Making a mountain out of a knoll hill

Arrested UBC students were—surprise—not protesting tuition or Israel, but rather a grassy knoll


Judging from recent dispatches from UBC and UofT, the latest trend in student protesting seems to be accusing police officers of excessive force and police brutality.

Late last month, Toronto students protesting hikes to residence fees were quick to cry wolf on the cops who removed them from an administrative building they were occupying after they verbally harassed and attempted to impede university employees. UBC students followed suit last Friday after a student was arrested for trying to stop fire fighters from putting out a bonfire deemed unsafe. Luckily, we live in the age of YouTube and anyone who has watched the UofT or UBC videos is likely to quickly conclude that there was no police brutality to be seen.


19 student arrested at bonfire protest (PLUS YouTube video of protest)

Update: UBC investigating mass student arrests

Arrests of 19 students “most disturbing”: UBC VP

The UofT students were voicing their concern about an increase in fees at one residence, although the slogans and rhetoric eventually opposed everything from Israel to UofT’s retail offerings. Nonetheless, increasing student fees in any form is a fine issue to protest as a student activist. The UBC students, on the other hand, aren’t getting arrested over tuition hikes or Israel or commercialization of their campus — the usual favorite protest targets. They’re getting bent out of shape over a small, grassy hill. A knoll. (And no, it has nothing to do with the grassy knoll in Dallas beloved of JFK assassination conspiracy theorists. So far as we know.)

I called my sister, who was a UBC student before transferring to SFU in January, to ask about this infamous grassy knoll. The conversation went something like this:

“Hey Cait. What do you know about this grassy knoll business?” I asked.
“What’s a grassy knoll?” Caitlin replied.
“You know. A little hill covered in grass. By the SUB building.”
“Oh yeah, I know that hill. Where people got arrested last week, right? It’s okay, I guess.”
“Have you ever seen people hanging out on it?”
“Yeah, a few. But the view of the old bus loop really sucks.”
“Isn’t that what UBC is redeveloping?”
“Yeah. That’s what everyone is always protesting. It’s pretty annoying. But the bus loop now is really awful. It’s grungy, and littered, and covered in old mildewed posters. Disgusting, really. They have to do something about it.”

Despite my sister’s nonchalance, the grassy knoll in question is a hypersensitive topic at UBC. The knoll has been the site of various demonstrations this year, including an awareness concert in October. Even the student union elections were fought on the issue.

The point of contention comes down to a redevelopment plan that would build an underground transit hub instead of the old (and reportedly “grungy”) bus loop that is no longer being used. The plan also includes steps to redesign the University Square area, including the grassy knoll. The intent of the new design is as follows, as described to the board of governors in November:
“• Develop a mixed-use, central core of the campus that will knit together the various parts of the campus, and importantly, the different groups on campus;
• Develop a Square that is an important, lively place that draws people to it throughout the day and evening;
• Create a stronger sense of place for the campus community; and
• Create a sense of arrival – an “entrance‟ or gateway – to the University, especially for transit users.”

All in all, this proposal sounds like a reasonable idea. But the protesters—according to my in depth Facebook research they are known as “knollsters”— are still chanting slogans about saving the knoll and green space on campus.

A clarification is in order. The proposal I quoted from above put forward a number of changes to the original development plan, including plans to rebuild the grassy knoll after construction. That’s right, after the building of a new underground bus loop (that will free up the current bus loop location to be used for other student space) they are going to recreate the knoll. And yet, the protests rage on.

Green space is of course very important. But you’d be hard up to find too many UBCers who would complain about the access to green space on their campus. The knollsters perhaps need to take a field trip to, say, the University of Lethbridge with its concrete buildings or an urban campus like Concordia University where “campus” buildings are distributed throughout downtown Montreal. UBC, on the other hand, is located on a picturesque point, surrounded by ocean, with Wreck Beach walking distance from most classrooms, cut off from the city by the Pacific Rim Park where Vancouverites from all neighbourhoods flock to bike and run. And students are protesting the loss—correction, the temporary loss—of a small mound of earth and grass? Seriously?

I’m as confused as you. My best guess at the knollsters’ are as confused as the UofT protesters as to whether they are complaining about a knoll or fees or the administration or Israel. Or everything. Or nothing. A quote published in the UBC student paper from a performer in the October awareness concert at the grassy knoll sums it up best:

“Stick it to the man. We don’t know who the man is. But it’s the man. Play music. It’s a concert.”


