After a relatively quiet summer so far, mass student protests against a planned tuition increase in Quebec are set to resume in August. For one professor, that means a return to a familar routine: dressing up as a panda, taking to the Montreal streets, and perhaps hugging a few cops.
Meet Anarchopanda, the cute creature with an anarchist attitude that is the brainchild of Julien Villeneuve, a philosophy professor at the Collège de Maisonneuve. Since Mr. Villeneuve's first appeared in costume, in May, Anarchopanda has become the unofficial symbol of the Canadian province's anti-tuition movement, complete with his own tribute song. (Sample lyrics, translated from the French: "Friend or foe, everyone has a right to your cuddles/they'll see—anarchy can be soft and sweet in your arms.")
The 34-year-old Mr. Villeneuve says being an icon, however, is not his alter ego's goal.
When the demonstrations started, in February, Mr. Villeneuve organized a group of faculty members to show their support. They wore vests that identified them as professors in the hope that the police would be less likely to crack down on demonstrators if, as he put it, a "few people with gray hair" were in the crowd.
But after several months filled with pepper spray and escalating confrontations, "it was hard to find profs crazy enough to do it," he says. And when a police stun grenade was blamed for badly injuring a student protester in the eye, Mr. Villeneuve decided to change tactics.
Resurrecting an idea he'd had when he was a student activist, the academic purchased a $200 panda outfit from eBay China. (A Care Bear costume was rejected because it didn't seem sturdy enough.) Since then he has appeared at dozens of protests, often standing on the frontline facing a wall of police officers in riot gear. "Police don't know how to react when they're charging a line of students and they see a panda," he says.
Mr. Villeneuve is quick to laugh at the absurdity of his idea. "It's kind of taken on a life of its own," he says. "It's weird and crazy."
But he is serious about the student movement. It involves bigger issues, he says, than just the cost of college, like social inequity, the mismanagement of public funds, and "a sense that it's always the same people who are winning and always the same people who are losing" in the economy.
He emphasizes that despite Anarchopanda's cult-like status, if the students derail the provincial government's plan to raise fees, he'll dump the character and move on with his life. A political career or a line of plush Anarchopanda dolls, he promises, is not in the works.
"We're going to have a big celebration, and I'm going to burn the costume in some kind of funeral pyre," he says. "That'll be the end of it, and I'm going to be very happy about it."
Mr. Villeneuve spoke recently to The Chronicle. An edited version of the conversation follows:
Q. Do you worry that the panda will overshadow the students' cause?
A. It's always a concern. It's important that the panda remain a specific tactic that's used in certain circumstances. I've refused dozens and dozens of requests for appearing somewhere or doing mascot-type stuff. I'm not interested in that. The main goal of the panda is a specific tactic used toward the police and what I consider to be improper or even unlawful use of their power.
Q. What is the usual reaction by the police to Anarchopanda?
A. I've had very bad reactions, and I've had very good ones. I've received some threats while in the panda suit, like I'll be arrested. Other police have warned me in a nice way, that they may have to do it. A policeman told me that he wishes he had brought his camera with him because he would like a picture with me.
Q. Is wearing the suit truly effective at preventing violence?
A. I certainly feel in a situation in which police would normally hit or charge, there's more doubt: "What are we suppose to do with this panda?" We should not overstate it; I'm only one person, I can be at one spot in a protest at any given time. In the tide of violence that the students have suffered, I've only been able to make a very, very minor impact.
Q. Given your philosophy background, do you feel you are living out a certain belief system?
A. For people who are in contact with these wonderful texts, hopefully it should change you at some point. Sometimes it can change you for the worse, sometimes it can change you for the better. There's something I can really respect with people like Socrates or Kant and their insistence on respecting the moral autonomy and agency of everybody. And as Epictetus wrote in his Discourses, "never seek your work in one place and progress in another." I really take that to heart.
Q. How have your colleagues and superiors reacted to Anarchopanda?
A. My superiors? You just pray they haven't heard about it. Over all the reaction from my colleagues has been overwhelmingly positive. I certainly get a lot of smiles from people I don't know when I walk in the college now.
Anarchopanda in Action
He has an affinity for hugging police officers:
He's also proved to be something of a hit with protesters and passersby:
His unofficial theme song: "Anarchopanda, You March With Us!"