"Shove that up your ass."
The young lady with the books under her arm spun on her heel after saying that, and walked away. In response, Cameron Wilson put the pamphlet back into the stack in his hand, smiled, and politely wished her a nice day. Several feet away, looming behind an angry group of protesters, a very large and very graphic image of an aborted fetus watched the encounter unfold.
A week earlier, University of Alberta students began noticing the appearance of posters adorned with the title "Trigger Warnings." The posters warned of an upcoming demonstration on March 3 and 4, during which graphic images were going to be displayed and that, "If you do not wish to see these images, we suggest you avoid the portion of campus on these days."
I made my way to the U of A's main quad, with camera in tow, to see exactly what sort of plans required the group to put up trigger warnings.
I was greeted by the words "Killing a Baby is a Bad Choice" emblazoned on a large poster, paired with the photo of a bloody fetus posed next to a nickel. Surrounding the poster were peace officers and counter-protesters.
That's where I met Wilson, a 24-year-old law student at U of A and a member of the campus club GoLife, an anti-abortion group. The group had invited the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR) to the school for a demonstration. The simple fact that the CCBR is controversial wasn't why the students were upset. It was what the group brought with them to the university: graphic pictures, and lots of them.
In total, there were around seven or eight posters and they were big, around four feet by eight. Set up an in front of them were university students attempting to block the bloody fetuses from view. I set about milling around the protest in the -20 degree weather. Talking to both sides, I quickly realized that, for the counter-protesters, who mostly identified as pro choice and carried pro-choice signs, that this wasn't a pro-choice against anti-choice event. Instead, this was about the CCBR's tactics—the counter-protesters wanted the university to be a safe space.
"We don't think it's right that one group's freedom of speech trumps other groups' freedom to feel safe at work and at school," said Brian Steele, an organizer of the counter-protest. "There is a difference between having a discussion on pro life and hanging banners about pro life and trying to emotionally traumatize people. There is a difference between shock and awe and actually promoting a discussion.
"The group out there says they want a discussion, but really, all they're promoting is stigmatization, and I think that's wrong."
The fear for people's safety stems from the graphic nature the posters. The counter-protest would argue that the images have a very real chance of traumatizing or "triggering" people who have experienced something similar in the past—something that can be quite dangerous and mentally harming to the victim by evoking an emotional flashback. Such a flashback could result in a relapse in depression and, in extreme cases, even self harm and suicide.
That this demonstration occurred during U of A's pride week only exasperated the problem. GoLife and the CCBR vehemently stated that this was a simple but unfortunate coincidence. However, for several years, the pride week and parade have been held on the same week and typically makes its way past the main quad. This being a simple "coincidence" would require some intense managerial shortsightedness by the pro life group. Regardless, because it was pride week, rainbow flags could be seen punctuating the quad, and protesters formed a visual barricade so that the children and people walking in the parade couldn't view the signs. Chanting, "Let's talk, not shock," "Don't erase safe space," and my personal favourite, "Don't be a willy, these images are silly," the protestors accomplished their goal.
This lead the members of the CCBR and GoLife to state that these actions were an affront to their freedom of speech and blocking a crucial portion of their argument.
"I think that it was unfair of students to start creating that socially almost coercive attitude of don't engage them, don't take their pamphlets, don't talk to them," said Wilson. "I think that a purpose of university is to always ask the tough questions."
In short, this event unintentionally proved to be a microcosm for the debate between a person's safety and freedom of speech.
It was difficult to debate in the cold, however, so members of each group took shifts. They would rotate between suffering out in the frigid temperatures and finding warmth within the nearby U of A building. Within the building existed a Tim Hortons with a perpetual long line which gladly served coffee to both sides. At one point I saw both pro-lifers and counter protesters awkwardly waiting in line at the Tim Hortons together adamantly not making eye contact.
I spent some time talking to and shadowing several members of the severely outnumbered pro lifers. They walked throughout the display attempting to hand out pamphlets and engage a discussion with the counter protestors. It was easy to differentiate the articulate and determined veterans from the visually nervous and twitchy greenhorns. For the most part, the conversations remained spirited yet intellectual. However, sometimes a pro lifer would compare abortion to genocide and, shockingly, the conversation would go sour. (The CCBR runs a campaign called the Genocide Awareness Project in which they utilize large posters, much like the ones seen at the U of A, to illustrate that very comparison.)
And let me tell you, nothing extinguishes a conversation quite like comparing abortion to the Holocaust.
The people with GoLife and the CCBR aren't stupid by any means. Personally, I found most of them to be extremely intelligent and articulate, and what they are doing is a very smart tactic. While it may not be the best at achieving their goal of "facilitating conversation"—it's a little hard to have an intellectual conversation with the remnants of an abortion looming over you—it did bring a horde of media to the event.
"It is shocking, it is awful," said Wilson of the display. "But it's shocking and awful because abortion is shocking and awful."
It was an event just like this that got Wilson to become an active participant in the anti-abortion movement. Back when he was in Grade 11, Wilson attended a CCBR event that his brothers were involved in and received a pamphlet. The graphic photos utilized on the pamphlet spurred him to action, and he's been involved ever since.
It's come full circle for Wilson, now handing out an updated version of the very pamphlets that initially moved him.
From my conversations, it seems that both sides felt that the day was a success. The counter-protestors felt that way because they were able to actively block the display from the pride parade and kept the appearance of the quad as a safe place. And on the flip side, the anti-abortionists considered it was a success because they attracted media attention and generated what they felt was a lot of good dialogue. From what I saw, the majority of the students didn't have the time of day for the CCBR, nor their graphic display. Some students would stop and look, and some would even discuss the issue, but for the most part these students seemed to be far more focused on getting to class or into a warm building. For some this whole thing seemed to really just be a hassle that might make them late to their next anthropology class.
It seems that, for most students, getting to anthro on time trumps gawking at a giant, bloody fetus.
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