to plant the seed that Canada implicitly assisting the actions they oppose by impeding on their ability to protest against them.

I bid them good luck on their protest, and headed on my way. I think that the comparison between Canada and Iran got through to a couple more people.

I hope that people start to understand that public property is public property, and in Canada we have a freedom to assemble in those public spaces. I certainly hope that this stupid law is changed. To move protests away from embassies denies the whole point of a protest: to make the people in the embassy uncomfortable.

Until that happens, however, democracy will continue to be across the street.

- RG>

Saturday, March 29, 2008

For every light you turn off... (or how I spent my Earth Hour)

I don't know if you've heard about the latest fad called "Earth Hour". If you haven't, essentially it's a thing where regular people turn off all their lights for one hour of the year and pretend that they're granola-eating hippies.

I knew when I first heard about it that I didn't like it, and not just because Mayor O'Brien was supportive of it.

There is a Japanese saying: "Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare." As profound as this saying is, this Earth Hour event doesn't fit into either category. Earth Hour is more "action without action", and hence this post is deserving of the "yellowribbons" label (see "Support Motherhood and Apple Pie").

If you really cared about the environment, you'd make changes in your everyday habits (such as reducing your car use, eating less meat, living in a smaller and more energy-efficient home, etc.). Turning off your lights once a year at 8pm doesn't really mean very much if your TV, computers, and other appliances come right back on an hour later.

And if you really cared for the Earth, you'd give it more than just an hour.

I mean, shit: every night, most people do more than was accomplished in Earth Hour simply by turning off their lights and sleeping for six to eight hours!

Of course, as is reported in the Citizen, greenhouse gas emissions will probably not be reduced during Earth Hour, especially with many people burning candles. Even if they're more 'natural', candles put a lot more dirty shit into the air per unit of light than electric plants do. (Not that I care much for the GHG fad, either.)

So how did I spend my earth hour? Well, along these lines:

Poster that says For Every Animal You Don't Eat, I'm Going To Eat Three

While all the suburbanites were sitting in their living rooms signing kumbayah and eating marshmallows, I turned on every light in my house, including the one in the stove. In fact, keeping with the theme of the image above, I ate three animals too!

Interestingly, when I was done cooking my "three animals" (two eggs and some strips of bacon--I hadn't had bacon in years. So tasty!), I turned off the stove, and my arm automatically reached for the stove light switch. I had forgotten that I was keeping my lights all on for the hour.

I guess energy conservation is just one of those pesky habits that dies hard.

- RG>

Saturday, March 22, 2008

New multi-paper newspaper boxes for Bank Street

In January 2006, I complained to my councillor about the Auto Mart papers distributed for free at transit stations and in areas with high pedestrian traffic. It seemed contradictory to me that the City would allow advertisements that encourage car use in places where people are walking and using transit.
Apparently, the City isn't allowed to discriminate based on content. But there was a committee struck to deal with it.

Earlier this month, something reminded me of this e-mail response, so I asked for a follow up. I mean, two years later, the committee would have done something, right?

Well, sorta.

They still can't control content, but they do plan on having multi-newspaper boxes on Bank Street to reduce the clutter of newspaper boxes (if only they could also control the clutter that these papers leave after people toss them on the street!)

I was forwarded a PDF outlining preliminary plans for these boxes, including size, dimensions, and location. There are four of these boxes planned, in the following locations on Bank street:
  • SE corner of Bank & Slater
  • NW corner of Bank & Slater
  • SW corner of Bank & Albert
  • NW corner of Bank & Queen
As you can see in the image below, the boxes themselves will be between 2.25 m and 3 m long, and will be situated on the boulevard along Bank. (click for bigger version)

There are a few questions that come from this plan: Will the permanent boxes pose an insurmountable barrier to new papers? Will the papers on the bottom row have a lower pickup than those on the upper row? Will we end up getting more newspaper boxes for other papers anyway?

These answers will probably not be answerable until the boxes are installed. At least there's hope for more pedestrian space in this area.

- RG>

Monday, March 03, 2008

A. Whitney Brown Supports the Troops

Someone pointed this out, and I thought it was most relevant. Watching this video really opened my eyes to something I had taken for granted for my entire life up to this point.

From today forward, my life will be defined as that which came before, and that which came after knowing that A. Whitney Brown supports the troops.

I mean, I thought I supported Motherhood and Apple Pie, but nothing like A. Whitney Brown supports the troops.

I'll let him tell it in his own words:

(Also see the sequel: "I support the Troops Still")

- RG>

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Fairness and balance at no cost?

I follow David Reevely's Greater Ottawa blog. After all the community newspapers (which I try to read whenever I can get my hands on them--even the suburban ones), David's blog provides pretty decent regular, local content.

Up until recently, David was an editorial writer with the Ottawa Citizen. This involved forming opinions and expressing them in print. Kinda like what I do, but perhaps with less vulgarity and with a wider audience. But in early February, David announced that his position was being changed to be (partly) in charge of the news content--that is, the stuff that's supposed to be "objective".

