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Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women Action Group – Day 3

December 18, 2010

On Saturday, September 25, Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women Action Group including collaborating artist, Leah Decter assembled with community members at aceartinc to coordinate the first of three actions in public space. The day unfolded like this…

Shortly before 12:00 p.m., SVAAWAG members met to establish a few last administrative details and set up the room to welcome participants in the action. As community members started to arrive, each individual was invited to sign in both as a means of sharing information to keep in touch, but also to confirm whether the person would be comfortable being photographed wearing one of the t-shirts and/or as a participant in the action. After a few introductory remarks about Showing Up, Speaking Out, SVAAWAG and how the project had come together so far, SVAAWAG members explained the planned action. First, participants would find the t-shirt with the statement that most resonated with them.

Next, making sure each person had a different t-shirt, participants would practice forming the human billboard by congregating in a line. Following a few practice line ups and turns, everyone divided into groups to travel to Polo Park shopping centre, where the intervention was scheduled to take place.

In the parking lot, the group did one more practice line up and turn, then synchronized watches and headed indoors through different routes to come together at the indoor action site at the correct moment.

Fully knowing that any type of disruption to expected consumerist behaviour could be grounds for removal from the not-public space of a shopping mall, we imagined scenarios that might have unfolded and prepared for them accordingly. We had a designated spokesperson who would handle questions and/or conversation with security guards and/or confrontational patrons, while others people handed out information to bystanders/passersby about the reality of violence against Aboriginal women, as well as information about how to be involved in ending violence.  In case our planned delivery of the action was shortened, we predetermined a strategy to maintain the integrity of the message if asked to leave the premises.

The designated time arrived and participants flowed into the central atrium of the mall right on time. They found their place in line and formed the message “NO MORE STOLEN SISTERS”. Reactions were varied with, on one hand people taking no interest whatsoever and passing right by, to people taking the opportunity to walk up to the participants and read the statements emblazoned on their t-shirts. Some conversation started to hum on the ground floor — mall patrons wondered who the people in the yellow shirts were, and why they were making a statement. Interestingly, a local museum had a display up in that area, and some people thought the action was a fashion show coordinated by the museum.  But that aside, from where I was standing, I overheard a few people assert understanding about what they were witnessing. This was great to note.

After almost two minutes, a security guard walked past. He spoke into his walkie-talkie, but did not interrupt the line. Before we knew it, three minutes has passed as planned, and the members of the human billboard dispersed into the crowd. At that moment, the security guard approached a few participants and reminded them that in order to do things inside of the mall they need to ask for permission. Would the mall have given permission, a participant asked?  The guard replied that’s for the people in Toronto to decide. Presumably, the people in Toronto are the owners of the mall.

Once outside in the parking lot again, participants talked about their experience being involved in the line. Many felt strong, exhilarated, and empowered. Some were amazed by the way time seemed to slow down when they knew they were on display and that others were watching them intently trying to make out the meaning of their action. Many information sheets were handed out and surely this would be the beginning of an important discussion for many people. The action worked and with two more planned, there was definitely a chance to get the word out even further.

Participants were welcomed back to aceartinc. for a snack and a chance to talk about the experience, some people took up this offer. Back at aceartinc. we continued to discuss the experience and learned that some people would be back next week Friday to participate again. We heard various accounts of things overheard and observed including a conversation between a man and a woman viewing the action from the 2nd floor of the mall’s atrium: the man demonstrated a lack of interest, the woman chided him and said “we should be applauding”, he mumbled in response, but with a tone that acknowledged she had made a good point.

The action was silent yet strong, assertive yet without being aggressive. There were opportunities for participants to be involved as individuals, and as a group; the same was true for witnesses. The visual impact was undeniable, and discussion was clearly launched.

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