Photo by Cindy Cui/ Photo Editor
* Names and identifying details have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals*
The Oct. 22 Lennon Wall demonstration at McMaster was intended to raise awareness for the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests happening in Hong Kong and to express solidarity with Hong Kong protestors. An individual interrupted the demonstration at around 4 p.m. and attempted to damage the signs on the Lennon Wall and remove protestors’ face masks.
However, there is a consensus — both among those who support the cause and those who do not — that what happened on Oct. 22 is much bigger than a one-time event.
In the days since, the incident has raised issues of inaction, censorship and the isolation of international students on campus.
One of the demonstrators, Cameron*, called the altercation a clear attempt to use violence and intimidation to silence the protest. Jamie, another demonstrator, pointed to a pattern designed to silence protesters who are supporting the democracy movement in Hong Kong, which has been demonstrated by incidents in Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia and the University of Queensland.
Leslie*, a student from the Chinese mainland, disapproved of how the individual who disrupted the demonstration expressed their disagreement.
“Instead of tearing things down, [the individual] should have called the campus police in the first place, and ask them to check this masked protest,” said Leslie.
Alex, another student from the Chinese mainland, maintains that the Oct. 22 incident did not undermine anyone’s freedom of speech. They assert that the individual who interfered with the demonstration was justified in being upset, as the content of the protest dealt with separatist activities, which are frowned upon in China. Alex believes that since there was this justification, the individual’s actions were not against anyone’s freedom of speech.
“If you want me to try to understand why that student committed this so-called violent action, I would only say if I were him, I would be doing that because I’m not content, I’m feeling even offended by the way they did that, the Hong Kong protesters on our campus,” said Alex.
Leslie acknowledges both sides of the problem. They believe that what the individual did was not civil — but that neither is wearing masks and promoting what Leslie perceives to be violence committed by the protesters in Hong Kong. Leslie refers to the masks as a symbol of the “anonymous violence” happening in Hong Kong.
Leslie and Alex also highlighted a difference in beliefs that render the situation even more complex. While the Oct. 22 situation happened within McMaster’s campus, it may point to differences in upbringing that go beyond our campus’s walls.
Alex deplores the instinct of many Canadian locals to generalize international students from the Chinese mainland, adding that there is a misunderstanding between the mainland students and other people on campus. Alex believes that this generalization fails to consider how different Canadian norms are for those who did not grow up with Western ideologies.
“[Someone said] ‘Oh, the Chinese students, they are so used to the government telling them what to do … so when they are outside China, they don’t know what to do so they have to contact their government. They have to let the government tell them what to do.’ Well, first off, that is damn wrong … Sometimes, we just feel very lonely in our power of speech. We’ve been isolated by Western media stuff … We’re definitely not used to the so-called liberal, democratic way of saying something. When there’s a problem, we go solve that. We don’t go on [the] street, we don’t go on any form of protest … Here [in Canada], whoever has the bigger voice wins,” Alex said.
Leslie believes that Canadians’ belief in Western liberal democracy prevents them from entertaining other political ideologies and from carrying out dialogue with those who come from the mainland of China without the use of words such as “dictatorship” or “authoritarian”.
One SRA member pointed out that the Lennon Wall incident violated the McMaster Student Code of Conduct, which protects students’ right to safety and security. The Code is meant to ensure an environment free from intimidation and discrimination, and to protect students’ right to security of their personal property. It also condemns threats and acts of vandalism — labels that the demonstrators have attached to the individual who initiated the altercation.
In an SRA meeting on Nov. 3, the McMaster Lennon Wall demonstrators urged the SRA to release a public statement.
“We just hope [the SRA] will speak up for vulnerable students who face violence on campus by releasing a public statement and speak up for our rights … We hope that you will stand in solidarity with us, as demonstrators whose rights to safely protest and dissent on campus were violated,” they declared.
In response, the SRA promised to release a statement regarding the Oct. 22 demonstration.
Since then, MSU president Josh Marando has published a statement through his president’s page on The Silhouette. He affirmed the MSU’s support of the students’ right to protest peacefully and exist safely on campus.
“The MSU is always working towards creating a safer and more inclusive environment for students. As such, actions, activities or attitudes that work against that notion should not have a place in our campus discourse,” said Marando.
The McMaster administration also provided a statement. Gord Arbeau, director of communications at McMaster, emphasized the importance of conducting a thorough investigation.
McMaster security, who were called to the demonstration after the incident took place, are conducting an investigation.. Only when the investigation is complete can the university determine what policies are relevant and what further actions, if any, are needed. The Code might be one of the policies considered, should further action be required.
“Thankfully, these types of incidents are rare on our campus,” added Arbeau.
However rare such incidents may be, Cameron believes that a statement of support from the university could have a large impact.
“McMaster’s name is a big deal, and if they legitimize what we’re doing, then that means a lot to certain people. That means that the institution has put their faith in us as a cause,” said Cameron.
Cameron added that the altercation during the Oct. 22 Lennon Wall demonstration should not be seen as an isolated incident, but rather as a part of a systemic problem in which protesters are silenced through violence and intimidation. Jamie also agrees that silence and inaction are dangerous when the issue is so deeply rooted.
“This should not be treated as just a one-off incident. I think the university and the McMaster Students Union needs to realize that there was a more systemic issue here as well and therefore also develop more long term solutions as possible,” said Jamie.
Jamie, Cameron and the other demonstrators are not giving up on protests any time soon. They want protestors in Hong Kong to know they are not alone, that there are students that stand with them.
“There’s a perception that Canada is very far away from Hong Kong [and] maybe it doesn’t matter so much, but we want to say ‘Hold on a second, no, it does matter’. It matters because there’s lots of Canadians living in Hong Kong. There’s lots of Hong Kong students here at McMaster,” Jamie explained.
The demonstrators’ ultimate ideal goal is to educate people about the protests in Hong Kong and for McMaster students to understand enough about Hong Kong to show support and solidarity.
“Us [students] here in Canada, we’re lucky we don’t have to live with the consequences of what of what we’re doing, right? And so the most important thing to us is for every single person to fully understand the situation unfolding in the city across the sea,” said Cameron.