The focus of this blog post was put very eloquently by David when he said:
A bigger question: How can a person keep a properly freewheeling blog and still be responsible for impartial news coverage? For that matter, how can someone who's been an opinion writer ever do anything in journalism that isn't opinion?

My opinion is that he can't. The inherent irony of FoxNews' slogan--"Fair and Balanced"--is applicable to all news organizations, particularly large bureaucratic ones. If one individual in the organization claims to be balanced, and even if they somehow manage it, then the biases of the organization (and/or of other individuals therein) dominate.

Now, I don't have a clue how the Citizen's newsroom operates, or what goes on in the editorial offices behind closed doors. And I am not going to go commission a massive study to investigate the balance of the Citizen's editorial output to try to prove my point. I don't need to prove my point--it's my opinion, and that's all it is.

But I will give some objectivity/fairness/balance anecdotes that I hope will illustrate my point and help you make an opinion of your own:

  • I don't know if you watch much of the Colbert Report, but Stephen Colbert, whose character parodies FoxNews pundits, frequently claims that he "cannot see race". And when you cannot see race, you cannot see that society treats some races a lot worse than others. In this way, balance/fairness is really just an excuse to not do something about an injustice, and it's actually dangerous.

  • At University, I was involved with the student newspaper. While I was there, there was an ongoing debate about "objective" journalism. The main point--which I believe has survived--is that the student newspaper is there to represent the interests of students, and therefore should be biased towards students, both in the selection and presentation of topics. Using an example from the Citizen, were it not for the Citizen's intervention (i.e. not just sitting back and watching objectively), Ottawa residents would be oblivious to the breadth of the allegations against Ottawa's mayor, Larry O'Brien. In this way, the Citizen is biased against corruption, and that's a good thing.

  • At City Hall, "fairness" reached a new low this past Wednesday. While 18 councillors voted in favour of a provincial moratorium on uranium mining, Councillor Gord Hunter voted against (which isn't out of character for him). Among the reasons he cited was "the city has only heard from uranium opponents and isn't getting the other side of the story." I'd hate to be in a room where he votes against making child molestation a crime because he didn't hear any words in support of child molestation!

  • Going back to the Citizen, I was recently reading an article that referred to a think-tank as "left-leaning". If you use the Citizen's search feature to look for the words "think tank", you'll find qualifiers like "the Fraser Institute, a Vancouver free-market solutions think-tank", "The CD Howe Institute, an economic think-tank", which seem to me to be synonyms for "right-wing think-tank". While one would have to do a more thorough analysis to see if there's any bias in these descriptions of "think tanks", it's definitely a term that should flag closer attention to underlying bias when it comes onto an editor's desk.

  • I have long been angered by the fact that "Auto Mart" magazines tend to be distributed at transit stations and in areas with high levels of pedestrian traffic. Back in 2005, I e-mailed my councillor about this, and her response included "The current Encroachment By-law, which licences all boxes with an annual permit, has the authority to regulate the position of the boxes but not their content" and "Constitutionally the City of Ottawa has limited powers to restrict freedom of expression." Since that time, large ads for auto companies and auto-related services have sprung up on the outsides and insides of buses (I keep a file of photos of such ads). But because the City is required to be 'objective', it must allow advertising on its transit vehicles that discourage people from using those very services!

  • Getting back to the Citizen... It is not uncommon that I am reading a Citizen article, and the second half of an article tells the story from an angle that was entirely absent in the first half. Often, I find I agree with the opinion of those presented in one half, and disagree with those in the other. Now, assuming it's okay to go halfway through an article without mentioning the other side (even though many people only read the first couple paragraphs), one would expect that in a truly balanced newspaper I would agree with the side presented in the first half 50% of the time. However, in the Citizen, I usually agree with the second half of this type of article.

  • As an extreme example of this, I turn your attention to the Nov. 25, 2007 story about the 'protest' at Bank & Somerset. This 450-word article described a 'protest' by business owners who were frustrated at the continued closure of the intersection of Bank & Somerset. There was a nice-sized photo, too, if I recall correctly. But it isn't until paragraph 8 that we learn that the protest "drew only about a half-dozen local business owners." Somehow, I doubt the Citizen gives every protest with six or more people a 450-word story with a photo. It isn't until the very last paragraph that we learn "Several anti-business protesters also gathered at the protest yesterday. They used a megaphone to chant 'Profits over safety,' often disrupting the business owners when they attempted to talk to people walking by."

  • There's actually much more to that last bit than the Citizen would have you believe. These counter-protesters were louder, they had bigger signs, and there were more of them. In fact, one of them told me after the protest that the Citizen photographer had a hell of a time trying to get a picture that didn't have any of the counter-protesters in the frame. To me, that sounds like going out of your way to hide a significant part of the story. One of the local papers (likely the Centretown Buzz) had good, separate articles on both the protest and the counter-protest that made me understand what I would have seen had I been there.

Fairness, balance, objectivity--call it what you want, but when you get it only by surrendering your opinion, there is definitely a cost.

- RG>