Criminalizing disruption

On May 9, the People's University for Palestine (PUP) established an encampment on a small portion of the University of Alberta's main quad. The PUP was student-led, but supported by faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the community. Its demands: that the University disclose and divest from institutional and financial investments that profit from the colonization and genocide of Palestinians.  On May 11, at the behest of the leadership of the University, the Edmonton Police Services (EPS) cleared the encampment, including through the use of non-lethal weapons.

Edmonton police raid the protest encampment at the University of Alberta, May 11 2024. Image from Edmonton 4 Palestine (@palsolidarityyeg)

On May 17, Police Chief Dale McFee held a press conference in response to widespread condemnation of the early-morning raid on the protestors.

Chief McFee justified the sweep by distinguishing between legitimate protest and an entrenched encampment. For EPS and U of A President Bill Flanagan, the refusal to co-operate with University and police orders to pack up their tents and leave campus represented an 'escalation' from legitimate protest to a threat to the security of the university, hence justifying the resort to coercion against the protestors.  

But does this distinction between legitimate protest and entrenched encampment have an obvious basis in Canadian law? Quite simply, no. Students, as people, have a right to engage in political protest under ss. 2(b) and (c) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The courts have found, specifically, that erecting tents and temporary encampments as a form of protest falls under free expression rights. Of course, s. 2 restricts police action. However, a notable 2020 Alberta Court of Appeal decision found that University of Alberta administrators are also subject to the Charter in the context of student protests. This right to protest includes disruption. While the right to disruptive protest may be limited - in the case of violence and interference with the functioning of the university - the encampment did not surpass these limits. In an attempt to shield activities from criticism, the EPS must invent a distinction between legitimate protest and entrenched encampment. 

The shared rhetoric and action of the police and university on this point is concerning because it narrows legitimate protest to expressions of 'voice' while criminalizing the historically effective power of disruptive protest. As the renowned scholar of social movements Frances Fox Piven argued, while at times intertwined, 'voice' and 'disruption' are distinct. Protest through voice involves the effort to communicate a previously ignored issue and persuade those in charge to change their policies. Disruption involves a withdrawal of co-operation.

Marked by inequalities of power and privilege, our societies also depend upon widespread co-operation in order to function. This gives rise to the power of disruption. The importance of disruption is based on the fact that those excluded from control over resources and decision-making are often ignored in their communicative appeals. When their voices are ignored, the excluded can still exercise power by withdrawing their co-operation. Whether it be through strikes, blockades, boycotts, or non-compliance with the law, this disruptive power has been central to social change throughout history. 

By disobeying the orders of university and EPS, the protestors were engaging in this time-honoured tradition of disruptive protest by withdrawing their co-operation. Rather than respond to reasonable demands, the executive called on the EPS to coercively remove the protesters. To shield the activities from criticism, the EPS and U of A misrepresent the camp as violent and invent a distinction between legitimate protest and entrenched encampment. What EPS reads as an escalation that justifies its actions – such as the unwillingness to disperse - is the activation of the disruptive power of protest. Logically this includes defending their ability to withdraw that co-operation through solidarity in the form of food and water donations but also in the form of students, faculty, as well as so-called 'outsiders' - alumni and community members - joining in that withdrawal. 

The idea that the refusal to disperse transformed legitimate protest into illegitimate protest advanced by the EPS and the University is without constitutional grounds, historically absurd, and politically dangerous. Protest is not limited to 'voice'. Without disruptive protest, the power of rulers is insulated and the power of the ruled constrained.

Corey Snelgrove is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alberta.