Making a mountain out of a knoll hill

  1. HA. This is a funny, Erin. Nice job.

  2. I won’t go into detail on this issue in part because I know you can find the information out there- on the internet, in the Ubyssey, wherever. Furthermore, I know anything I write will probably be discounted or (rightfully) questioned. However, I feel like I need to put this out there, to whoever is reading this article: it is inaccurate. The information is either skewed or just wrong. Please, question everything you read! Yes, even this! The protest was not about the knoll- the knoll was a symbol. The arrests were not because of the fire- nobody was arrested until hours after the fire had been put out. Again, please, I urge you, question!

  3. This article isn’t well researched. Case in point, calling the Student Union Building the, “SUB building” is like calling an Automatic Banking Machine an “ABM machine”. It just makes you sound like an fool who doesn’t know what they are talking about. Try again next time.

  4. to continue that point… I’m not defending the students, but I’ll bet the author of this article is as much of a bandwagonner as any of the students who are only slightly less ignorant.

  5. Umm, does anybody out there have any actual criticisms to make of this article aside from ad hominem attacks and accusations of inaccuracy without any supporting evidence? (Spelling counts too!)

  6. There are a significant number of problems with this story, which is really a shame, since Maclean’s On Campus is generally the best place to go for stories about what’s going on in universities.

    Erin Millar writes about the proposal that went to the UBC Board of Governors and explains that the development proposal for the area included a plan to rebuild the knoll, so that the old bus loop could be used for more student space. This is wrong, quite simply.

    The University Square development at UBC includes plans for a ‘mixed-use’ development. Some student space, some alumni space, some administrative space, and some market retail space. While students were using the knoll as a symbol of their protests, they were protesting the seemingly unchecked commercialization of the campus by the university.

    The fire that was at the heart of the protests was put out, and according to students present, the 19 arrests were made about two hours later.

    While it’s cute that Millar can interview her now-SFU-student sister about these events, it’s irrelevant, and adds to a pedantic and pandering tone throughout the piece that’s quite simply not acceptable.

  7. Thanks for the actual criticisms, Kevin!

    I don’t agree with your reading of the proposal. Here’s the specific recommendations that I think are relevant:

    • retain more of the existing character of the landscaping already in place, most significantly through the re-creation of the grassy knoll
    • provide for more indoor and outdoor social space

    I meant to post the link to the document in the article. Sorry about that. For anyone who wants it, here it is: http://www.ubc.ca/bulletins/usquare.pdf

    I also don’t agree that I was incorrect in writing that more student space was part of the redevelopment proposal. It is, clearly. And I mentioned that the proposal also included mixed use buildings.

    Finally, I wasn’t only trying to be cute interviewing my sister. Rather, I think it is totally relevant to include the opinion of the average student. If Cait’s comments are too cute for readers’ liking, check out this letter to the Ubyssey.

    “The silent majority of students recognize that their interests are indeed served by a plan that will improve transit efficiency, add badly needed capacity to a choked on-campus housing market, and improve the sadly lacking retail choices on campus. That same silent majority recognizes the value of a respect for the rule of law and the good men and women who enforce it. They thankfully will have very little sympathy for the protesters who thought it would be appropriate to interfere with firefighters’ doing the job they were trained to do. Until this weekend, “Trek Park” was little more than a nuisance to most students. Now it is fast becoming a symbol for the kind of unacceptable chaos and mob rule that one hears about at certain other universities.”
    Entire letter here: http://www.ubyssey.ca/?p=2981#comment-2711

  8. Either the arrests were valid or they weren’t. I don’t see how a TWO HOUR delay invalidates this. Should the police only arrest people when in the act?

    Sir, I’m deeply sorry but the perpertrators broke into your house yesterday and we weren’t here to see it, and it has been well over two hours, so we can’t do anything about it.

  9. UBC has already developed some of the university entrance area near the SUB–it’s the Strangway building, which was thrown together, and then featured in the CBC as a sick building. The new food outlets on campus are generally of poor quality: you used to be able to get a decent breakfast in the SUB, but the last time I was there, it was more or less A&W-style fare. Not to be unkind, but the UBC administration is just too worked up about money.

    Having been banned from main campus for noticing the ripoffs at the main UBC Bookstore (requiring students to buy texts not in significant use in courses qualifies as fraud in my opinion), I have little respect for UBC methods. It is a corporation, not a public university. It treats foreign students in a dirty way, practising daylight robbery with the LPI and trash first-year English courses.

