Privileged Protest



Why we all have the responsibility to be activists

By Joseph Leivdal
Photos courtesy of DGriebelling / Flickr

I’ve spent a few evenings picketing in front of the infamous Pidgin restaurant. I went there because I realized that reading articles and shaking an imaginary fist at developers for their role in displacing people is not enough. The only reason I’m not down there myself, struggling for shelter, has little to do with the decisions I’ve made in my life, and more to do with the fact that I’m just plain fortunate.

Gentrification is not an issue of snappy controversy, nor is it an issue for “democratic debate.” It does not afford the people at the butt-end such comforting luxuries.

No, it is an issue of the wellbeing, dignity, and lives of real people that are no different than you and I — except that they have been marginalized by society and fallen through the cracks of the illusory welfare state.

Gentrification is an issue concerning a government, a city, and its developers, all of whom claim profit and aesthetic values while pushing people out.

And yet they never answer the question: “Where will these people go?”

I will admit that throughout my short activist career, I have avoided getting involved in issues concerning the DTES. I felt like I didn’t know enough and that the social tragedy I was witnessing was beyond my control. I thought that — as a person who has never feared for food, shelter, or dignity — I would feel silly going down there and getting involved.

In fact, this is how many people have critiqued us picketers. The people that I have picketed with are a varied bunch, ranging from university professors to the homeless. But people consistently make comments like: “How can you be for the homeless? All I see are a bunch of yuppies.”

The other day, a man in leather shoes stopped before entering the restaurant, making the point that half of us probably don’t even live in the Downtown Eastside. Indeed, I myself often feel awkward, standing there in boots that cost no less than $150.

My first evening there was the night of the most startling confrontation with my own privilege. A man who had lived in the heart of the Downtown Eastside for 50 years grew infuriated when his questioning revealed that no, we do not live there as well.

At this moment, I felt a strong dissonance within myself; I realized that it is my privilege that also allows me to pick and choose between struggles, aligning myself as an activist with whichever one I please. I was standing side-by-side in solidarity with community members of the DTES, while simultaneously being called out on my privilege; I was coming into their community from the outside, aligning myself with one side of a controversial debate within the DTES about Pidgin.

It is the grand illusion of society today that we are separate from those around us, that our experiences are not linked, that just because nothing bad has happened to you yet, it won’t in the future, and that we dictate our destiny. Ultimately, I came down to the Pidgin picket because I realized that my struggle is wrapped up in the struggle of those in the DTES. I have only avoided such a situation because of my privilege. That is precisely why I have a responsibility to protest.

In fact, my problems are not so different — although they are by no means as severe. I will graduate with over $35,000 of student debt. That’s a minimum monthly payment of over $400 in a job market where it is unlikely that my degree will secure me any employment in my field.

I often think about what my life is going to be like postpost-secondary. Will I be forced to struggle from paycheque to paycheque like my parents and grandparents did, as they worked so hard to make sure the same didn’t happen to me?

There’s a well known quote among activist circles: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This quote has been cited so many times that it has almost lost any sense, but its original meaning still stands true. It is a statement on autonomy; that no one needs a savior, but we all need allies.

It is important to recognize difference. For there to be justice there must be recognition of difference. But we cannot allow recognition to be the end-all be-all; instead, we must recognize our differences so that we may then recognize where we share common ground.

One of the criticisms I often receive when tr ying to raise awareness about student issues in Canada is that we are so well off here that I shouldn’t bother. Perhaps there’s a message in that: not that the privileged among us should abandon struggles that are relevant to us, but rather that we have a responsibility to see how our liberation is bound up with others’, because when push comes to shove, we’re all in it together.

Perhaps I will one day struggle to keep my home, fighting desperately against a system and government that doesn’t care, so that I won’t end up in the streets. Perhaps then I will look around to see who is standing with me.