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How traditional media and government failed to prevent or deal with the Hamilton Pride debacle

How traditional media and government failed to prevent or deal with the Hamilton Pride debacle

Written by
Steacy Easton
September 3rd, 2019

Steacy Easton digs into what happened when Yellow Vests, evangelicals and LGBTQ activists clashed at Hamilton’s Pride Festival, and how social media messaging succeeded where police and city hall failed.

How traditional media and government failed to prevent or deal with the Hamilton Pride debacle

Evangelicals, Yellow Vests, anarchists and LGBTQ activists made a volatile combination at Hamilton's Pride Festival. Photos by Steacy Easton

For the past year, people who call themselves Yellow Vests have been meeting in front of the city hall in Hamilton. They yell, hold signs, argue against a progressive agenda, and obsess over government conspiracies. They named themselves after a movement in Europe whose politics were an equally confused mix of economic disenfranchisement and profound paranoia. There are similar problems in the States — from the unmoored-from-reality paranoia of Alex Jones and Infowars to Marianne Williamson’s new age platitudes. The political landscape has always included a heaping portion of hokum. This seems different, though.

While the people at city hall were in one location and stood sentry there, the protests in France nearly shut down the entire country. They communicated through Facebook groups, Twitter direct messages and texts — nimble, quick and able to work against police. The communication network was never private, but it was adaptable.

That adaptability had a certain Marshall McLuhan “medium is the message” quality. The nimbleness of the form meant that the message was easily absorbed. People would glom onto an element, take what they needed and drop off. They would gather in small groups, with no central narrative, no attempt to check facts. What matters is coalescing to group norms, and these norms rest on loyalty to a person or an organization that refuses stability.

Political extremists, especially fascists, are seeking independent networks that refuse to be affiliated with larger institutional goals.

This is a problem with both the far right and the far left, a kind of reinforcing of ideological goals that do not absorb the whole range of information on offer. But it is more of a problem of the far right, because of its refusal to acknowledge the reality of marginalized people’s lived experiences. For a group that claims to be about simple facts, the messages are more about feelings, and a sense of aggrieved loss. The Yellow Vests are constructing a movement without principles. Political extremists, especially fascists, are seeking independent networks that refuse to be affiliated with larger institutional goals. If previous attempts at fascism were about co-opting the state, this is not that. There is no attempt to build from these encounters.

France has a long history of protests, strikes and direct action. The French Yellow Vests talked about being part of the radical 1968 movement, but they didn’t have its egalitarian messaging or humanist potential— at first all they wanted was cheaper gas and better infrastructure between rural centres and cities. People who were radicals in the late 1960s often did not maintain their politics -- some became reactionary, and some of that reaction was to new immigrants. The Yellow Vest protests in France shared the aesthetics and media construction of the 1968 protests, but the politics were the opposite. The people outside Hamilton’s city hall held the same kinds of protests, but the politics were similarly 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The aesthetics are infinitely adaptable.

The Hamilton Yellow Vests started with Islamophobia. The movement was a mutation of a mutation, a formless void trying to pick up the tactics and aesthetics of the French, but only understanding their own limited circles. Their messaging has ranged from the reasonable (Trudeau’s economic policy isolates working-class people) to the dangerously misguided (denying climate change), from the ludicrously nostalgic (wishing the steel companies would return) to the patently false and offensive (Indigenous people are stealing from settlers). The messaging is confused, and their presence is unnerving.

'Hateful' protest at Hamilton Pride event condemned

On June 15, they moved to Gage Park in the city’s east end, where the annual Pride festival was taking place. During the last few Hamilton Pride festivals, an American evangelical group has used megaphones and large banners to shame sexual minorities. They have a circuit, showing up at small town Pride festivals throughout Southern Ontario. Evangelical churches in the U.S. raise funds for this caravan, which is similar to the ties the Yellow Vests have to Ontario Proud, an organization funded mostly by developers and construction companies.

The Yellow Vests’ connection to the evangelical cause was based on their mutual belief that trans people are responsible for the downfall of Western civilization. The Pride festival included radical queers and anarchists, some more pacifist than others, as well as families and queer folks looking for a low-key good time. When all those groups came together, the result was volatile. A group of queer activists surrounded the evangelicals and the Yellow Vests, blocking their messages with a black curtain. The Yellow Vests and evangelicals went from yelling to physical assaults, and a white nationalist started swinging his helmet around. The police, who later said they refused to help because they were not allowed to recruit, stood by, watching the chaos unfold. There were no serious injuries, luckily.

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The assaults were recorded by activists with cell phone cameras and distributed through private networks and social media. There were Facebook posts, private messages and groups asking for more video evidence. Reporters from the Hamilton Spectator and the police also wanted the footage. The police and the Spec did not have the same network as the left, however, and chose to investigate the Pride activists instead. Though they did not ignore the far right, the coverage could be considered uneven. The initial arrests of Pride activists reflected this connecting of media, local government and law enforcement.

The reaction after the melee indicated that local government and media don’t know how to handle either the chaos of emerging fascist movements or the radical responses to them.

Some on the left suggest that the search for footage was partly to involve the police and document their laissez faire attitude, and partly to prove that certain local activists were not actually present at the park, to provide evidence for the defence when they were arrested. The fact that everything was documented, but the documentation had to be collated, and the collating was tactical, suggested an ideological sea change that was not only local.

The reaction after the melee at Pride indicated that local government, broadcast media and daily newspapers do not know how to handle either the chaos of emerging fascist movements or the radical responses to them.

For weeks after the Pride debacle, the police did not arrest any Yellow Vests or evangelicals--for inciting a riot, for hate speech, for uttering threats, for assault — but they did arrest trans activists, one for speaking out against the police at a public meeting. Some of the responses against the police were on the edges of acceptable discourse, but they did not move into the calls for violent dissolution of racial, sexual or gender minorities coming from the evangelicals and Yellow Vests. Eventually, some of the far right people were arrested — one, a white supremacist, was allowed to go if he stayed with the person who posted a cash security for his release.

Hamilton mayor Fred Eisenberger ignored the Yellow Vests until they went to Pride, then blamed both sides for the violence. He delayed the official inquiry, and then his idea of who should represent the queer community included a former newspaper columnist who ran for the Liberal party in the last provincial election and someone who has worked in service agencies for decades. The inquiry is less likely to include people who have been clients of those service agencies. One of those people eventually quit.

Eisenberger seeks to make Hamilton safe for gays and lesbians who emulate the safety of the state. The Yellow Vests do not seek the safety of queer folks, and do not have a narrative to position. The stories that are told are chaotic, and essentially destructive. The fighting back that occurs is read as equally destructive, though it is not.

The problem is not strictly that the media leans right, though I suspect it does. It has not taken the changing demographics of Hamilton seriously. Part of the reason is that money is pouring into Hamilton from Toronto developers, and to report on Hamilton is to be aware of people being priced out. Eisenberger’s city hall depends on similar sources of capital. If the Yellow Vests seek to preserve an old way of life, it is not very different from those who wish to preserve the monolithic media. The media caters to gays and lesbians who are part of the media, or the political class; or to far right protesters who have mainstream interests. It refuses those who speak against these interests, or who through marginalization are never given access to the table.

The threat is that those who are part of the mainstream do not know how to operate the new media with the nimbleness and skill that those born post digitally have mastered. Eisenberger’s awkward handling of the Pride fiasco can provide a larger warning to those who seek a public media that responds to a much wider understanding of both the medium and the message.

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