A conversation with the panda-suited symbol of Quebec’s Maple Spring.
Anarchopanda and friends, headed to a protest.
On Friday, for the fourth time in under a month, hundreds of Montrealers attempting to participate in a peaceful protest found themselves kettled by the SPVM. Under the P-6 bylaw, Montreal police can declare any protest, assembly or gathering illegal, arrest people, and give them tickets of $637 up to several thousand dollars just for being there. Among those surrounded by riot police, detained for hours and issued a ticket was the mysterious character known as Anarchopanda. A professor at a Montreal area college who attends protests in a Panda costume, Anarchopanda became a wildly popular fixture of last year’s student strike. At a recent demonstration he received a second ticket for covering his face, and had the head of his costume confiscated as evidence. VICE Canada caught up with him a few hours before that protest, and asked what makes this Panda tick.
VICE: Let’s start with an easy metaphysical question: what is Anarchopanda?
Anarchopanda: [laughs] Anarchopanda was a response to the violence that students were suffering. It came from an idea I had long before the strike, to have a line of mascots in different costumes between the police and the protesters. Since I didn’t have the crew to do it, I just went ahead and did it by myself.
So why a panda? Why not an Anarcholemming, or an Anarchocow?
It fit well, because the colours expressed my own philosophy, which is anarchopacifism. But the real, real reason is that it was the nicest, sturdiest looking costume for the budget I had. Let me tell you, even on Ebay China the costumes for two hundred bucks look pretty flimsy! I was looking at several different options, but as soon as I saw the Panda suit, something welled up in me…
It was love at first sight?
Yep, pretty much! [laughs] It looked cute, and it looked sturdy and not too shabby. It’s not a very good quality costume, I’m on my second one, and I don’t think it has many more manifs [protests] left in it.
Last year you became a symbol, or a mascot, for the movement. At what point did you realize that you had this role, which was much larger than simply being a participant in these protests?
If people perceive me as a mascot, that’s up to them. I don’t see my role like that. In the beginning I saw my role as trying to protect the protesters from police violence, now I have expanded my mandate, you might say, to fight repression and bylaw P-6.
Many people say that my role is to pacify, to quell tensions, but it’s actually more targeted than that. I don’t try to pacify the protesters, although when they do something that I consider outright stupid I’ve been known to talk to protesters, and ask them why they are doing what they’re doing.
My role is really focused towards the police, and it started with my trying to give hugs to the police. But it turned out, at some point in the conflict, that protesters need hugs too. I started doing this thing, when a police officer refused my hug, I would look sad. Then students would come to hug me, because I felt sad because I couldn’t hug the police.
Believe me, as a philosophy professor, it was never my intention to hug students in the streets! It just kind of happened, and once it did, well why not?
I can’t tell you how many messages I have received, saying how much that hug, or those few words I said, meant to someone.
Armed police officer watches over protest in Montreal.
Have you been able to succeed in hugging any cops?
Oh yes, definitely. I’ve hugged around ten since the beginning. Unfortunately I have never succeeded in hugging riot police. They’re different; they behave differently when they have the suit on. But I have hugged some cops, and often in very difficult and tense situations, so I’m proud of that.
Let’s talk about bylaw P-6 and the current crackdown on protest. Three of the last four major protests in Montreal have been preemptively kettled, and all participants were arrested and ticketed $637 without provocation. What are your thoughts on P-6 and the legitimacy of preemptive arrest?
Well, under my human name I am fighting this municipal bylaw in Quebec Superior Court, because I believe it is unconstitutional, and because I believe it unreasonably restricts the right of people to assemble peacefully and express themselves.
Now it is the right to protest itself that has been suppressed. So it is depressing in a different way. Of course these fines are ridiculously high. Even for me, I don’t have $637 to burn, I really don’t. But for students who work part time, who don’t make a lot of money, it’s a really repressive measure.
I think that is extremely worrisome.
The challenge you’re mounting to P-6 will be heard in October, and I understand that the cases of people contesting the bylaw are being set for after your hearing. So will your case set the precedent for everyone else?
Yes. I think they are thinking that if it is proved unconstitutional by my case, they’ll save a lot of time by dropping these other cases that are being contested.
Last year there was a significant debate within the student movement about whether to participate in the provincial election. Now with a municipal election coming in November, some of the same questions will be raised. Do you believe in voting, and participating in elections?
In the last election I was going to vote for Quebec Solidaire, until these really aggressive ads started to appear from the Director General of Elections telling people that if you don’t vote you should shut up, basically. That made me decide not to vote.
Also, the public discourse was problematic. Of course you are allowed to believe in voting, and believe it is important, but to say it is the ultimate democratic act, as was said many times in ads and in the media, it just goes to show that we have no idea anymore what a democracy even looks like.
I have a nuanced view on this, as I do on most subjects.
There are a lot of debates on purity within anarchism, and I’m sure for many people I don’t qualify as an anarchist at all. I’m not very concerned with that.
Then what about the municipal election? Will you get involved in making P-6 an election issue?
I will certainly work to make P-6 an election issue. I will not do any campaigning or support for any political parties whatsoever. I will read their platforms, but I suspect that none of their programs will live up to my expectations. Let’s say I’m naturally pessimistic about the political process, but I’m always ready to be surprised.
People have written to me and asked me to run, but…
So Anarchopanda won’t be running for mayor?
Not any time soon, no! I do think we need more direct democracy, more transparency, more accountability, we need the right to recall our representatives, so if someone goes in that direction maybe I will vote for them. But I will remain a grassroots militant, and I’m not interested in telling people whether they should vote or not.
First, there should never be any authority in a panda, for reasons that I think are fairly self-evident. Second, people should make up their own mind, do their own research, talk to candidates, see what their record is. They don’t need my help to do that.
Follow Ethan on Twitter: @EthanCoxMTL
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