Sadly they stared and sank in their chairs
And searched for a comforting notion
And the rich silver wall was ready to fall
As they shook in doubtful devotion
The ice cubes would clink as they freshened their drinks
Whet their minds in bitter emotion.
… And the noise outside was the ringing of revolution.
Monday April 16 was the day it began for me. I was in Calgary and boarded a bus I was to take to Quebec where the beginning of a new stage, a new manifestation of the North American class struggle was to take place. I had personally been following the developments of the Quebec resistance to the Summit of the Americas via an email announcement list on the Internet. Through this I was already convinced of the size of the event, but all the other developments to take place were to crystallise how important it actually was. The movement’s urgency was identified with the slogan of “anti-globalisation,” but the Quebec demonstration was in fact defined from beginning to end by a strong, pronounced and proudly declared hostility to something else: to any FTAA negotiations, “free” trade in all its manifestations, to capitalism, and to the governments who proudly speak of democracy and then feed us their swill of plunder. That mood was one that would only grow throughout the days there.
I found someone to chat with for the ride, being quite deliberate about announcing myself on the bus, knowing others would be making the Trek to Quebec. I was right, and had the ability to go over several different options for what was to take place in the actual “main event.” We got right into what, rather unsurprisingly, has now become one of the main issues around the day: violence and non-violence, when and where. Well, I said things I was personally to eat in five days’ time. The debate was, as is the case when it is divorced from practice, too “academic” for lack of a less descriptive word.
Having gone over much of the theory of building a movement, I was of the mind that people would be turned off by “violence” (however that is defined) and that it could only hurt us in the present. Of course, when it came to that Wall, I was very wrong, and all the theory was irrelevant. Reality has a nasty habit of doing this to you.
The second day on the bus I got a copy of Canada’s largest and most successful national daily newspaper, the Globe and Mail. The headline was along the lines of “54% of Canadians approve of Free Trade.” Inside were page after page of stupid and vulgar attacks on those who were going to demonstrate. At the time, I commented to my (now) travelling companion that this seemed to be an indication of the bourgeoisie’s combined fear and insecurities for their system, as well as utter contempt for those who will stand in defiance of them. In other words, they are scared before the people have even taken to the streets. No debate to this position of mine happened; it was almost self-evident. The ruling class has a great fear that the people have a rising consciousness about their deeds.
The night before the actual demonstrations were to begin, I arrived fairly late at Laval University, where I set up a sleeping bag on a gymnasium floor that was to be my home for the next while. The people going in and out of the building were beaming with delight. Popular power is a very infectious phenomenon. It was announced that at 12 midnight there was to be an assembly held by the GOMM (Groupe Opposé à la Mondialisation des Marchés), alerting people as to what would actually be going on the next day. Well, the room this conference was to be held in accommodated some 2000 people, but the room ran out of space and people were still pouring in long after the conference finally got under way. This many people, overwhelmingly attentive and focused, attending anything like that was new to me. It had a very powerful impact on my feelings about the event. It was, for the first time in that room, clear that we were making some form of history. The speaker had a simultaneous translator into English (much obliged, as I flunked out of French in high school), and explained the demonstration route, the different levels of risk involved, and how affinity groups were to be set up. The affinity groups modeled on those of Seattle, with modifications were activist “cells” that had ties to the larger group, but were neither strictly coordinated with the main action, nor subject to the discipline of a larger body. It was during the explanations spelled out at this middle-of-the-night meeting that I understood the premises of “Green, Yellow and Red zones.” This kind of radical approach one that can encompass all forms of resistance without condemning the others is the single most enduring lesson I garnered from the actions in Quebec. It ties back into, of course, the whole debate about “violence.” It is my opinion that all the hand-wringing that we do about “violence” and whether or not these forms of resistance are “correct” is completely useless. The radicals who are currently trying to incite violent episodes, whether against police or property, are a reality. They are a huge part of the new anti-globalisation movement. For us to recognise this and set out different levels of risk according to where you feel your part is to be played that is simply the best solution for the real situation. GOMM themselves are a committed non-violent, civil disobedience direct action group. The GOMM and CLAC (Convergence des luttes Anti-Capitalistes) merged, almost by accident, into the main march the following day.