    No doubt the reporter thinks that she is only representing what a lot of students feel about this story, and certainly she is free to express her point of view. However, UBC is known for–“We had to destroy it in order to save it”–I am reminded of the rose garden. How about the UBC farm? I suppose it will look better as a condo site.

    More is known about the practices of UBC than is worth mentioning right now. The truth might come out some day.

  10. Thank you Erin! This is the fifth trenchant article I’ve read on these protets – and contrary to what those UBC yahoos may think, the world doesn’t really give a damn about what they think. The vast majority of the public either don’t care (fair enough) or are laughing at the moronic sheep-like mentality of the students. Of course, when I mean sheep, I don’t mean docile – I mean that they will follow counterculture like sheep, because that’s just what university students are supposed to do! Except that counterculture is culture nowadays. I’ve spent most of the past couple of days rolling with hilarity on the floor at some of the complaints about the treatment the students got in jail – water from the sink, slightly rude policemen, baloney sandwiches – sacre bleu! What is the world coming to? These students need a good tasering, or perhaps a cold shower and a reality check. Nevertheless, they need to realize that the world has bigger fish to fry. Their pathetic protest was not police brutality at all, but rather the first reaction of arts students who never played contact sports when they were younger. Police brutality is now a trendy thing to say, but (thankfully) not the norm.

  11. For a more legible PDF of what went to Board in November, try http://pdf.lbs.ubc.ca/lbs/boardreports/2007/november/5.1-University_Square_Above-Ground_Program_(revised_Board1).pdf

    Consultations in the fall established that there was very little desire for residential or general commercial space in this area. If we equate responses of Strongly Disagree (1) through Strongly Agree (5) with grades of 0, 25, 50, 75, and 100%, neither broke 20%. The knoll was in the 80s, and food retail passed (telling me the survey wasn’t flooded with knee-jerk anti-commercial sentiment). A survey several years ago identified the knoll as the single most popular piece of open space on campus. I personally view the site as the worst possible location on campus for housing — atop a bus terminal with 60000 boardings + unboardings per day, next to the student pub, and half a block downwind of Chemistry. My issues with the bus terminal are many, and generally technical, so you don’t get them here.

    The November approval basically split the difference between what had been planned and what the community wanted (which were very different). I recall quoting the great philosopher Jon Bon Jovi: “Ah, we’re halfway there…”

    That’s where the issue came from, but, for clarity, it looks like most of those arrested were sitting around a police car that contained an arrestee (or in a few cases innocent bystanders or people who didn’t back up quickly enough). They were arrested protesting the arrest of someone arrested impeding the extinguishing of a fire that was set toward the end of an event held protesting a development project that would, amongst other things, remove and replace the knoll. The knoll’s part in this may be mainly to grab attention, as plenty of people do give an excrement about it.

    I’m hopful the AMS’ SUB renovation/replacement plan will take the project over and address the assorted concerns.

    (Note: I was not there for any of the protest or arrests, and I constitute 1/21st of the Man).

  12. I have little sympathy for people who claim to speak for an hypothetical “silent majority”. In a system loosely based on democratic structures and in the media age, it is the responsability for any “silent majority” to, precisely, stop being silent. That’s the only way I saw anyone’s rights or opinions being taken into account.

    But that aside, did you try to talk to representatives of the AMS? I know it’s difficult to find and interview (at a distance) student protesters when they are not regrouped in any official organization, however if you say the student union was indeed concerned about the question, it wouldn’t have been difficult to get their comments.

  13. The Fire Hydrant is Dareen Peets … a UBC Board of Governor member who has ambitions of one day being a bigwig politician … sad he got elected by pushing around a fire hydrant …

    if you go to the Ubyssey, March 28th, you will see mention that he has admitted to doing some questionable things in his bid to be elected to public office …

    needless to say we UBC students are sick and tired of the silly things the student politicians do on our campus …

    Why don’t we just elect farm animals! they are smarter and better behaved then the student politicians we presently have here at UBC.

  14. Peter Butler, I have no idea who you are but you clearly don’t know Darren at all. He is one of the least politically ambitious people I have ever met.

  15. The only reason that the redesigned plans include a grassy knoll and significantly more student-oriented space is because of petitions and protests organized by the same individuals who were at the concert last Friday. The reason that some are continuing to protest is because of a poorly designed and overpriced underground bus loop that would be the reason they tear down the knoll. The new above ground plans are certainly better, but not as good as they could be. The SUB renew will help. The underground bus loop is just a disaster though – claustrophobic, expensive, unsafe, unable to incorporate an expanded skytrain or trolly buses, and generally poorly thought through. That is what students have been trying to fight now, in favour of a less expensive and more sustainable transportation plan. The motivation behind the bus loop is not increased ridership but freeing up land for development.

