29 November 2017

Should Jolovan Wham have held a protest in a train?

On 3 June 2017, Kirsten Han announced that her fellow activist Jolovan Wham had organised a protest in a Singapore Mass Rapid Transit train. Han reposted on her Facebook a series of photographs from Wham's personal page, showing Wham and eight others sitting blindfolded in a train carriage, holding up the recently published 1987: Singapore’s Marxist Conspiracy 30 Years On, with homemade posters stuck on the walls behind them. While Wham was tagged by Han, his collaborators and co-conspirators are instantly recognisable as activists of a certain bent in Singapore. Everyone knows who they are, but their names will not be mentioned here.

On the morning of 3 June 2017 while Kirsten Han was likely involved in the coordination of the dissemination of the news of the protest, if not the protest itself, I was attending in my personal capacity, as I note were some other members of the Community Action Network, the Singapore Heritage Society 30th anniversary lecture by Prof Kwok Kian-woon at the Singapore Management University.

I had no prior knowledge of the protest. I was not involved in its conception, deliberation, or execution. I was not invited to be part of it. If invited, I would have told them it was a stupid idea that would get them thrown in jail, whether they did it in Singapore, New York, or London.

Has no one in the world held a protest inside a train?

If I had known about their plans, I would have dissuaded Jolovan Wham, taking the chance that Wham and his compatriots and collaborators would listen to my reasonable, reality-based analysis.

I would have pointed them to Google and Instagram to show that no one in the world has apparently held a protest inside a train, not even a silent sit-in protest like they were considering. I would have pointed to Google and Instagram to show that where protests have been organised, they have never taken place within a train carriage or very rarely, within station premises. The only instance I could find was in San Francisco, where the Bay Area Rapid Transit took extreme measures and brought out the riot squad to deal with radical protesters who staged a demonstration at the platforms of 4 stations.

I would have pointed to Google and Instagram again, to show that where people have taken selfies of themselves with political banners inside a train, it was because they were on the way to a protest venue and simply were using the subway. Like these people right here.

Yes, there are people who get talky and enthusiastic on the way to a protest venue or remain angry on the way home from a protest and continue to chant and sing, but no there are no people who actually hold a protest in a train.

It's actually stupidly dangerous to hold a protest in a train

Trump protesters may carry placards onto the train and take selfies signalling the virtue of their indignation, but everyone knows that protests don't happen in a train because it's a metal can with lots of squishy human bodies hurtling at high speeds in a narrow tunnel. New Yorkers are as opinionated as there are shades of political stands to take, but even they understand you don't want a protest to cause a counter-protest and a riot on a speeding train.

And actually prohibited in every transport regime

A brash New Yorker would've pointed Wham to Google up the New York transport authority by-laws, which govern both rail and bus travel. In particular, the section on disorderly conduct that caters specifically to would-be protesters and rioters: "No person on or in any facility or conveyance shall) conduct himself or herself in any manner which may cause or tend to cause annoyance, alarm or inconvenience to a reasonable person or create a breach of the peace".

Transport authority by-laws in London contain similar Public Order provisions but also prohibit unauthorised installation and carrying of political posters and banners, sometimes classifying it as vandalism, sometimes as material likely to cause annoyance to people in the carriage. It's the same provisos with Australia's Public Transport Authority.

But let's be more concrete. If Jolovan Wham's protest were to be held in freewheeling and politically fractious Hong Kong, his entourage would have been in breach of several MTR by-laws, such as:

Section 32. No person shall, unless authorized in writing by the Corporation-
(a) post, stick, paint or write or cause to be posted, stuck, painted or written any placard, bill, advertisement or any other matter [Yup, that includes printing out posters and sticking them on the walls and windows of the train carriage]

Section 25. No person shall conduct himself on any train or in any part of the railway premises so as to cause a nuisance or annoyance to other passengers. [i.e. the standard Public Order provision, to be used against protesting in a train]

Section 28G. No person whose dress or clothing is in a condition liable to soil or injure the dress or clothing or personal effects of any other person in or upon a railway premises shall enter or attempt to enter a train or a railway premises unless an official in his absolute discretion grants permission to such a person. [Of course blindfolding yourself in a train is likely to pose a danger to yourself and other passengers]

Plausible deniability?

Supporters of Wham and his collaborators had embarked months ago on a mythologising mission to turn him into a groundbreaking activist whose creativity knows no bounds. The argument goes: Where else in the world could anyone think of protesting by blindfolding themselves and reading a book?

Let's start with the anti-Trump movement and PETA, both groups whose tactics Mr Wham may be well aware of. There is nothing creative about wearing a blindfold as a form of protest. It is depressingly common and unimaginatively figurative.

Even more here

Blindfolded and gagged next to political posters
But let us assume that Wham and his friends are the smartest activists we can find in Singapore. Let's assume this was plausible deniability at work: You may say I broke the law in protesting in a train, but what I did doesn't look like a protest unless you Googled similar photos. You may infer that was a protest, but I'm saying it's just me blindfolding myself while I read a book. In what permutation of this imaginary reality would Wham's friends start posting visual evidence on Facebook admitting that he had indeed carried out a protest?

These are considerations that Jolovan and his collaborators could have pondered on before they went ahead with their train protest: Why are there basic, near universal regulations against protesting in trains? Why haven't fiercer, more radical and courageous activists in the West violated these regulations? Can a cause be served by breaking the law unnecessarily?