The night before the main march and after the meeting with the GOMM, I had an exchange, not unlike many others with “random people” among the crowd bussed in to the University. I joined a group of young women to play “hacky sack before heading to bed (although it was already brutally late, three days on a bus meant I didn’t really have an internal clock demanding sleep yet). I asked what was already becoming my usual question: So why did you decide to come here? One of the women responded that she knows nothing of politics, what is left and right or what is good or bad, but that some of the ideas being spoken of here made her fear for her future. And she didn’t like the idea of being told she had no say about these matters. Finally, the Wall had brought her in, looking like an insult to us as it did. The other woman who answered my question said “I am not entirely certain what it is they are trying to hide, but they must be wrong, for if they are right, why would they be hiding what they are doing?” I couldn’t answer her, since she was absolutely right. Sometimes the correct “line” is a simple matter of instinct, and a lot of the people here instinctively do not trust the government to act in their best interests. Obviously, this is a good starting point. It is these kinds of attitudes the understanding of what is going on, stripped of all the rhetoric that are very good among the citizens at these marches. People know the rich are screwing the poor, people know the environment is being bought and sold by corporations, and people here at the demo know what the police are going to do. The kinds of comments being uttered the night before all the “fun” began indicated a direct understanding that the struggle was about to get far more pitched, and far more acute. Illusions were smashed in the wafting gas of Seattle air. That was a lesson for me. It was more than simply what feels to be the launching of a movement; it was, for many at least, the undressing of the state. I would have guessed as much about the demonstrators who had been in Seattle, but not those who watched the events unfold.
I went to sleep shortly after, convinced that the meetings, both the personal and the political, had left me in a great position for the struggles of the next day.
After getting a pair of coffees and downing them fiercely, I headed to the space of the main march. It slowly filled the streets in front of the University and seemed, at times, very unsure of itself. I still didn’t really know what was going on, but found a railing I could “stand on” near the edge of the demonstration. From there I looked out at the crowd and tried to determine who was in attendance, what kind of groups were here. Would there be the kind of eclecticism that was troubling in Seattle? I had hoped that people would not come with issues that didn’t relate somehow to the protest. I wasn’t disappointed, at least from where I stood. The groups remained diverse, but very few seemed out-of-place. The most “out of place” were “Free Mumia,” “Shut down the School of the Americas” and the like. Considering that the American president was only a few hundred yards away, it didn’t seem inappropriate. The tendency to embrace simple “fix it” type slogans, as in Seattle, was not apparent on this day. After all, the march itself was billed as a “Carnival Against Capitalism.” And that would turn out to be an understatement.
When it finally got rolling, we had in fact been standing around for over two hours. But move on we did. Immediately the march organisers announced that turning left at the first intersection (all of 20 metres from the start of the march) meant going the “green,” peaceful, legal, and no-arrest route (GOMM), and turning right was to go the “yellow” route, where the risk of arrest was indeed involved (CLAC). Red areas were listed but not particularly endorsed nor condemned. The media were to later portray the delay as being the occasion for fighting among the groups. That was a funny way to portray the amount of caution involved in launching the actual march. Once we were on the streets, the usual rounds of chants began. I’ve been in many loud marches involving chants, but you simply haven’t lived until you see the look on the 3-piece-suit crowd to hearing tens of thousands of people yell “1,2,3,4, eat the rich to feed the poor; 5,6,7,8, organise to smash the state.” Poetry in motion, and people in action!
I decided to stand on a little hill that I found about an hour into the march, to look back at the people. I couldn’t see the end; that march was a truly remarkable size. I went about observing the people who went by. There were represented the usual contingents of banners, signs of slogans, and signs of wit. I noticed how a large number of flags seemed to be making the rounds. Then I saw this group I’d seen earlier, back at the University a group of young red-masked folks, carrying their Red Flags, wearing all red and marching in step with what would likely be described as Black Bloc Anarchists. Were they together? I don’t think so, but the spirits were kin, and that was evident. I had received this flyer for a group that vowed to “end bourgeois society” and told that the “landless are starving” while the bourgeoisie will “drink to that at their jet set party.” We thus need to organise through revolutionary struggle. This statement was accompanied by a picture of a red-hooded person wearing a hammer-and-sickle mask and holding a stiletto. I must admit being drawn by the pure raw energy that came off the page, the seeming anger with which it seemed written. It dripped with the freshness of a newly hardened radical. I can also see the telltale signs of a newly minted Maoist grouping. For the first time in years, that rough-edged raw nature appeared as much a strength as it did a weakness.
