Opinion: Why the protesters won't talk

"It's easy for the UBC administration to look like the reasonable adults in the room. And they’re not entirely wrong – conversation and democratic processes can be useful first steps toward meaningful action. But talk cannot be only talk, and conversation can’t happen until both sides are allowed a voice," writes Anna Pontin.

Anna Pontin (she/they) is a fourth-year student studying English and philosophy. She is from Yellowknife NWT and likes weird trees. 

On the 76th anniversary of the Nakba, pro-Palestinian protestors occupied President Bacon’s office at UBC. The video posted to their Instagram @peoplesuniversityubc is a hard watch. VP Students Ainsley Carey entreats the room of masked faces to “please, take my card” and is repeatedly, politely refused. 

At the time of the sit-in, students were only two weeks into their encampment. Now, after over a month of sustained protesting, the uncomfortable dynamic played out in the President’s Office has continued to repeat itself at escalating registers. Decision-makers, counter-protestors and skeptical onlookers have echoed one another's pleas for “respectful and robust discussion,” and tolerant “both-sides” talks.

According to President Benoit-Antoine Bacon and his administration, this is the only way protestors will have their demands met. So why don’t they take Carey’s card?

Mainly because pro-Palestinian student activists have ample reason to believe that “listening sessions” will lead to no meaningful outcomes. But also, because all bad-faith actors including UBC administration, Zionist agitators and reporting from certain mainstream media outlets are asking for or emphasizing dialogue on false premises. Their “respectful discussions” are a tolerant front concealing their actual goal, which is first and foremost to silence pro-Palestinian dissent. 

In the video from the President’s Office on May 15, Carey is asked what he means when he says UBC will try to “follow through” on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions demands. He stumbles, apparently realizing he’s said the wrong thing, and admits that “by follow through ... I promise that we can start the process of discussion with you.” 

Even more revealing is the transcript from Bacon’s May 27 appearance at a Parliamentary hearing. In front of a panel of MPs, Bacon states that UBC’s administration opposes the BDS movement seeking to disable the institutions abetting Israel’s genocide. This statement has since been reinforced by the UBC Senate, who voted on June 3 against suspending academic agreements with Israeli universities and research institutions. With such outcomes looking increasingly predetermined, what incentives are left for “meaningful dialogue?” 

Beyond BDS’s economic priorities, UBC has also failed to make even the softer cultural concession of condemning Israel’s genocide and scholasticide (as it did when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022). A public condemnation is the encampment’s simplest, most negotiable demand. It’s also the most susceptible to the liberal institution’s favourite game of empty talk. 

But if UBC won’t even start there, resistance to discussion makes perfect sense. To take Carey’s card at this juncture would be hugely naive; accepting a seat at UBC’s negotiation table only to arrive and find the other guests have failed to show. This isn’t just a metaphor — the last time pro-Palestinian activists agreed to a discussion, Bacon offered a 30-minute chat then promptly cancelled after students refused to provide names and student numbers ahead of time.

And so the better question becomes, why do Zionists, university administrators, media outlets and politicians continue to cry for genuine dialogue when it’s clearly the last thing on their minds? Wouldn't it be simpler at this point to just put their foot down? After all, Bacon might as well give the firm “no” he’s just announced in Parliament directly to the protestors themselves. 

But for institutional powers to compromise their appearance as stewards of tolerant free speech would be to lose a weapon years in the making. For over a decade, college campuses and their left-wing students have been the target of endless criticism. Hysterical anti-woke “free speech” advocates have glutted media and publishing with books like The Coddling of the American Mind, The Identity Trap and God and Man at Yale diatribes against the evils of cancel culture, the all-powerful mob of Twitter libs ready to fire well-meaning professors at a moment’s notice, and of course, the naive snowflakes weaponizing identity politics in every classroom.

To hear this version of reality (and trust me, we have) is to believe that the most powerful censorship body in Canada is the students themselves. Epitomized by their stubborn encampments, these reactionaries are not “good activists.” Certainly not the mature activists required in the Real Adult World which operates according to long-term, nuanced, and complex political machinations carried out by "reasonable" actors unafraid to speak hard facts.

UBC administration may not be the source of the narrative, but the impression that left-wing activists are 'coming to police you' is a powerful tool in their belt. In the context of Israel’s ongoing genocide, anti-woke rhetoric mostly comes from counter-protestors, columnists and well-intentioned (but misplaced) liberal allyship. As the intended effect of a sustained conservative backlash against left-wing criticism, it serves to conceal the reality of who is actually being censored. Worse, it sets the stage for bad-faith negotiation under the pretense that both sides are free to speak. 