  16. It has occurred to me in the last few days that the branding of certain protest efforts has failed to establish some of the significance of these efforts. The “small mound of dirt and grass” has become a symbolic fixture for environmentalist positions and has attracted a narrow scope of understanding to the issues involved by both many supporters and writers like Erin Millar. It is a critical opinion, one that emphasizes the “temporary loss” and I applaud this. I also applaud Steven Klein’s response that the existence of this rebuilding promise (see the UBC B. of G. report 5.1 from November 2007, links above in F. Peets post) only exists because of these efforts. Instead of focusing on the environmental, or symbolic fixation of any Knoll politics, expand the problem to one of a communicative short-circuit between students and administration. “The” problem is much larger than a mound, Erin. A centralized building with prolonged disruptive effects on campus activity due to construction needs both authoritative action – and appropriate consultation. The ineffectively branded positions of certain “knollsters” is that the “student” part of the consultation process has been patronizing and token. 250, 350 feedback forms were review during the “consultation process” that has students, alumni, architects, visitors and UBC residents who work off campus in mind. Keep in mind that there are nearly 40 000 students on campus at any time for eight months of the year. The point of debate is relatively straightforward: that students – whether they be 4 year undergraduates funneled out at an increasing profit margin since the near-doubling of tuition in the past 6 years or graduates deeply invested in the integration of administrative policies for job placements and career growth – have are the majority of people on campus and have been spoken for as a herd of animals. The recent arrests and lack of administration response has indeed confused and obscured many important issues in this debate. But the sand that has been kicked up has also unveiled a terrifying alliance between RCMP and UBC “Security” that threatens the voices of peaceful students. There are dozens of bonfires extinguished on the beaches around UBC every warm night. There are never 20 arrests. The resort to representing the events as dramatization and using the selective quotation (“play music”) instead of journalistic research into what victims of the events such as Steph Ratjen or Nate Crompton have written and published over the past two years. For example, read their student-initiative newspaper called “The Knoll” to get a sense of the impossible odds facing those opposed to increased development to have their voices heard.
    On a particular note, the resort to universalizing “students” is something that many sides of this issue utilize. I am skeptical of it, yet I use it myself when I write of “the students” as grossly under-consulted. But there is no universal “student opinion.” There are however, those committed to communicating and listening to the issue and arriving at decisions for actions that better reflect the interests of the community.
    A clarification is indeed in order: the knoll or the small mound of grass is only a symbolic tool used by some committed, charitable, yet overworked and economically stressed students to get attention from other students, journalists, media networks and especially the UBC Board of Governors and administration. Unfortunately they often get the attention of under researched (in depth Facebook research?) opinion pieces and fire hoses directed at their bodies, their faces and ultimately their voices.
    I would like to repeat a piece that exemplifies a different but useful reading of the protest, posted by Kevin:
    “The University Square development at UBC includes plans for a ‘mixed-use’ development. Some student space, some alumni space, some administrative space, and some market retail space. While students were using the knoll as a symbol of their protests, they were protesting the seemingly unchecked commercialization of the campus by the university.

    The fire that was at the heart of the protests was put out, and according to students present, the 19 arrests were made about two hours later.”
    The post still begs the question of what “seemingly unchecked commercialization” means to different individuals or group interests. But, it still carefully locates the Knoll events as a symbolic means of communication. I would instead focus an understanding of these events on an inability for students to usefully communicate their anxieties to the mysterious powers of UBC via an ineffective student council voted for by less than 30% of the student population. It might be worthwhile to point out that some might see a connection between increased tuition prices, even campus food prices, and the time available for student to care about campus activity. Already forced to rush degrees due to high costs of rental properties, student housing, and inconvenient loan systems, tuition increases also might have effects on the individual student’s ability to think about, research, and be involved in campus political communication. The Knoll, as a symbol for student consultation and interests – not particularly commercialization but at least related to this point – is about understanding on campus itself. So, to understand the issue, maybe taking students at their published words more than the rhetoric or slogans, might be more useful in this series of issues.
    I am still very confused about this series of issues, but I have one question to put to discussion. Millar says that students should take a field trip to Lethbridge to feel grateful for the aesthetic or environmental situation at Point Grey. What student today has the time to make such a field trip? What student today has the time to connect with other students, about existence on campus? Is Facebook an answer to increasingly economically burdened students to develop a sense of solidarity or appreciation? Or is it another bandage on a the cuts made to the possible lifestyles of communication, of political involvement, of the possibility of institutional resistance by the checkpoint of biopower (i.e. marching and sit ins), by endorsing a way of communication that separates more than it connects? If I can make a point in summation: Could a student protest about the inability to effectively protest be any more urgent? Let us focus on the point about developing campus communications, perhaps such as weekly discussions between administration and students-at-large or other innovative ways of breaching the short-circuit I have hypothesized, and “Knollsters” have played with.