At the outset of the march I had grabbed a Red Flag (felt the thing to do, must admit) from a group of men who were doling out free home-made Red Flags, and was holding it while looking out to the crowd, trying to decipher what I was seeing here. One of the black-clad masked Anarchists got the same idea. I quietly without a word extended my hand then. It was a feeling of solidarity with this tendency in the crowd that would not dim, but strengthen throughout the rest of the day. Some of these Anarchists walked by holding above their heads a pair of mattresses. I didn’t know what that was all about, but someone later explained it. Turns out this is a police line breaking tool: one can crash a police line and prevent being swung at with such a frontal assault ram. I never saw them used, however.
I decided upon arriving at the main intersection (the “front”) to stay right there. Upon getting gassed within the first five minutes (I arrived almost immediately after the wall came down on the Friday), I had to pull on my own hair not to launch into attacks on the police line. The intensity of the situation was of combat and pure raw anger. Now, if we accept the premise that the Wall was a challenge, and it was our duty as democratic proponents to tear the blasted thing down then surely one can see that the rest of the conflict was hardly one to wring one’s hands over either. The whole “provocation” was not a factor: the rocks and bottles didn’t have any real power to do serious damage to police (if that is a concern for you). Also, hand-wringing has been the preserve of the truly irrelevant who want to argue about who started what. And this has been the part of the action that makes me feel things have changed the most. Why I believe that things have changed dramatically at least from the mostly white, middle-class Canadian standpoint (whatever that actually means) has to do with the reactions of other demonstrators and people who were thousands of miles away. There were (and remain) almost no people spending their time trying to decipher who started the violence.
Images in the mind, of course, endure. The local shops of Quebec around the areas where the demonstrators were to spend much of their time were boarded up. To my delight, rather than prying down the boards to smash things up (as I had quietly predicted to myself), people wrote up polemics on them. One great image was one on Rue Saint Jean that included illustrations. Someone drew out a complete postcard, which read: “Dear mom: The people of Quebec have an interesting way of disposing of their garbage. First, they pile it all on top of a hill, then they put a 4km fence around it and the people here push it off into the water. Love ___.” Of course, many were slogans and other one-liners we can expect to hear a lot (“Is this what democracy looks like?” being the most common). The entire downtown was polemics, and only a block from where the gas was raining on the people, others would be engaged in the staunchest of debates about what we could do next, or should.
Other images include imitating the hippie phenomenon, used in the ’70s in Portugal, of a flower for the soldier. A young woman approached the police line with a large sunflower. A different individual had already attempted the offer of a flower, walking up and down the police line with the offering and being ignored the entire way. This woman got within a few feet (walking alone, with much space) and was summarily gassed. End of experiment. Perhaps the most illustrative image I saw was on Friday of a young woman, most likely a student, getting on a megaphone and asking if anyone in the crowd had a copy of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Well, this took a couple of minutes, but someone did, to her delight. It should be mentioned we were on a hill, after one of the more vicious gassings had been used to drive us there. She began to read out the charter. She was able to get through much of it, but as she got to the part about the right of free assembly, gas was shot, in an arc and another in a straight line, right to where she was. That ended her education of the crowd of the rights all around being crushed. She persisted in this effort several times, never getting through the document.
What Marxists, Social-Democrats and all other activists (including the self-described non-violent Anarchists) who have been attending these gatherings have to come to terms with is that “violent” Anarchists, including the Black Bloc types, are not going away. Anarchist tactics in Quebec varied greatly from those of Seattle: there wasn’t the same lust for property destruction. In retrospect, it seems that Seattle’s property destruction tactic and it is a tactic, not simply a chaotic rampage as some progressives and most of the media would have it has had an impact that has struck a deep chord among many people of their early twenties and thirties. What it demonstrated was something proactive, and in that, it can be seen as the part of the Seattle action that has had the enduring effect of being a launching pad for much of what exists today. It is my belief that property destruction is a counter-productive phenomenon and not one that will bring people to devote themselves to a radical movement. Yet it was the very people in Quebec who identified with the property destruction phenomenon in Seattle who tore down that goddamned chain link Wall. Let us stop and think for a moment here: Do we even have the right to refuse to tear it down?
