The thing I took away from Toronto's version of Buy Nothing Day on November 25 is, don't always listen to the folks trying to sell it to you.
Started in 1992 by Vancouver-based Adbusters, Buy Nothing Day is timed to coincide with Black Friday in the States (their version of Boxing Day), and has a mandate of slowing the hyper-consumerism of our world, even if for one single day.
Luke Madonia, the local ringleader, arrives 25 minutes late for his own action, advertised as a Zombie Walk, an anti-shopping trek through the Eaton Centre. While it's always good to take a step back from the hustle that defines our city, it sucks when those 25 minutes allow mall security - notified by Madonia in advance of his plans - to call for police backup, which arrives as yellow-jacketed bicycle cops standing guard at the mall doors.
What the assembled 25 protestors lack in timeliness, they try to make up for in show business. After a brief huddle, a couple of young women don Phantom masks, while others pull out what must have been leftover Halloween face paint to make themselves look like zombies.
As shoppers and bystanders stare, cop #1626 moves in to ask the zombies about their plans. Madonia says he intends to go through the Eaton Centre to tell people that over-consumption affects everyone because of globalization. The cop says that's okay as long as they don't impede traffic, oblivious to eight fellow officers blocking the three easterly doors. After consulting with mall security, though, he changes his mind to say they're not welcome in the mall. It's private property. Move along.
In her 2000 treatise No Logo, Naomi Klein wrote that culture jammers were "drawn to the world of marketing like moths to a flame." Madonia, a George Brown marketing student, fits the description. But the zombies' leafletting at Yonge and Dundas isn't making much of a pitch, and occasional cries of "Buy Nothing Day" are being drowned out by Preacher Man standing on the southwest corner. God doesn't buy their message.
They next head over to Dundas station to take the train up to Yorkville, a plan quickly derailed by a trailing cop who says they can't protest underground. They turn quietly and go up Yonge Street, attended by seven cops who creep alongside on bikes and a big-ass GMC Sonoma police van.
Along the way, one of the activists hands a flyer to a couple at a hot dog stand, asking them not to buy. I resist telling her that this is a little misguided. If she wants people to starve, World Vision is holding the 30 Hour Famine next February.
The half-hour trek continues along Bloor west to Bay, reaching Yorkville at 5:20 pm. There, next to the Rock, the group uses yellow caution tape to section off a part of the path leading from Bloor to Cumberland, and activists gather inside for a volleyball game.
There I find out a bit more about the participants. Four are grade 9 University of Toronto Schools students who found out about this through the culture jammers link on Adbusters. They join as a requirement of a civic studies course. (Four sets of parents excused them from math class so they could take part in the Zombie Walk).
It's clear from talking to these jammers that the worst any one of them will do is not be home in time for dinner. Yet all seven bike cops are still here crowding the Cumberland sidewalk beside the police van. One of the cops - he wants to be called Murphy - jokes that he wants to know which kid would be the first to cry if he or she got nothing underneath the Christmas tree this year. I ask another cop if the heavy police presence is necessary. He asks, "Well, weren't you expecting more people?" "Yes," I say. "Well, there you go." As for the van, he says it's there whenever there's a "potential" for civil disobedience. Not much chance for that with everyone gathered around a volleyball.
Madonia tells me what he accomplished today. He says that in some small way they've spread the message that over-consumption is bad. I ask him as a marketing student what could have been improved. More concise messaging, he says, and better planning and organization. No kidding. Maybe more education and less spectacle. A woman comes by to argue that Madonia should protest companies and not consumers.
I'm put off the fact that he asks me not to write that while the group walked up chilly Yonge Street, he and a couple of buddies drove to Yorkville to bring "all the other stuff," that stuff being a roll of yellow tape and a volleyball.
By now it's 6 pm, and I'm hungry. I'm having trouble buying this message. Instead, I buy dinner for my folks and myself at Ginger on Yonge Street and go home.