New Brunswick

Online activist seizes the spotlight with police critique

With a single tweet, Caitlin Grogan put herself at the centre of a political moment in Saint John this summer. She's part of a burst of online activism that politicians have been unable to ignore.

'It's made a change and I'm not going to apologize for that part'

Caitlin Grogan said she wasn't looking for attention when she criticized the Saint John Police in a tweet in June. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Caitlin Grogan says she wasn't looking for attention in early June when she dropped an f-bomb on the Saint John Police force.

But that's what she got: attention for her, and for her cause. 

That single phrase in a single tweet, "f--- the @saintjohnpolice," made her the most prominent of several new voices forcing themselves into political debates in the city around policing, transit and other issues.

"I don't necessarily feel like I belong in the spotlight," she says. "I haven't done anything of incredible importance. I'm just a person in the community."

On the other hand, in the last eight weeks, "I've had more contact with politicians than I have had in my entire life."

The Saint John police reacted to her tweet by blocking her, but quickly unblocked her. 

Since then Grogan has deployed the f-word at least one other time and has told people to "shut up," though she says that was registering disapproval, not trying to silence them.

MP deletes Twitter after debate

She has also got under the skin of some politicians, most notably Saint John-Rothesay Liberal MP Wayne Long.

After a heated online discussion about a photo showing Long on a boat with some friends, one of them holding a beer, the second-term MP deleted his Twitter account.

"Advocacy is important. Waking people up to listen to your message is important," says Long, a prolific social-media user himself.

With a single tweet, Caitlin Grogan put herself at the centre of a political moment in Saint John. She's part of a burst of online activism that politicians have been unable to ignore. 4:53

"But when it leaves issues-based discussion, and turns to personal attacks that's when I think it's counterproductive. And to be perfectly frank, it's destructive."

After Long made similar comments on CBC's Information Morning Saint John last week, Grogan tweeted, "Imagine being the most ineffective MP in history and trying to pick a fight with your most annoying constituent."

Other Saint John politicians haven't pushed back. Coun. David Hickey says social media is "not necessarily the most productive place" to take on politicians, but he says the swirl of debate has been healthy.

Saint John MP Wayne Long deleted his Twitter account after a heated debate with Caitin Grogan over a photo. (CBC)

"It's also creating a bigger conversation around what insightful and meaningful engagement means with the community and with community partners."

In a way, it's a story as old as politics, now being told in 140-character bursts on smart phones. 

Young activists push for change. Establishment figures get uncomfortable.

Approach criticized

It raises age-old questions: is it better to criticize from the outside or try to work from inside the system? When is it time to stop asking nicely? 

"The only reason anyone is paying attention to this right now is because I swore one time at the police," Grogan says. "It's made a change and I'm not going to apologize for that part."

Grogan says the criticism of her approach, that she's too "angry" and needs to smile more, is rarely levelled at male activists, and besides, it's just the "persona" people see online. 

"I get [called] angry a lot, which is really surprising, because people who know me personally [know] that is so not me."

Except she is angry, she says in the next breath, about the number of sexual assault cases labelled "unfounded," for example.

"I think you have to be angry," she says. "I think if you're not angry you're not paying enough attention to what's happening."

Grogan has a lighter side. She tweeted at Mayor Don Darling that the city should buy Theodore the Tugboat, which Halifax officials put up for sale this summer. 

Changes needed

But it's making change that drives her, and that's where it's harder to measure her impact.

She mentions that the email addresses for members of the Saint John Board of Police Commissioners are now listed online, and that the Kennebecasis Regional Police Force plans to pilot a civilian sexual assault review process. 

Grogan used the provincial right-to-information law to get a breakdown of the different reasons the city police cited for not laying charges after sexual assault complaints.

Those are tiny steps that raise other eternal political questions: how fast is fast enough when it comes to change? How rapidly can it happen without triggering a backlash and endangering progress?

"I'm like the instant gratification generation," Grogan says. "'We want change and we want it now.'" 

Saint John city Coun. David Hickey said the debate has been healthy and is creating a bigger conversation around what insightful and meaningful engagement means. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

She recognizes that's not always realistic. She says it was unfair for another Twitter user to slam Saint John Mayor Don Darling for not defunding the police immediately. 

"But at the same time …  while it may take years for the Saint John city council to substantially cut the police force budget, it would not take them years to at least acknowledge that that's something they want to look at or will look at."

Not interested in politics

Of course, Twitter isn't real life. It's not as widely used as other social media platforms, and it can be an echo chamber for politicians, activists and journalists.

Real decisions happen in real life.

"I had a lot of people reach out to me and ask if I was going to put my name forward to the police board or if I was going to run in the next municipal election," Grogan says.

"Both of those are resounding no's. That's not the way I want to make a difference right now. When you're working from the inside you have a lot more power but you also have a lot more rules that are put upon you."

Other like-minded activists are taking the plunge, though.

Courtney Pyrke, a board member of the new activist group Flip Saint John, recently applied for a vacant spot on the police board and several other municipal bodies.

"When Don Darling and Wayne Long and those politicians said, 'Why don't you do something?' I looked up what positions were open and I put my name forward because I think they have a point," Pyrke said.

Progressive activism

Flip Saint John was formed by a group of progressive activists who found each other online and decided to work together.

The group recently tweeted that it wants to avoid online bullying and was working on a code of conduct for its board members. 

"We want to take these, as people would describe it, 'angry voices' or 'angry people online,' and turn that into something more productive," Pyrke said, adding, "I didn't see an issue with how Cait expressed her concerns or the things that she was recognizing."

While she's not interested in being on the police commission board or running for municipal politics, Grogan is learning more about how government works. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Darling says the debate sparked by Grogan, Flip Saint John and Black Lives Matter has prompted an "uptick" in the applications for vacant spots on the police board. 

"So I am confident at the end of this we'll have a stronger police commission when we're done," he says.

Grogan, meanwhile, says she has gained a more detailed understanding of how government institutions work. 

"Today I'm going to sit through a growth committee meeting and learn about an affordable housing strategy for the city," she says. "Prior to all of this I wouldn't have known that the city was even looking to create an affordable housing strategy."

Despite Grogan's better appreciation of how slow-moving governments can be, and despite the blowback, "I would say things seem more possible" than they were before that first tweet, she says. 

"It's shown that there is sort of a new type of politics coming, some new engagement. Young people are 'aging up' to the age now that they're able to vote and get involved, and there is that generational change."

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.


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