What was this Wall, if not a direct symbol of all that is wrong with Canada, with North America, with the FTAA and the kind of world they are trying to build in their own image? What does it mean when the “democrats” start building walls and erecting lines of police to keep the people out? It means they have a level of fear of the masses’ revolt, for one. It means, more importantly, that we are the only ones who can truly speak for democracy. If we had gone to this demonstration against their murderous plans and had allowed them to decide what forms of resistance were to be used against their system while the greatest gift of a target for the propaganda of the deed was put in place then that would have been a missed opportunity, and “criminally negligent” on the part of all of us who want a better world. That Wall was the driving force for many to come to Quebec and denounce the proceedings of the FTAA negotiations. Tearing down that fence has been called a wrong act by the corporate media, and yet the overwhelming mass of the people do not condemn the action. History provides glimpses of space whereby the actions and words of the ruling class in North America differ vastly from what people know to be true, and that phenomenon has rarely become clearer to people than right after this whole event. The ruling class trots out its line about “democratic, non-violent dissent,” etc. This is usually their talisman; it has worked so well so many times for them. But this time it did not and the looks on the faces of those hearing it were something else.
There was a situation where one of the “Black Bloc” types (who was actually dressed all in Red and had a French accent) was in a tear gas-cleared area of the street, down on one knee. I ran out to check on what was up, and found him to be simply tucking his pants into his socks. He mentioned that he was worried about the little tear gas holders, less toxic but also less predictable (they tend to bound around, sending off sparks of fire like wound up tops). No big deal, but then THUD “What hit me?” he asked. We looked around, not able to see much, except this thing that looked like a small baby bottle. On closer examination, we realised it was a “rubber” (really solid plastic/teflon) bullet. The size of these things is quite something: roughly an inch less than the height/length of a pop can, and the width of your average pill bottle. I picked one up a little later. These caused several injuries over the two days. The starkest event with these projectiles I saw was when a young communist-dressed fellow (decked out in a hammer and sickle T-shirt) gave a two-handed peace sign to the police line at the fence area. He was alone, and around ten feet from the cops. One simply lowered the gun and shot him in the right of his chest, whereby he collapsed instantly to the ground. Several people immediately ran to him and helped him off the street, as he slowly came to, with a perfectly round welt on his chest that he clutched at. He swore and screamed at the police line, and then, after several photos of his injuries taken by all media, slowly proceeded back into the crowds to “get back into the action.” He collapsed a few minutes later and went to the medical clinic. If the man I described was the same one described to me upon my trip to the clinic several hours later, he was sent to the hospital with broken ribs. If it was not the same man, then someone else went off with broken ribs. I assume this happened several times over the two days to many other people. I never saw this particular man again.
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes what reality is and how it is described by the media are extremely different matters, and in these cases, the population can often tell. I believe it was Mao who said that, to paraphrase from memory, the rank and file are always to the left of the leadership, and the masses are always to the left of the rank and file. What is happening right now and what we risk extinguishing by prattling on and on about morality and/or the practicality of the Anarchists is that the deep-seated anger in the people brought on by this grotesque, inhuman and unliveable society has been unleashed. This anger has been tapped into, right at this moment, in a very serious way, and it seems forcefully complemented by the realisation that these same Anarchists, enamoured Maoists, independent radicals and others (I even met a post-modernist in a gas mask) have also set free. It is the lesson that yes, we can resist these butchers. They are human, they can be stood up to, and it is indeed proper for people to fight back. The slogan I heard at least a thousand times during the rally “A better world IS possible!!” has, for the time being at least, been transferred into a heartfelt notion for so many, both participants and onlookers. Taking hold of this beautiful consciousness and celebrating it is not the same as believing that one can throw rocks all the way to overthrowing capitalism; nor is it indicative of a notion that we can do without the organised working class. It is to simply embrace those rocks as symbolic of our rejection of the ruling class and their blood-drenched Imperialist system.
When I got exceedingly tired from running back and forth dodging tear gas, I would wander through the more carnival-like settings further away from the front. This roughly means two blocks or more, depending on how far I went and what the police were doing with their gas that minute. While I did that, I could let my guard down a little and get into discussions with random people about what they thought of the whole thing. Of course, the usual denunciations of the police were forthcoming all the time. I had dressed nothing like the “Black Bloc” (or their Red counterparts) on either day, and yet the reactions I was hearing from people were almost never along the lines of two types of activists, but instead several types of dissent. The areas where the violence was were described as just that where you had to physically risk yourselves in battle. That wasn’t the case in Seattle. People had not gone into the Quebec demonstration thinking that it would be an entirely peaceful affair, since the organisers had not said so, nor had the demonstrators. Thus, people were not wandering around Quebec trying to convince others that “those people don’t really represent all of us,” etc. Moreover, the few who took that line (such as the leader of the federal NDP [New Democratic Party], Alexa McDonough) all sounded irrelevant after the days’ events were completed. In a battle zone and all of Quebec became one very quickly there are only two sides. The people who claim to occupy some third position quickly shrink to idiocy and have little place for themselves in popular consciousness. New Democratic officialdom, as represented by Ms. McDonough, sounded like the good cop to people who had been in the demonstrations. The sound of one minister explaining to another why the people had revolted and her explanations of how to prevent further outbursts didn’t sit well with people who were trying to wash tear gas out of their hair.
