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Another Protest Movement Loses Its Way

If the now-moribund Occupy Wall Street protest accomplished anything at all, it was to demonstrate the futility of a “movement” lacking clear goals, responsible leaders and reasonable respect for the rights of others.

Now, a different group of protesters to our north is embarking on the same dead-end journey to nowhere.

A little over 100 days ago, a group of university students in Quebec walked out of classes to protest the province’s planned tuition hikes. Since then, more than 150,000 students have participated in strikes, and more than 2,500 have been arrested. On May 22, an estimated 100,000 people joined in a demonstration in Montreal to mark the 100th day of protests. According to Jacques Hamel, a sociologist at the Universite de Montreal, the planned 75 to 80 percent increase in tuition over the next seven years has ceased to be the only issue at stake, as the protests have grown in scale and scope. “The demonstrations now are no longer about the tuition raises,” he told the National Post.

But a growing sense of aimlessness is not the only thing that connects the Quebec demonstrations to Occupy Wall Street. The protesters are also linked by a shared disrespect for the rights of others.

Occupy Wall Street protesters routinely refused to cooperate with police and sanitation efforts at coordination, instead choosing to disrupt local businesses and to prevent others from making use of public space. Student protesters in Quebec, meanwhile, have donned masks and stormed academic buildings, breaking up classes and stopping other students from entering. With some 35 percent of students either boycotting classes or being blocked from attending, the academic year has been temporarily put on hold, to resume in August. Students with summer employment or travel plans have been forced to adjust.

Many of the province’s protests have also exploded into violence. In the large-scale demonstration on May 22, some protesters began throwing bottles and lighting fireworks, according to police, who responded with pepper spray.

The Quebec movement surely includes many considerate, law-abiding individuals, as the Occupy Wall Street did. But, in both cases, those people’s participation simply provided the cover of a crowd to enable the anti-social behavior of others.

In Quebec, the government has stepped in to do what the protesters have not: ensure a balance between the protesters’ rights and the rights of everyone else. On May 18, the province passed an emergency law that, among other things, requires that police be given eight hours notice in advance of any protests involving 50 people or more, prohibits protesting within 50 meters of academic buildings, and imposes fines for noncompliance. Many protesters have refused to follow the law and, on May 23, around 700 were arrested.

Critics of the law claim that it stifles freedom of expression and have filed a legal motion arguing that it is unconstitutional under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, one of the student leaders, has said he sees the emergency law as nothing less than an act of war. “Now we're fighting for the right to fight,” he said.

But as an editorial in The Globe and Mail cogently pointed out, Canada, like the U.S., guarantees its citizens not the right to assemble under any circumstances and in any manner, but rather the “freedom of peaceful assembly.” (The U.S. version acknowledges the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.”) Peaceful assembly does not include stopping students who wish to attend class from doing so. Nor does it include indefinitely commandeering a public space, preventing a city from maintaining it and preventing others from using it. The Quebec law may interfere with what protesters perceive as their right to put their interests before those of everyone else, but it does not interfere with their real right to make their opinions known in a reasonable manner.

Personally, I think both the Quebec movement and its American predecessor were doomed by objectives that were, in the American case, indeterminate and, in the Canadian case, unrealistic. Occupy Wall Street was a protest that never quite found anything specific to protest. While the Quebecois student movement at least superficially has a target, it’s not exactly clear how or why protesters believe Quebec should be expected to maintain what is currently the lowest tuition rate in Canada. Even after the hikes, the province’s average undergraduate tuition, now $2,519 a year, will be only around $4,297 a year - a price that would be a dream come true for many American students.

Regardless of their aims, however, I am happy to endorse both groups’ right to protest peacefully. Now, if only they would do that.

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