City officials say they’re taking direction from Hamilton police on the issue, but police say that’s not the case. Whatever its origins, the move is a “very controversial interpretation of hate speech,” said Margaret Kohn, a professor of political science and expert in urban social justice issues at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus.
“This seems like a constitutional lawsuit waiting to happen,” she said.
Generally, Kohn said, for a symbol to be considered hate speech, it has to somehow target an identifiable group.
“That seems to not be the case with the anarchist symbol,” she said.
The issue arose back in early March, after a masked mob that dubbed itself “The Ungovernables” caused $100,000 in damage during a vandalism spree on Locke Street. Days later, The Tower — the city’s local anarchist social centre at Cannon Street East near Victoria Avenue North — was also vandalized.
The building’s front window was smashed, and afterward, The Tower covered it up with plywood that was painted with the circle A anarchy symbol.
City spokesperson Marie Fitzpatrick told CBC News that on March 16, the city started a bylaw investigation into the symbol being displayed on the wood covering the windows.
“The anarchist symbol is considered hate material by the City of Hamilton and Hamilton Police Services and as such, must be removed,” Fitzpatrick said in an email.
Not a hate crime, police say
The city then issued a property standards order to remove it. Fitzpatrick said the building’s tenant confirmed they got the order, which was “complied with” on March 26.
The Tower did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Fitzpatrick told CBC News that the Hamilton police hate crime unit provides the city with a list of hate symbols — but Const. Jerome Stewart said police do not classify the anarchy symbol as problematic.
“It does not meet the threshold of a hate crime,” he said. “To the best of our knowledge, it is classified as an extreme left sign.
“So I don’t know where the direction came that Hamilton police have identified it as a hate crime sign, because as per our hate crime co-ordinator, that is not the case.”
Fitzpatrick could not immediately explain the discrepancy.
Princewill Ogban, the head of Hamilton’s new anti-racism centre, told CBC News he’s never really heard of the anarchy symbol being classified as hate material. He did point to one instance in California where a specific anarchist group was linked to white nationalism, but said that group was essentially an outlier.
“Most anarchy groups in the past have been seen as anti-racist or anti-hate,” he said. “They are pro-people and anti-government.”
Symbol’s origins are complicated
Kohn said it’s difficult to link the symbol to any specific message, as anarchy can refer to “diverse, multiple groups with different aspirations.”
“The anarchist symbol has a complicated and diffuse set of attachments,” she said.
According to Infoshop.org — an online project run by a collective of anarchists, anti-authoritarians and socialists — the origins of the circle A aren’t completely clear.
The symbol is linked to the punk rock movement of the 1970s, but the group says its usage goes back much further, pointing to research that shows it was used by a group called Jeunesse Libertaire in 1964, and was spotted on the helmet of an anarchist militia member in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.
The earliest known origins of the symbol link back to the works of philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in the 1800s, with the letter A, which represents anarchy, written with the letter O, which represents order.
“Today the circled-A is one of the most successful images in the whole field of political symbolizing,” the group says.