Anarchopanda on prohibition of being masked

„It's unconstitutional“

On Monday, Québec hold elections. No cause for celebration, says Julien Villeneuve alias Anarchopanda. He struggles against the tightening of the right to demonstrate.

Anarchopanda is hugged by two of his fans during a student demonstration in Montréal in 2012. Screenshot: www.youtube.com

taz: Monsieur Julien Villeneuve, in Germany, one tends to paint a pretty positive picture of Canada, often considering your country to be the better half of Northern America: welfare-state oriented, multicultural and peaceable. Is it a rose-tinted image?

Julien Villeneuve: Increasingly so, with our potentate Harper and his Conservatives at the helm.

Why?

Austerity policies, anti-unionism, a most undemocratic view of parliamentary politics have been the hallmarks of this government, and I’m not sure the strong progression of the NDP in the last elections will be sufficient to stem that tide.

Though, politically speaking, clocks are ticking at a different pace in your home state Québec, don't they? On Monday, the Québécois elect a new parliament, and the two leading parties are opponents of a federal government in the hands of the Conservatives.

On paper that is the case, although in practice both the Parti Québécois and the Liberals are collaborating or would collaborate with the federal government on key economic issues, for instance the development of pipelines, or the current secret negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The latter point is especially egregious insofar as the currently ruling Parti Québécois is concerned, given that it is ostensibly fighting for national sovereignty and we all know how free trade agreements bring along several important limitations to national sovereignty, usually in favor of big business.

No matter who wins on Monday, it will be pretty hard to rejoice, although I believe the Parti Québécois deserves a spanking for dumping this noxious election on us in a foolish grab for a majority.

In your role as wearer of the Anarchopanda costume you even put yourself up as candidate for the Parti Nul which regards itself as an option for people who would otherwise abstain from voting.

is a philosophy professor at Collège de Maisonneuve in Montréal. Since the student strike of 2012 in Québec, he joins demonstrations performing the role of Anarchopanda. He slips in a panda bear costume with a giant head and puts himself between protesters and the police in order to avoid violence in critical situations. His critique is aimed at an increasing police brutality.

Yes, my main intention was mostly to initiate a public conversation on the topic of the value of voting, as well as the limitations of our current political system. I thought that would be more fruitful than simply secreting yet another harangue in support of abstentionism. Besides, although I do find enlightened abstentionism more philosophically defensible than most of what passes for good arguments for electoral politics these days, I don't think it's a straightforward matter that abstention is always the right answer. People did talk, so I suppose it was successful.

But, shortly afterwards, you withdrew your candidature. Why?

It became apparent that some people might actually be voting for me, as opposed to simply using the Parti Nul as a mechanism to cancel their votes. The idea was simply to offer the option, not to tell people what to do.

On Monday, close to five million eligible voters elect the members of the National assembly of Quebec. The election was called by the minority government of the separatist Parti Québécois after only 18 months of being in power. The party landscape of french speaking Province of Québec differs significantly from the federal political system of Canada. Currently, the Parti Québècois holds 54 seats in parliament, while its biggest rival, the Québec Liberal Party has 49 seats. It's expected that the power constellations will reverse, with the Liberals being 12 percent ahead of the Parti Québécois in various polls.

As Anarchopanda, you were first noticed in the public eye in March 2012 when Québec experienced the biggest student strike in Canada's history, triggered by a drastic increase in tuition fees. Why did you choose to dress up in a costume to participate in demonstrations?

I was casually protesting, without a costume, from the beginning of the movement because I believed in the cause, but it’s the police violence and in particular the loss of an eye by a college student named Francis Grenier at the beginning of March 2012 which prompted me to take a more active role. I personally considered going on hunger strike to force the government to meet with the student representatives and negotiate, which they still refused to do after months of striking and several more students and supporters injured. But everybody told me it was dumb and asked me to think of something else. So I thought of Anarchopanda.

Why did you chose a panda costume as outfit for demonstrations?

The panda costume looked nice and was cheap. It could have ended up being something else, although the correlation of the panda colours with the colors of anarchopacifism is a nice coincidence. But it is a coincidence.

The student mass protest contributed to a political change in Québec in September 2012, and the current minority government of Prime Minister Pauline Marois withdrew the fee increase. Does this prove that civil disobedience can actually make a difference?

