It's difficult to measure the success of a student protest.
It could be measured by the level of media exposure, or by tangible action, or by how many students shake off their apathy to get right pissed off for a cause they're passionate about.
If the success of a protest is defined by media hits or action items, the Students' Union Political Action Week, which ran Oct. 23-26, was a resounding success. If success is mesured by actual student engagement, however, the SU missed their mark.
Last week, the SU garnered media attention on the Global TV morning show and on evening newscasts by inviting students to camp out on the front lawn of MacEwan Student Centre to protest a lack of affordable housing in the city. Reporters from several major media outlets also attended a speakers' panel, which brought together politicians from four parties to talk post-secondary education with the SU and the Graduate Students' Association presidents. The story was also picked up by student papers in neighbouring provinces, at least if phone calls to the Gauntlet are any indication.
Even Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier took notice, and has been in discussion with SU vice-president external Julie Labonte to address the lack of safe, affordable student housing in Calgary. Obviously the wider world is paying attention.
My sister was at the dentist in High River on the weekend getting her tooth drilled out and the dentist asked her about affordable student housing in Calgary. When small-town dentists know and care about issues affecting university students in Calgary, the SU communications team is doing something right. Mainstream media loves a cause and the SU has sold the image of the poor, homeless student well.
But the SU fell short closer to home. Though there were reporters aplenty at the Wed., Oct. 25 panel discussion, the seats in front of the panel of influential politicians were empty, save for a handful of SU members. Though many students ate free pancakes at the breakfast on Monday morning, few knew why. And though some brave souls camped out on the MSC front lawn, most of them were SU members in tents rented and erected by the SU.
It's easy to blame apathy for this lack of involvement and say there was nothing more the SU could have done to get more students involved, but this is simply not true.
Four years ago the SU teamed up with the GSA to protest tuition by camping out on school property. But, as opposed to this year's meagre showing of a few dozen chilly SU members tenting for two nights, Tent City '03 brought out almost 400 students who camped out from Mar. 17-21 for a week-long vigil to get their message across. Sure, a bunch of them were there to party, but even the partiers were downright angry about planned tuition hikes and the implementation of differential tuition.
Tuition Protest '03 culminated in hundreds of students marching around the U of C and surrounding neighborhoods carrying signs and chanting. The crowd eventually stopped traffic as they crossed Crowchild Trail en masse. On Mar. 21, 2003 many of the same students who tented for five days finished off their week of protest by gathering outside of the U of C board of governors meeting where tuition increases are decided to chant "Down with tuition!"
In the end, the board voted for the maximum tuition increase and differential tuition anyway. Some might call this week of protest and activity a failure, and if you measure successful student protest by tangible results, maybe it was a failure. But the 2003 protest also proves mass mobilization of students isn't impossible. Students aren't as apolitical or apathetic as they are pegged to be, and the SU needs to realize this.
For a start, the SU could give some thought to the execution of their Political Action Week. This year's PAW fell right in the middle of midterms and just when the weather is beginning to get cold, which is not a good time to plan any outdoor event, let alone camping on the MSC front lawn. How about teaming up with the GSA to get some angry master's students onside? Working with campus media would be a good start, too. Even the Gauntlet wasn't given confirmed details of Political Action Week until three working days before the week was to kick off, making it impossible to do any advanced coverage.
Student involvement is not impossible. Media coverage is great, but if the SU wants their winter semester Political Action Week to be a true success, they need to look internally and use student involvement as a measure of success, rather than simply celebrating the number of reporters in attendance.