A proposed bylaw in Hamilton will put in force a repressive ban on virtually all forms of political protest and political organizing. This bylaw is so broad it even bans the distribution of food or beverages. In addition, the absurd list of banned items includes the use of any tents, banners, sound amplifying equipment, and even the use of chalk and crayons. This bylaw is being put forward supposedly in response to far-right hate groups and to stop them from organizing. This title of the bylaw comes under the dishonest title of “Hate Incident Prevention Policy and Procedure”. Far from being a tool to stop the organizing of hate groups, this bylaw will undermine the basic democratic means for the people of Hamilton to fight against racist, sexist, and anti-queer intimidation.
This bylaw is being pushed by the Hamilton city council and Mayor Fred Eisenberger. The report that made the recommendations now seen in the proposed bylaw was presented as a long-awaited legal measure by which the City will finally clamp down on “hate activities” on city property, such as the weekly-recurring small gatherings of the racist Yellow Vest movement. The section of the report can be found here.
The “Guidelines and Restrictions for Assemblies and Demonstrations” portion of the document specifically states the proposed anti-protest law. This is a blanket ban on things that would become prohibited in any kind of demonstration, in any City of Hamilton public space. The list includes the use of generators or electrical outlets, distributing pamphlets or papers, distributing food or drinks, selling anything, use of sound-amplifying equipment, setting up temporary booths or tables, putting up posters, signs or banners temporarily, as well as writing on the ground in chalk. What any of this has to do with hate is a mystery.
The report only approaches what a hate crime is in abstract terms. The report ignores the concrete reality faced by marginalized people in Hamilton who face hate crimes every day. Protests are one of the few tools that oppressed people have to fight back. This law will only strengthen the police in repressing marginalized people fighting against hate. It will do nothing to stop racism, sexism, and homophobia in our community. The stated goal of the law will be to update security cameras, increase surveillance of protesters, collect more information about people involved in demonstrations, and equip city staff with administrative procedures when “hate incidents” occur.
This document also suggests banning “violent, threatening or illegal activity.” Anyone can see that there is no actual point in making illegal that which is already illegal. In addition, it suggests banning anything “that creates a nuisance or that interferes with the use and enjoyment of the space by other persons”—in other words, anything that makes a protest a protest. Such vague wording on what makes a demonstration “too disruptive” leaves the door open to a general crackdown on the right of protest in the city.
The proposed anti-protest law would have effectively outlawed all of the left-wing rallies that took place in Hamilton over the last year, without stopping any of the racists. Workers and youth in Hamilton have taken to the streets on many occasions, exercising their democratic right to protest against injustices. In February, students protested in the streets of Hamilton against Doug Ford’s OSAP cuts. In January, protesters blocked streets to oppose the attack on the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nation by the Canadian armed forces for pipeline building. Many similar protests have occurred this year alone.
Ford’s agenda of cuts and attacks only make the need for mass protest greater. The proposed anti-protest law will give licence to the police to shut down these coming protests violently and arrest peaceful protestors.
With such restrictions on demonstrations in place, Hamilton community members will be effectively stripped of the right to mobilize against right-wing aggressors. This move is comparable to Ford’s anti-protest law, which authorized the state to protect the hate speech of his friends on university campuses. Ford’s law would strip the right to protest from students and workers. In fact, this is the classic tactic of using fascist thugs as a pretext to crack down on the right to protest. This ultimately serves the interests of the bosses and bankers, who profit when workers’ rights and unions’ abilities to organize a militant struggle are weakened.
What the consequences are of breaching this law are also incredibly vague. Appendix B of the report states that the repercussions range from “banning people from city property” to “involvement of internal legal services or police involvement.” What would “police involvement” even consist of here? Arresting the protestors? Under what charge? While incredible detail was given on what to ban, this section was seen as somehow irrelevant. From what is written, it appears that the city is trying to give Hamilton police the ability to deem any protest illegal on city property. This could mean that any solidarity action in support of a strike, or even a picket line itself, could be declared an illegal protest. With the strong possibility of a province-wide teachers’ strike in the coming period, this is a grave concern for the movement.
Fascists attack Pride
The justification in the bylaw report that states this would stop hate groups from “breaching the peace on city property” is entirely false. The events leading up to this law show as much. The Yellow Vests have been holding weekly racist rallies since January. These protests were met with resistance by small anti-fascist activists. But the mayor was entirely silent as minorities walking by were harassed by this group. Nothing in these bylaws would stop the hateful activities of the Yellow Vests, but it would significantly weaken those opposing them.
On June 15, the Yellow Vest protestors left their rally at city hall in order to join the small crew of religious homophobes that spewed hate at Pride. The police allowed this to happen and gave the far right room to enter the Pride rally. This ended with the far right attacking participants at Pride. Queer activists had no choice but to defend themselves, while the police watched. One fascist in particular used his helmet as a weapon against the protestors at Pride. The same fascist that attacked people in Hamilton with his helmet then followed this up by fighting with queer activists in Toronto the very next day.
The LGBTQ+ community was justifiably angry with the police response. However, the Hamilton Police Chief stated that their actions were justified because they weren’t invited to Pride. The mayor also doubled down and stated that the police’s actions were correct. After a public outcry against the violence at Pride, the response of police was to arrest queer activists and largely leave the fascists untouched. At an event speaking about the Pride attack, queer activists condemned the police’s actions. One activist, Cedar Hoppington, was arrested following the rally for “violating parole” on the basis of having attended Pride. That attending Pride could ever constitute a violation of parole is itself a complete violation of any concept of freedom of speech, but the evidence clearly shows that she wasn’t even at Pride.