I’m glad the students got most of the fee removed, but that’s not what I call „making a difference“. The Parti Québécois used the student movement to get elected, as parties always do, and then repaid the students for their mostly unwilling collaboration. They're still indexing the fees yearly based on the cost of living or some such metric, and one day they'll change their mind and try for yet another hike. It goes without saying that I don’t find any of this particularly edifying. But yes, the students did scare the establishment a little, they did show other forms of organization were possible, and they did teach each other many things that are of use in current and future struggles. That’s making a difference.

The current struggles in Québec and particularly in Montréal concern the limitations of the freedom of assembly that had been imposed as a reaction on the students protest. Due to local regulation P-6, demonstrators are obliged to submit in advance a venue or route of a demonstration in Montréal to the relevant police authorities for approval. And there's the prohibition of being masked during demonstrations – restrictions that are firmly anchored in German law and hardly challenged.

Parades submit routes in advance, not protests: for one, protests can be spontaneous, and more importantly, submitting a route and enforcing compliance with it is inherently hierarchical, and we don't want to force our social movements to organize in this way. At least I sure don't want that. For masks things are even worse, as the federal parliament passed a law last year including provisions for up to ten years in prison for wearing a mask during unlawful assemblies and riots, which is plainly ludicrous. There already were dispositions in the criminal code to further penalize criminals for wearing a mask while performing criminal acts.

I do believe these dispositions are unconstitutional and just plain unwarranted limitations to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression and must be situated within a global context of the criminalization of dissent and the tightening of forms of social control. Our streets and squares have been where we gather to protest, such activities are a legitimate part of a democratic society, and the right to protect one’s identity while doing is all the more important in our world of increasing mass-surveillance.

The latter is affecting your performance as Anarchopanda in particular. How often have you received a fine because the police have claimed you're wearing a mask during protest events since the legislation P-6 is in force?

Only once in April of 2013, the time they confiscated my head. I believe only one other person has received that ticket for wearing a scarf in a March 2013 protest against police brutality. It was cold, I would have worn a scarf were I not in costume.

The police legitimated the confiscation of the panda head by saying that it has to serve as evidence against you. Did it feel like they had lost their marbles?

I was initially quite pissed off about the whole affair, because hey, it’s my head. Maybe the police got kinky with it, who knows. It would be a victimless crime. I had it washed just in case. But then the media ran with it and went berserk, and I thought it was both ludicrous and wonderful. People started talking about P-6 again, and we almost got parts of it repealed by the municipal council. For that kind of shitstorm, frankly, they could have kept the head as a tip. I’m kidding, it’s mine.

This shitstorm has revealed a massive popularity that far exceeds the academic milieu in Montreal. How do you cope with your “celebrity status”?

People don’t know what I look like in human guise, which is the primary thing. I’m not recognized in the streets, people don’t come bother me with criticisms or praise, which is awesome, nobody buys me fancy drinks when I go out, which kind of sucks but is a small price to pay for having a private life. Of course one has to be careful with what one does with whatever ‘status’ has accrued to oneself, I just try to use it to help other people and I don’t think about it otherwise. I’m fine with people respecting me, but anything above that is pretty silly.

Has anybody ever imitated you since you perform as Anarchopanda, disguising him/herself in a panda costume and attending a demonstration?

There have been a small number of other costume wearing protesters, most notably the Rabbit Crew, but we weren't doing the same thing. They were mostly following the grand tradition of protest clowns, dicking around with police and adding an element of fun and absurdity to protests, which in themselves can be quite boring. I did that too, I suppose, but the main idea was about what happened during police charges.

When was the last time you put the plush costume on?

During the April 3rd demo against austerity, organized by ASSÉ (Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante), the main driver behind the 2012 student strike. I only wear the costume for them or for things having to do with P-6 these days. Wearing the costume in and of itself is a pretty unpleasant experience, and I try to avoid it when I don't feel it's useful.

And, when was the last time you hugged policemen during a demonstration?

Oh, it’s been a while, in 2012. I’ve only succeeded in hugging about ten policemen overall. In truth, hugging police officers is not that important to me, they should already know that during protests we’re not dangerous unless they repress us, one shouldn’t need to hug them to try to get that point across. But it’s something to do when not walking or intervening during police charges.

On Twitter, Anarchopanda soon will be followed by 9000 people, whereas Anarchopanda follows no one – except recently the Montreal Police. They, in turn, refuse to follow Anarchopanda! Isn't that an act of unfriendliness, given that the police are in such a privileged situation?

The real following is on Facebook, over 19000 people. I only follow the police during protests, usually in order to refute whatever false or incomplete information they're broadcasting to influence the media. Rest assured that the police are in fact following me, and that I do not interpret this as a sign of friendliness.

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