But this illusion cannot be maintained. Thanks to Canada’s senseless and total defence of Israel, it’s hard to miss who is being silenced. 

Look around; there can be no neutral ‘both-sides’ dialogue with Zionist influencers like Montana Tucker, who patrol encampments trying to film context-less, edited sound bites with the intent to doxx and demonize students. There can be no objective interviews with journalists caving under the influence of pressure campaigns openly operating on behalf of Israel. Interviews in which their articles prefer quotes calling unaffiliated protests “celebration[s] of the heinous murder of Jews” instead of responsibly describing the encampment’s outspoken contingent of Jewish supporters (often wearing “Jews for Palestine” t-shirts) and their strict anti-discrimination agreement (painted on a massive sign at the entrance). And there can be no safe space for negotiation under the state-sanctioned surveillance of the RCMP’s brutal CRU (formerly C-IRG) paramilitary unit

This might not sound like your idea of Canadian liberal democracy, but just take a look at the state we’re supporting. Israel is itself a goliath of censorship at home and abroad. Under gag orders, its newspapers redact any text concerning the unlawful detainment of Palestinians, and its high-ranking officials have recently been exposed for stalking and threatening former ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. This is real state-sanctioned censorship under the jurisdiction of a well-documented war criminal. This is the threat Palestinians have been up against for decades. 

Israel is not Canada, but political and popular support for Israeli policies are a litmus test for the health of our own democracy. As the Canadian Dimension pointed out in their thorough critique of CBC’s biased pro-Israel reporting: 

"Despite its several capitulations to HRC, highlighted by the Martineau affair, the whistleblower’s revelations, and Farawi’s pre-October 7 investigation, CBC is still accused by most conservative politicians as being hopelessly unfair in its coverage of Israel. The conclusion to be drawn is that no amount of appeasement will ever be enough."

If it sounds to you like I’m just reversing right-wing rhetoric, you’re right. The woke mob is an aggrandized spectre and a projection of the Right’s own tendencies. Its symbolic purpose is to conceal the threat posed by the insatiable machine of distortion, misrepresentation and silencing conducted by agents who have already made up their minds about Palestine. 

The endgame of positioning left-wing students as the antithesis of free speech was always to take away actual freedom of speech. In order to confront injustice we must reclaim our ability to call out this censorship, and somehow scrape out platforms to voice resistance — online, on campus, in public and in the halls of institutional power. This is an overwhelming task, but thankfully, the pro-Palestine movement is already succeeding. 

By staying silent behind a wall of clearly articulated demands, campus protestors are paradoxically fighting to be heard. This strategy will work because it recognizes that when Carey and Bacon offer a “process to engage,” their “respectful and robust discussion” is only that. By participating, protestors risk losing their voices entirely. 

It is frustrating to waste time wading through social media clips and empty discourse. As of today, June 6, Palestine has been occupied for over 76 years. Genocide has been ongoing for 35 weeks. There has never been any time to waste or space for great compromise. 

Protestors cannot risk being censored or diffused. They will not show their faces, because this movement already has faces: over 15,000 murdered children, including six-year-old Hind Rajab who was killed in her family’s car by Israeli forces, along with the two paramedics sent to save her. And living faces: Ahmad Sa’adat, Issam Aruri, Bisan Owda, the 49 journalists in Israeli custody, outspoken Palestinian scholars, doctors, poets, parents, refugees, diaspora and on and on and on. 

More words defending the encampment aren’t necessary. But as violence continues to escalate beyond belief in Gaza, protests and their tactics must escalate as well. If you find yourself frustrated by a roadblock or a disruption on campus, irritated by a TikTok or a Tweet, or wondering why these students seem so resistant to negotiation – remember what they’re up against. Even better, remember what they're fighting for. 

It's easy for the UBC administration to look like the reasonable adults in the room. And they’re not entirely wrong — conversation and democratic processes can be useful first steps toward meaningful action. But talk cannot be only talk, and conversation can’t happen until both sides are allowed a voice. Each time UBC patiently asks to engage in dialogue, they ignore the fact that protestors have already spoken. Like children throwing a tantrum, they plug their ears, shut their eyes and pretend not to hear.

Disclosure: Anna has participated in the pro-Palestinian movement on campus. She writes representing only herself.

This is an opinion article. It reflects the author's views and does not reflect the views of The Ubyssey as a whole. Contribute to the conversation by visiting ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.