    On a side note.
    Another Steven writes:
    “These students need a good tasering, or perhaps a cold shower and a reality check. Nevertheless, they need to realize that the world has bigger fish to fry. Their pathetic protest was not police brutality at all, but rather the first reaction of arts students who never played contact sports when they were younger. Police brutality is now a trendy thing to say, but (thankfully) not the norm.”
    First, the last good tasering or reality check in most people’s memory ended in death at the Vancouver airport. Second, seeing as you claim to know how childhood contact sports instills maybe obedience or a “cold shower” effect on students maybe you think about it and develop a position. You could probably publish a developmental psychology book on a thesis like that. I would just like to see how your friends react when you have your face held in a puddle by RCMP officers armed with pistols. Hold your head underwater for a moment and try explaining yourself then. I understand that you might think that these issues have been a wasteful amount of noise and complaining. Just be please be receptive that these students might think that they have an equally useful voice as you do, and would like to hear you out, and for you to think about the issue more, rather than hyperbolize your own brand of raising children. Just make sure you lift your head out of the water before you breathe.

  17. I’m not meaning to pick on Erin Millar, but this is the second article she’s written in a month that targets activism on campus. This article takes the Knoll protesters and the U of T protesters to task because it represents the issues of the protests to be unimportant, or convoluted or both. What if this same lens of assessment was turned back on the article itself? What is the positioning of the article in relation to students? There is a political statement in the editorial decision to run these articles, and in the writing.

    Within the framework of questioning this article, its omissions make sense. The article makes broad generalizations about the motivations and demands of the protesters, but neglects to cite *anything* from the or pens of the protesters as proof. The UBC protesters issued a press release that is readily available online here: http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=271 where Students for a Democratic Society UBC takes credit for the demonstration in question. There are even media contact spokespersons listed. Instead of contacting these organizers for an interview, Millar contacted her sister for what amounts to anecdotal evidence of… student apathy. I talked to my brother in Los Angeles yesterday and he said the Ducks are going to take the Stanley cup this year. He works at their ice rink! So the word is in, I’m placing my bets.

    The article *does* list the official plans of the administration in bullet form, so at least one interest on campus got representation in this article. The U of T protest though? In thirty seconds I found their demands online:

    1) To be granted a meeting with President David Naylor;
    2) To have the proposed fee increase removed from the University Affairs Board meeting, scheduled to take place on March 25; and
    3) To be given 15 minutes at the University Affairs Board meeting for a presentation and discussion on broader issues of access to education and the impacts of high tuition upon students, families and communities.

    I did not, however, find them in this article.

    I thought this site was supposed to represent the happenings on campus from a student perspective; the (official / public) views of administration are well represented already.

  18. I don’t know much about the UBC protest, honestly. Maybe it was more focused than the U of T one. But to respond to Ivan’s post, you found -one- version of students’ demands on-line. According to an entirely different set of students, the protest is about residency fees at Woodsworth College. According to another set of students, it’s about the expansion of a Tim Horton’s on campus. And then there’s another version, and another version….

    Maybe the UBC protest was coherent. It might very well have been, other issues aside. But I sympathize with the U of T administration on this. You can’t meet with students whose sole area of agreement is that they’ve agreed to be loud together. There are accusations and counter-accusations among the students present about who hijacked who’s protest, but this does illustrate the problems inherent in a noisy mob insisting on their right to address the powers-that-be. Structured student representation does, at least, impose structure. There are times when a more grass roots approach to activism is necessary and needs to be heard, but you also can’t hear absolutely anyone and everyone on every single issue. The U of T protest had to be ignored, and couldn’t have been dealt with otherwise, not because the issues are unimportant, but because the protesters themselves couldn’t sort out what they were there for or even, by implication, who was really leading them.

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