PROTESTING THE MEGACITY: The Activist Camera And Citizen Power

No Mega city demonstration at Queen's Park.The 1990s saw widespread street protests in Toronto and many other cities across Ontario as unions and community groups came together to fight against the cutbacks in social services that were made in a radical shift to the right by the neo-conservative government of Mike Harris.

One of the most memorable series of protests was the anti-megacity movement that rallied against the amalgamation of the six cities that formed the old Metro Toronto into one large megacity. Citizens mobilized into a non-partisan movement that held regular mass meetings and rallies. In February 1997, a huge rally filled Massey Hall to the rafters – some 2,600 people gathered to denounce the government’s action. A candlelight vigil was held outside the venerable hall. A few weeks later, a huge march down Yonge Street re-enacted a march for responsible government that was held in 1837 against the Family Compact in Upper Canada. About 15,000 people took part in the modern march; it was a family affair with some dressed in period costumes and riding in horse-drawn carriages.

A referendum was held in each of the six municipalities and 76% voted against amalgamation. True, only about a third of eligible voters stood up to be counted in the referendums, but then, this was not different from the percentage of eligible voters who bother to vote in municipal elections. The provincial government ignored the plebiscite, all forms of protest, and pushed ahead with the amalgamation.

The activist camera

The camera has a long history when it comes to documenting social protest or conditions. Its power has been both overt and subtle. As early as 1849, the cumbersome daguerreotype camera and system of photography were used to document the great Chartist meeting in London. Traditionally, the social documentary photographer has been more than just an engaged observer; he or she has often been an activist fighting injustice with a camera. The 1990s in Toronto was a particularly fecund period for activist photographers, given the political climate of the time. Many, like myself, worked independently, which meant that you could photograph freely from your own point of view, not bound by the exigencies of daily newspapers. More often than not major newspapers preferred to focus on politicians or personalities who attended political events. Or they published pictures that played into commonly held stereotypes, e.g. the scruffy-looking young people mindlessly yelling slogans into the camera; bizarre-looking characters, or cute babies. Visual superficiality seemed to be the standard that we came to expect of so-called ‘family newspapers’, but in the end the effect was to trivialize the issue, and de-politicize it. The picture editor of a newspaper had one of the most influential roles in our culture. This individual had the power to influence public opinion.

But the photography of street protests has changed dramatically in the 17 years since the Yonge Street march took place. At that time, digital photography was still in its infancy and mobile phones with cameras were not yet on the market. But today virtually everyone taking part in a protest march carries either a pocket digital camera or a mobile phone with a camera. This has changed the nature of photojournalism, as the power of the professional photojournalist and the newspaper picture editor is increasingly eclipsed by the power of the private citizen ‘armed’ with a pocket camera. Citizens can now document their own political activism. The citizen at large has the option of using new technologies, not only to bear witness and gather evidence, but also to ‘publish’ stories through social media such as YouTube or Facebook. This is a new-found power. The Arab Spring a few years ago is a classic example of personal mobile technologies becoming the dominant medium of documentation. Closer to home, the Toronto 2010 G20 protest was an equally important moment for personal new technologies. Another event, the tragic shooting of a young man inside a streetcar by police in 2013 – surely a seminal moment in the city’s history – was also documented by a private cell phone. The personal cell phone is replacing the photojournalist’s camera and social media networks are replacing the picture editors and their publications. The cell phone camera, in combination with social media networks, is an empowering tool that can provide alternative documentation, as well as defy government controls and censorship. In short, it is the new source of citizen power.

Click on any image to enlarge.

– Vincenzo Pietropaolo
Photos by Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Today’s The Day That We Fight Back

In March 1997, as part of the protest against the neo-conservative policies of the Harris government, the No Mega CD (No Megacity) compilation album was released. It was conceived and produced in seven days by Jian Ghomeshi and, as he says on the back cover, “…meant as a protest sing-a-long, an expression of the Toronto artistic community, a political tool, and of course a fundraiser for the Citizens for Local Democracy.”

The first cut on the CD is Today’s The Day That We Fight Back by Moxy Fruvous. The lead singer, Mike Ford, remembers:
The Massey Hall Rally and the Queen’s Park Days of Action protest were amazing events. I actually wrote Today’s The Day That We Fight Back in the band van on the way to that Queen’s Park event (so it was played pretty much without rehearsal that day… once Jian produced the No Mega CD a few months later, we were able to sit down and learn it!). One of my memories from the Queen’s Park gathering is of Billy Bragg – before he went on, he pulled me over to the flag poles in front of the legislature and pointed up to the Ontario flag and said “I know why the Union Jack is on that one, but WHY THE HELL is that other one flying?” at which point he pointed to the actual UNION JACK FLAG flying next to it and ‘le feuille d’érable’. Zoinks! Good question. The things you don’t notice in your hometown!


See his latest work on Mike Ford’s website.
Watch more of Moxy Fruvous here.

This article is part of our POWER issue.

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