So apparently I’m a coward.

This comes back to me second-hand –- my recent series of posts on Remembrance Day, particularly about the wearing of the white poppy, has apparently upset one (former) friend so badly that they’re feeling the need to make disparaging remarks about me behind my back. Accusing of me cowardice (or implying, I’m got tipped off my a friend so admittedly I’m a touch unclear about the specific wording) where my community can see it, just because of something I wrote? Classy. Also, pffft, whatever. Sticks and stones, and so on.

But it has stuck in my head, and its’ gotten me thinking, so let’s talk about courage, which is a word that gets thrown around a lot this time of year.

That (former) friend seems to feel that, since I’ve never served in the military, I’m incapable of courage… and that my reluctance to wear a white poppy this year (for reasons I clearly explained in that blog post but particularly the part where I mentioned that I don’t want to be hassled, attacked or even assaulted) is in fact proof of my cowardice. Indeed, on more than one occasion this person has implied to me that serving in the military is the only yardstick of courage or of sacrifice… which is ironic, since I’m pretty sure they aren’t a veteran either. While I certainly don’t disagree that military service requires courage –- I know too many veterans and servicemen to believe otherwise –- I do feel the need to point out that courage can exist outside of the military context.

In a university philosophy seminar a few years back I got into a rather heated argument with another student about what constitutes courage. He argued that courage means “being without fear” and I argued that courage means “overcoming your fear and not allowing it to prevent you from doing what needs to be done.” After we’d gone back and forth for a while, the professor asked for each of us to give specific examples to support our points. This was the example I gave, from my own experience as an activist:

The first time I was ever tear-gassed by the police, I pissed my pants.

Go ahead and laugh, but if you’ve ever been tear-gassed at a protest (especially without warning) you’d understand. It was at the 2001 FTAA Summit in Quebec City, on the Cote d’Abraham, about a hundred metres away from the infamous “Wall of Shame” perimeter fence. I’d been helping push a water cart up the steep street; there were half a dozen of us pushing this homemade cart with four full backyard rain-barrels of water, so it was heavy going. We hit a level patch and chocked the wheels, straightened up… and then a burning canister dropped out of the sky, bounced off the barrel next to me and landed at my feet. None of us were wearing masks or goggles, and we caught a full dose.

Tear gas, especially the CS gas used by Canadian police in riot control, has the following effects (excerpted from Wikipedia):

The chemical reacts with moisture on the skin and in the eyes, causing a burning sensation and the immediate forceful and uncontrollable shutting of the eyes. Effects usually include tears streaming from the eyes, profuse coughing, exceptional nasal discharge that is full of mucus, burning in the eyes, eyelids, nose and throat areas, disorientation, dizziness and restricted breathing. It will also burn the skin where sweaty and/or sunburned. In highly concentrated doses it can also induce severe coughing and vomiting. Almost all of the immediate effects wear off within an hour (such as exceptional nasal discharge and profuse coughing), although the feeling of burning and highly irritated skin may persist for hours. Affected clothing will need to be washed several times or thrown away.

What Wikipedia doesn’t describe is the pain: It’s not so much a “burning sensation” as the feeling that every millimetre of your exposed skin has been flayed with broken glass and slathered in gasoline; your eyes close “uncontrollably” because it feels like someone’s poured drain cleaner into your eye sockets (and closing your eyes only makes it worse); the “disorientation, dizziness and restricted breathing” I can personally vouch for –- you’re lying in the street, your face and eyes and mouth on fire, coughing uncontrollably and gasping for clean air, not even sure what the hell just happened. It is terrifying to be suddenly blind and suffocating and in agony. I clearly remember being afraid I was bleeding from my eyes and face; I remember being afraid that I really was on fire.

CS tear gas is unbelievably nasty stuff. It’s actually a war crime to use it on enemy soldiers… but not, apparently, on your own citizens.

Fortunately, people rushed into the cloud of gas and came to our aid; one of my affinity group actually pulled off his own respirator and used a sort of activist “buddy breathing” technique to get me out of the immediate area and back about half a block where we could get ourselves cleaned up; we coughed up wads of phlegm and rinsed out our eyes and mouths and breathed as deeply and as smoothly as we could for a couple of minutes. That’s when I realized that I pissed myself, and I was pretty embarrassed about it.

My friend noticed. He looked me straight in the eye and said “Yeah, I did that the first time, too. Come on, let’s get back up there.” And we went, right back up to the line and started helping other people, all through that day and into the night. We suffered tear-gas attacks again and again and again, we were soaked with water cannons, we were shot at with rubber bullets, and we still kept going back.

I still kept going back.

I don’t know if that counts as courage. But I know it isn’t cowardice.

(As an aside, police fired more than five thousand tear-gas canisters at protesters that weekend, at one point making the air in downtown Quebec City so noxious that delegates at the FTAA summit were obliged to shut down their negotiations for several hours. A government commission would later condemn the police for using excessive and unjustified force at against protesters.)

So that was the first time I’d been tear gassed, the first time I’d ever had personal experience with the violence that the State is prepared to visit its citizens if they step out of line. It would not be the last: I spent the next seven years of my life as a street medic, pushing myself to be where the action was hottest. Becoming a street medic was an important part of my experience as an activist for a lot of reasons: it gave me a purpose; it gave me an outlet for my anger at the treatment I’d received from our government; it gave me a method to resist the kind of police brutality we experienced at Quebec City; it meant that I was able to help people who had been injured; and it allowed me to provide support to my fellow activists, to lend the confidence that even if the worst should happen there would be someone looking out for them.

And most importantly it required me to make a personal commitment of absolute nonviolence.

More on that in my next post…