People are not particularly excited about defending the police very often, nor are many (some are, to be sure) upset at the actions of protesters in defiance of the police. That has been seen as often appropriate. It is the window-breaking stuff that many are not into. Unfortunately, it will be a while before this Anarchistic tactic is changed, in my view. Rather than worry ourselves about what is wrong with the window breakers, we must simply move beyond it and refuse, categorically, to condemn it. Radicals who are standing by condemning these folks condemn themselves to isolation and irrelevance. There was a group of men from the CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) who carried their union banners in unison with the Black and Red Flags at the front. Evidently, the chord struck of total resistance has hit home with some unionists, who have chosen to side with the “Black Bloc” when the only options they feel exist are of total solidarity or condemnation. And imagining for the moment this false dichotomy were real, good for them and their choice.
Personally, as I was doing my part to defy the police violence by occupying territory they wanted me to vacate, I felt as if I were trusting my life with these comrades with the Black outfits on. I certainly wasn’t comfortable laying it all on the line in front of these sadistic cops with someone next to me sitting down and closing their eyes. Call me crazy, and I see the propaganda value in it, but these people looked like sacrificial lambs, and I’m not really into martyrdom. As much as can be said about the respect I felt for a fellow combatant, I felt it about those who were ready to fight. I wish I could stress that further. When the plastic bullets started to fly and the tear gas choked the entire city, it wasn’t in “response” to “violence.” However, it was the “violent” who kept clearing away the tear gas canisters throwing them on roofs, throwing them back at police, etc. who helped others the most, save for the street medics.
The street medics were a very amazing and committed bunch. The clinic was some 8-10 blocks from where the main René Lévesque Boulevard fighting was happening. By late day one, I had already been in the clinic and the fighting was only two blocks from it. Nursing my own injuries, I had returned home “only” at midnight to sleep on the floor at the University. The next day I was to discover the police had rolled through the neighbourhood of the clinic (which was supposed to be a “safe zone”) with huge amounts of gas. This was to be but a prelude for what would happen the evening of the 21st. The clinic had been a very strong source of pride for us, and was staffed heavily with Americans who had somehow made it across the border. (This was only apparent when they tried to pronounce the street names in Quebec, and it turned out they were from all over the East Coast of the US.)
The clinic was shut down by the police on Saturday at gunpoint, and the police then marched people both the medics and the patients through the streets and back into the clouds of tear gas that some asthmatics had gone there to avoid. The closing of the clinic needs to be understood as a political act, and as a simple chessboard military-style move on the part of the Quebec police. The political aim was to demoralise the people. So long as we knew that there were people of our own doing what they could to take care of our injured, people could fight harder against the tear gas-stained street repression. Our own could take pride and security in knowing that they would be treated later on if they were hurt. On the second day, I can roughly guess where I was when the clinic was shut down. I was near the museum after coming across a pair of close friends from Vancouver. A man came running up and asked for a medic. I asked why, what happened; he answered that a man had been hit squarely in the face with a tear gas canister and was in desperate need of help, and that there were no medics nearby. Throughout the rest of the time I had been there up until that point, anyone needing assistance beyond flushing tear gas out of the eyes and throat was attended to by our medics within seconds. This injured man’s predicament was likely the first result of the police action.