The arrest of the queer activists and Cedar Hoppington enraged not only the LGBTQ+ community, but Hamilton in general. The city leadership had to confront this anger from the community at the city council meeting on June 18, where the mayor and city council brushed off concerns. However, even that seems like too much of a bother for the right honorable mayor. Rather than responding to this criticism, the next city council meeting on the topic ended with the mayor shutting down the meeting. A lot of the criticism at the meeting concerned the arrest of Hoppington under false pretenses. When it came to Hoppington’s parole hearing, the justification was changed. The parole board now argues it was Hoppington’s speech at the June 18 city council meeting that justified the arrest!
Hoppington’s arrest is evidence enough to show that Eisenberger and the police have no interest in preserving the democratic rights of Hamiltonians. The parole board argued that criticizing the police is “inciteful language”. If there were any doubts that Eisenberger‘s guidelines would be used to shut down protest, the fact that they have been brought into existence on the back of denying the freedom of speech of a queer activist is proof.
The City of Hamilton, at the direction of Eisenberger, has used laws meant to stop hate speech against minorities as a pretext to shut down criticism of the police. The actions of the police and the mayor show us that they cannot be trusted to defend the interests of the LGBTQ+ community. They have also shown that any expansion of police powers will be used to shut down protest, criticism, and debate. The context in which this law was proposed shows that it will not be used to shut down the Yellow Vests. It will be used against the left and organized labour. The police and the mayor have already shown which side they are on.
Fascists and the role of the state
The question of how to respond to groups of racist, sexist, and homophobic thugs is unfortunately not a new one. And the tactic of appealing to the state (through the constitution, the police, etc.) is one that has been tried many times and never successfully.
In the history of the rise of fascism in both Italy and Germany, the social democrats and much of organized labour called on the state to suppress the fascists. What was the result? Both the Italian king Victor Emmanuel and the German President Paul von Hindenburg passed power to the fascists without a fight. Trotsky sums this up in his book Fascism: What It Is and How to Fight It
Fearful of the revolutionary mobilization of the workers, the Italian reformists banked all their hopes of the “state”. Their slogan was, “Help! Victor Emmanuel, exert pressure!” The German social democracy lacks such a democratic bulwark as a monarch loyal to the constitution. So they must be content with a president—”Help! Hindenburg, exert pressure!”
It’s worth looking at why this is the case. Both the police and the fascists fulfill very similar roles in society. Fundamentally, the job of the police is to defend the property of the bosses, whether that be by breaking up pickets lines or arresting people sleeping in doorways. Their job is to maintain and defend a system where the vast majority are not in a position to have real control over their livelihoods.
The Yellow Vests do the same job of the police by making it harder for oppressed layers in our society to speak up and stand out. There has been a heroic response to the far-right attacks by the LGBTQ+ community. But if the Yellow Vests acquired more numbers or became more violent, many working people would stay home from events like Pride in a very reasonable fear for their own safety.
Both the state and the far right uphold capitalism. This is why it is an incorrect tactic to rely on the state to combat the threat that the Yellow Vests represent. Only the mass force of all oppressed layers of society—workers, LGBTQ people, immigrants—can send the far right back to the holes they crawled out of. Organized labour has the responsibility to lead this fight, not to politely call on the city council to do the job.
How to fight
We cannot rely on the power of the capitalist state to fight hate, or to protect oppressed minorities. As is clear from recent events, the mayor’s offices are complicit in right-wing violence in Hamilton. The politicians who represent the capitalist class serve to legislate into existence whatever rules of oppression the ruling class requires—and this is carried out along with the help of the police. On the other side are the workers, who are armed with the power of collective action based on class unity and the ideas of revolutionary workers’ struggle. We need mass mobilization against the far right. We need mass defiance to this proposal to restrict the right to protest, which is said in the report to be recommended to municipalities beyond Hamilton as well.
To fight against hate, the working class needs to mobilize, drawing on the vast resources of the labour movement. The Hamilton & District Labour Council (HDLC) can lead the fight in opposition to both the anti-protest law and the Yellow Vests. The HDLC made a major mistake in pushing for city hall to handle the Yellow Vests rather than mobilizing their members. And the HDLC has not yet mobilized against the fascists. This has only emboldened the far right and the mayor in pushing the anti-protest bylaw.
The HDLC has agreed to join a rally hosted by Pride on July 13. This is a good first step, but entirely insufficient. Supporting this rally is the first action that the HDLC has taken against the Yellow Vests. The HDLC cannot continue to fail to mobilize its members to oppose the far right. The HDLC needs to educate its members on the historical role of of fascism in crushing trade unions and working class organizations. Joining with Pride on July 13 to rally in front of Hamilton city hall is good, but the council must also mobilize its members, as they have done in previous years with the “Shut Down Hate” group. Furthermore, the HDLC needs to call for mass resistance to defeat the anti-protest laws. In the face of the massive attacks against working people and unions by the Ford government, this is an absolute necessity. This law threatens to undermine our ability to organize and protest.
No to the anti-protest bylaw!
Shut down the far right!
Labour must lead a mass movement!
Addendum: After the July 12 demonstration against the bylaw, city council stated they would “back away” from the guidelines. Rather than outright banning generators and road closures, they will now require “prior authorization” for such actions. The mayor added that the original document “was not going to be enacted”, which begs the question as to why it would be proposed in the first place. Eisenberger also complained that there was an “‘awful lot of hate’ directed at Hamilton’s institutions”, which gives a lot of context as to the motivation of the bylaw. We should not accept this half-measure. The bylaw must be defeated in its entirety.