In his eagerness to show solidarity, Wham has done something that the innocent victims of Operation Coldstore never did: willfully and clumsily broken the law. That would be a self-defeating exercise in reminding the public of the unfinished business of 1987 and the need for the state to embark on a course to open its records on this affair.


Anonymous said...

Section 1050.6, clause c:

Except as expressly permitted in this subdivision, no person shall engage in any nontransit uses upon any facility or conveyance. Nontransit uses are noncommercial activities that are not directly related to the use of a facility or conveyance for transportation. The following nontransit uses are permitted by the Authority, provided they do not impede transit activities and they are conducted in accordance with these rules: public speaking; campaigning; leafletting or distribution of written noncommercial materials; activities intended to encourage and facilitate voter registration; artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations; solicitation for religious or political causes; solicitation for charities that: (1) have been licensed for any public solicitation within the preceding 12 months by the Commissioner of Social Services of the City of New York under section 21-111 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York or any successor provision; (2) are duly registered as charitable organizations with the Attorney General of New York under section 172 of the New York Executive Law or any successor provision; or, (3) are exempt from Federal income tax under section 501(c)(3) of the United States Internal Revenue Code or any successor provision. Solicitors for such charities shall provide, upon request, evidence that such charity meets one of the preceding qualifications.

From the URL you linked http://web.mta.info/nyct/rules/rules.htm#disorderly

akikonomu said...

Dear Anonymous, thank you for checking out the URL I provided in my blog post.

Since you have copypasted an entire chunk of text, my readers and I would ask what's your point, if there's one.

But assuming I am generous, let me then assume you have just insisted Wham's protest does not contravene section 1050.6(c) and you are either lack the competence or will to prove it, aside from thinking the answer lies within the text.

Let me then go through every relevant phrase for you.

"public speaking" - Wham held a silent protest. Clause does not apply to him.

"campaigning" - in US law, refers to election campaigning.

"leafletting or distribution of written noncommercial materials" - Wham did not distribute pamphlets, he stuck them on the carriage walls and windows

"artistic performances, including the acceptance of donations" - as openly confirmed by Kirsten Han, it was a protest and not a demonstration or a performance. In transport regulation across major cities, this specifically applies to busking. Staging a performance act would invite commonsense reactions such as this https://www.standard.co.uk/news/crime/police-break-up-fullyfledged-tube-train-rave-with-mc-and-sound-system-on-bakerloo-line-a3512766.html or this http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-42202090

Further in transport regulation across major cities, unauthorised performances are not allowed. You can refer to the London rail by-laws here: https://tfl.gov.uk/cdn/static/cms/documents/railway-byelaws.pdf or the HK rail by-laws as well on the URL provided in my post.

"solicitation for religious or political causes" - Solicitation in law means fundraising. Wham was protesting for a political cause, not fundraising for a political cause.

Anonymous said...

SG50 committee co-chairman Phillip Jeyaretnam, for example, was quick to point out that it is critical to engage the cynics in the celebrations.

"Singapore belongs to everybody. It belongs to the cynics, the critics, the dissenters and the exiles just as much as it belongs to the businessmen or the people in government," says the lawyer and writer who is a son of the late prominent opposition MP, J.B. Jeyaretnam.


Looks like somebody didn't get the memo.

Anonymous said...

There are actually famous cases of people who held protests on bus/ train/ subway/ tube carriages, ranging from protests against apartheid on South African Railways to more mundane causes such as eating on London tubes. Check out #ieatontubes. In some cases, they are against the regulations e.g. apartheid/ racial segregation, but in others, they're not e.g. the protest on London Tubes.

We could also argue if silent protest is a form of public speaking but that's just unnecessary pedantry.

Of course, the sites of protest are of political relevance in such cases, and not in the case of Wham's protest, which I agree with you is just stupid and attention seeking.

Unknown said...

Free-Speech Activism Takes A Beating In Singapore: The Amos Yee Knock-On Effect

What does Amos Yee’s Sept. appellate affirmation of asylum in the States have to do with a rash of ongoing criminal investigations/charges of late in Singapore against peaceable remonstrations? — everything!

In late Sept., through a fortunate stroke of serendipity, the Singapore teenage hellion Amos Yee prevailed over DHS’s appeal (Dept. of Homeland Security). This happens after DHS’s acting Secretary Elaine Duke decided against further appealing the ill-conceived asylum granted to Amos in late March by Immigration Judge Cole; acting Secretary Elaine Duke temporarily assumed DHS’s top job as of July when then DHS Secretary John Kelly, a 4-star Marine General, acceded to the post of White House Chief of Staff. In a word, the Amos’ ‘final win’ is a black swan event, utterly unanticipated by the Singapore gov. This came about because of the near total disarray in the Trump Admin whose various key executive departments are literally at sixes and sevens with the Oval Office, in particular the DOJ which in effect OK’d Amos’ asylum bid in late September. (The Dept. of Justice is headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions whom President Trump has bruited about wanting him fired, on more than one occasion.) [ https://lester978.wordpress.com/2017/10/23/how-amos-yee-beat-the-u-s-asylum-system-the-unfinished-story-of-a-teen-brat-from-singapore/ ]