The action to close the clinic went far beyond simple psychological warfare on the part of the police. So long as it remained open, injured activists had a place to go to receive treatment without fearing being prosecuted or persecuted by the state. Now I’ll give a personal anecdote of my injuries that illustrates it clearly. My personal decision for how to react to the repression at the front lines took the shape of steeled defiance. As I mentioned, I had been given a Red Flag on the march from Laval that I carried proudly. After I had joined the fracas at the fallen Wall, I shortly decided to follow a personal no-rock policy. What I ended up deciding upon instead was to be among the first to re-emerge into the open areas that the police gas had recently cleared, to defiantly stand with my flag and a clenched fist. It was both for my benefit and as a message to the police line; it was to say, simply, “you will not chase me from here.” Whatever impact one person can have I don’t know, but it was all I could do. I felt a responsibility to remain and would have had a hard time with myself had I not stayed. This act wandering out into open spaces with a Red Flag and a clenched fist to the police in retrospect was bound to get me larger lumps than I got. I was “lucky.”
The police followed a pattern of clearing the block, then sealing it off, then clearing the next block. only to retreat and cede the whole thing, starting all over again. This is where my description of police violence as far worse than that perpetrated in Seattle comes from. The police had decided to punish the people, to teach them a lesson: if you are going to take on the state, and take on the directions and policies of the main agenda of the capitalists, you are going to have to learn what the fight will be like. That was the direct, deliberate lesson. That is why a block could be gassed with a ferocity such as to clear out every last inhabitant on their feet, leave people collapsing to the ground, throwing up and some going through convulsions. That is why the people two or three blocks away from the front saw the police randomly lob huge rounds of gas thousands of people deep into the crowd. That is why they would launch gas on all four corners of an intersection several hundred yards from the main “fight,” and force people to retreat down the hill only to lob gas in front of the crowd while advancing on it. Forcing everyone with a flower or a crowbar down through clouds of gas that one needed to enter in order to escape that wasn’t crowd control. That was class education. That was a blunt “do you have what it takes” gauntlet challenge on the part of the police. The fact that so many people kept coming back in waves must have been a singular shock: they couldn’t make people leave en masse. And that is something new for much of Canada.
About eight blocks from where the fence had come down earlier in the day was where I was hit. They had pushed all of us down the hill, pounding the crowd at different depths with gas. I had no gas mask, and it was day one so I still didn’t even have the little vinegar-soaked mask to breathe through that I received from the street medical clinic on the second day. So, as you can imagine, when the gas came I was dancing around at a high pace trying to gauge the wind so I could avoid the biggest blasts at least. At this point, one of the Black-Masked gents saw my face and all the stuff streaming out of it, paused and gave a quick couple of massage-like tugs to my shoulders, and said “relax, relax!” This kind of gentle, quick interaction was something that happened many times over the days, and it was always extremely important and decisively powerful in the strength it provided for the participants.
Then I witnessed something that was the opposite of a pick-me-up. I spotted what was obviously an agent provocateur. I had seen this man earlier in the day, but he didn’t seem all that out of place then. He only seemed older than the rest of the crowd, in his late thirties or early forties. He was in no particular garb, dressed in jeans and a jean jacket. I first saw him standing in a crowd of the non-rock-throwing people, grabbing a rock and tossing it at full velocity. I first thought that this was tacky, rather than deliberately trying to cause trouble for those standing there in the same way I thought that the men who picked up the tear gas canisters to lob back at the cops but instead launched them deep into the crowd were idiots, but idiots who were on “our side.” I thought nothing of him again until I was on my way down the hill, being gassed all the way. As mentioned, I had no protective gear, so when gas hit an area, I set about getting away from it. At one time on this hill, gas was launched into the front of the crowd, the middle, and all the way to the back. The canisters at the front stayed there as the people moved back, the ones where I was at this point, the middle area, were quickly gobbled up by thick-gloved combatants and thrown onto buildings and into alley-ways to clear them out. At this point, I was in between the front gas and the air in the middle that had been poisoned. I was the only one still there, except for the same gentleman I alluded to before. He quickly darted into the alley and kicked the canister back into the street. Only I could see him; I was looking around to see if anyone else was watching him. He then peered carefully around the corner of the building towards the protesters, and not the police (they would have been able to see him from the angle he was at). After looking for what would be his opening I guess, he then put his hand on his mouth and started “coughing” as he “stumbled” out. It was very slick, and my only proof of his actions is my word. Take that for whatever you want.
At any rate, the blocks were gassed all the way to the bottom of the hill. I wandered back up, with maybe 6 – 8 others, to stand in defiance and claim the block. While standing there, a horizontal shot of a tear gas canister flew by to my right, at which point I turned to get the heck away. While I was about three or four steps down the hill from where I had been standing, I was hit right in the base of my spine, or as it turned out, about a quarter-inch off the actual bones. Needless to say, I let out a bellow, something like “Aaagghh!!” In the immediate next three steps, I paid attention to my ability to move my legs and found I could, but I didn’t like bending at the waist. Within seconds, three or four medics showed up to carry me off to one side and ask me a series of questions, and told me my coat had a nice burn in it. We all decided (they insisted, actually) that I should have it looked at.
