If a protest is held in a restaurant, and no one hears, does it still make a point?

A group of anti-pipeline protesters in BC crashed a private dinner being held for some Kinder Morgan employees. They held up pictures of environmental damage caused by spills and climate change. We'll hear from two people committed to social activism for their thoughts on this new tactic.
A sign protests the proposed expansion of a Kinder Morgan pipeline in Burnaby, British Columbia. (CBC)

Is there a "right" way to protest? How important is the target you choose? And the audience? Last week, a group of anti-pipeline protesters crashed a dinner at a restaurant in North Vancouver. They surrounded a table of Kinder Morgan employees, holding pictures of the oil sands and destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan In the Philippines in 2013. They said they wanted to show the effect their company's proposed pipeline expansion would have on the climate. The police were called when the protesters were in the restaurant, but they soon took their message out on to the sidewalk and there were no arrests.

The protesters said the dinner was attended by executives of the company, but it appears it was rank-and-file employees of one of its branch companies, a terminal called Vancouver Wharves. But does that matter? Is a protest on private property, targeted at people who aren't decision makers, effective, and okay? We wanted to find out, so we asked two people who think a lot about activism to join us. Robert Huish is an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, and teaches a course called Development and Activism: Methods of Manifestation, Organization and Dissent. Janet Keeping is a lawyer, and leader of the Alberta Green Party. 

Keeping says it's important to take the greater context into consideration. She argues the odds are stacked against climate activists, saying the pipeline approval process is just that - a process designed to approve. "What is left for people who feel, very deeply, the ethical wrongness of those projects?" she asks. She says she wouldn't have participated in a protest like the one in North Vancouver, but she would have crossed the line during the protests at Burnaby Mountain.   

Huish says there are rules about where and how you can protest, and breaking those rules has consequences. But, he adds, sometimes protesters make a tactical decision to break them: "saying I'm going to go ahead and get arrested and I'm going to be civil about it and hoping  that message carries ahead is a very acceptable tactic of activism that goes back into the civil rights movement...and Ghandi."

While doing that can send a powerful message, it can also be risky-- not just because you're breaking the law, but because the act of breaking the law can detract from the message you're trying to send. Keeping agrees, and says smart activists will take that into consideration. 

As for the targets of protests, both guests say they don't always need to be decision makers. They say protests have a cumulative effect, and can trigger broader conversations, especially in an election year. 


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