Making a mountain out of a knoll hill - Macleans.ca

Making a mountain out of a knoll hill

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

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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.

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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.”