Since January 2015 I’ve had the great privilege of organizing the Radical Imagination Film and Discussion Series at the Central Branch Library in downtown Halifax. This series emerged out of the Radical Imagination Project, a social movement research project that began in 2010 with the goal of working with social movements to stimulate and circulate the radical imagination, the collective ability to imagine the world as it might be otherwise.
At a moment when political, economic, social, and ecological crises threaten our collective future on this planet coming together to imagine and share alternatives to the status quo is urgent and necessary. Film made sense as a medium well-suited to stimulating discussion and engaging people. Screenings were scheduled on a roughly bi-weekly rhythm with a break during the summer months.
Over four-and-a-half years I screened dozens of films, hosted invited speakers, and facilitated a great deal of wide-ranging and critical conversations. We watched and talked about the climate emergency, gentrification, Indigenous resurgence and decolonization, grassroots responses to misogyny and sexual violence, militant protest and direct action, debt, radical political histories, and so, so much more. Some screenings were huge, filling the Paul O’Regan Hall to capacity, while others were much more intimate.
The more I did them, the more convinced I became that it was a worthwhile thing to do, a popular education project that people sincerely wanted to be part of. Unlike the university, it wasn’t connected to credentialing and job prospects. Unlike activist scenes, it attracted a diversity of participants outside of the usual suspects. It was a contribution, however humble, to getting people talking and dreaming together in a public space, a rarity in our enclosed and commodified society.
This has, unfortunately and abruptly, come to an end right on the cusp of another season. The reason? The senior staff at the library insisted that some of these upcoming screenings required a police escort.
I had planned to screen two films in fall 2019 – Profiled and Trouble 18: ACAB – about police violence, racialized injustice, and racial profiling. These topics are urgent, timely, and sadly topical.
Invited to submit my programming material for the fall, the frontline staff at the library were their usual excellent selves and I received the standard information about scheduling and promotion. I was thanked for my work and told that the programming looked important and exciting.
Less than two weeks later this all changed dramatically.
I received an email from the programming manager at the Central Branch Library, Hilary Skov-Nielsen, informing me that while the library welcomed critical discussion of current issues, the screenings of Profiled and Trouble 18: ACAB would only proceed if they included representatives of the Halifax Police Department as featured speakers. I was informed unequivocally that if I wasn’t willing to allow this my programming would have to be reconsidered.
In the age of free speech wars, this was all conveyed politely but absolutely firmly and framed in the language of civil discourse and inclusivity.
To be clear, losing library sponsorship isn’t the same as being barred from using library space. What it means is when the library co-sponsors an event they assist with promotion and waive rental and equipment fees. These are huge forms of support especially to grassroots and community organizations that often run on shoestring budgets. In a society with fewer and fewer places you can go and be for free, without having to purchase admission or buy something while you’re there, this is an incredible resource. It effectively provides a platform and invites an audience to events that otherwise very well might not happen. While those with deep pockets, like corporations and powerful social institutions like the police, can afford many different platforms, those of us interested in challenging or questioning the status quo and the interests it represents cannot. When public institutions like the library deny support to social justice initiatives, the practical effect is deplatforming of those initiatives.
The Radical Imagination Series requires fundraising for screening fees alone. These fees pay the content producers and are important if we’re serious about supporting non-corporate, independent, and alternative media-makers. Speaker honoraria, ASL translation, and childcare services all require money too.
Fundraising this alone is hard. Adding a rental fee to the tune of $60-$195 per event is prohibitive, particularly when an average season consists of 12 or so screenings. Keeping the series absolutely free for all participants is a non-negotiable aspect of it for me as any fee for service is a barrier for some. Add to this the fact that even renting space at the library involves a vetting process and an overall lack of available space and the cumulative effect of all this is a smothering of dissent and alternative voices.
Some might argue, as senior library staff have, that none of this is censorship and all they are trying to do is make the discussion around these films as inclusive and democratic as possible. I disagree. Like any other person, police officers are welcome to attend Radical Imagination screenings and discussions. What they are not welcome to do is intervene in discussions about the police as a social institution in society as formal representatives of that same institution while being given pride-of-place as featured speakers at these events.
For those who have been on the receiving end of racial profiling and other forms of violence, harassment, and surveillance at the hands of the police, having uniformed police officers in the room for a discussion about criticisms of and alternatives to policing can be intimidating, to say the least.
The police are also a powerful social institution able to mount their own events and widely celebrated in popular media. Why then do they need to be present at other events? What other groups enjoy this kind of privileged access?
Part of what makes the library’s actions so troubling in this instance is that in four-and-a-half years of political programming about issues from the climate emergency to art and activism, not once has the senior library staff seen fit to intervene in it. Over dozens of screening and events about reparations for slavery, Indigenous resurgence, direct action, alternative education, and so much more, never once has a library staff person told me that I had to include a representative from the “other side” as a featured speaker to present a “balanced perspective.”
I did not have to invite representatives from the fossil fuel industry when I screened This Changes Everything, I did not have to invite a men’s rights activist group to present when I screened Ovarian Psycos, and I did not have to invite a representative of death squads or the Mexican government when I screened A Place Called Chiapas.
So why now and why this issue? Why did it come from senior management at the library rather than through the channels I’ve followed for the past four-and-a-half years? Why, after the initial enthusiasm from frontline staff about my proposed programming, was I told that my professional expertise in these areas as an academic and as a community activist was no longer good enough to manage a serious, open, and fair discussion about issues relating to policing as an institution in our society? I asked these questions of the programming manager but received no answers. But I can speculate.
The Radical Imagination Film and Discussion Series is not dead. It will find another home and will continue to enliven imaginations and discussions about alternatives to our increasingly bankrupt and broken status quo.
But make no mistake, in the era of a resurgent far right and the so-called free speech wars, this is what censorship and deplatforming look like on a daily basis. Rather than the bogeyperson of the antifa activist refusing to allow far right hatemongers to organize others in a campaign of social violence against those groups they despise, it is the liberal, bureaucratic, plausibly deniable choking out of dissent and alternatives in the service of the status quo and the interests it represents that has been the most common face of censorship in a society like ours. It is a quiet, polite, and impersonal denial of the right to have difficult discussions in spaces not colonized by the powerful and their agents. I am sure senior library staff would never describe their intent in these terms, but the effect is the same. A chilling of critical conversation and debate. Omnipresent surveillance of any and all forums that offer a critique of dominant institutions and interests. We can bend to it and accommodate ourselves to these forms of unfreedom or we can resist and forge our own alternatives but we cannot do both.