I wasn’t in deadly pain, but I wasn’t in running condition any longer, nor were my wits or my balance that clear. Since I was done at least for the day, I wanted my back injury looked at. I got a very slow escort to the clinic, where a nurses’ aid, a nurse, a doctor and finally a traditional Chinese medicinal practitioner had a go over me. I need to stress, that I would not have gone to the hospital. I had been actively in the “front lines” all day; probably several thousand pictures of me had been taken during this time, and I had no idea what kind of bizarre charges people were to be saddled with. As I say, I don’t go in for martyrdom. So, if anyone had asked me to go get looked at there, I would have gone around simply with backache, hoping that it was only that. The gentleman who knew the traditional Chinese treatments did an acupuncture job on me that relieved the immediate pain. The other MD gave me advice about what to do on my back (I ended up ignoring this advice), and sent me off with painkillers after checking all my reflexes and determining that it was only a deep bruise.
I felt extremely safe in the space, knowing “we” were taking care of one another. I also was so relieved to know that unless I was incapacitated or injured in a severe fashion (like the gentleman hit in the neck and unable to move), I wouldn’t have to go to the “official” hospitals. I could trust these people to simply do what they could to save me pain and prevent further injury. Many others, I am sure, had similar injuries that were borderline dangerous like mine after the shutdown of the street clinic. These people might not yet know what has exactly happened to them. And that a result of the closing of the clinic is a violation of their rights as surely as the injury being inflicted upon them was in the first place. More important for us to know is that this was also the point of the police operation.
I went home to the University after my injuries were “patched up” and I called family who were wondering by then what was going on with me. Riding the bus back, sitting there stinking of gas and holding my coat in a plastic bag which protected others from the worst of my fumes, was a young man who “intellectually” knew all that had happened this day five years ago. But the shock was still a lot to bear, and I hadn’t really been able to absorb the lessons half as well as my clothes did toxins. That had been day one.
Day two I woke up early and tried to piece together what the different actions on the menu were. I felt weak, and decided to go to the large “official” labour march, to see what that was composed of and how it went. I was also very curious as to what the labour bosses would do to stop their members from helping the younger people in the main the Anarchists on the main front. I was later to hear some members making arm-lock chains to prevent access. I can only express total utter contempt at this action.
I heard from others that the previous day’s action had continued right through the night, with police chasing and summarily gassing a crowd that got more defiant as the night went on. I am still utterly amazed at the composure of the crowds that fought the police for essentially 48 hours straight. The resistance, although it became more focused on the police and the state, rather than the FTAA policies of the state, never lost its political character. I cannot begin to explain why this is so. But it is cause for great hope that it is so.
I talked to the man who was sleeping next to me; he wanted to go to help out the medics. Since I had spent a large amount of time at the clinic, I knew how to find it and offered an escort, before I would join the labour rally. After arriving with my friend at the clinic, I received the mask I would end up being glad to have. I decided to walk up with my friend to the main place of action and have a quick look before moving on to the labour march. I was temporarily blinded again as the gas still in my system reacted badly to being within several blocks of the current rounds of gas. I was thinking about what to do, perhaps just go back to the labour march down the hill without first seeing the police in action against the people. That didn’t last once I looked sideways and saw clouds of gas rise as several hundred people ran by. I grabbed a bottle of water and re-joined in, much to the chagrin of my eyes and back. I didn’t think I really had a choice.
This day the police were going to punish people as the main goal. They were not going to do anything other than hurt people; that seemed to be the intent. There was a sort of half-block area, just north of where the weak spot in the fence had been punched the day before, that provided people almost a bunker. Into that little area were launched unbelievable amounts of water (from cannons) and gas. I first saw the water cannons as almost a godsend, thinking that as long as I avoided the power-pressure, the water would cool us off and help the pain. I hadn’t realised that the CS gases stuck to water. It meant major pain for many people. I saw one man who had been soaked across his lower regions get stuck in a cloud of gas and stumble out. Needless to say, one can imagine the pain he was in. It certainly showed on his face.
I don’t believe the point of the days is simply the story of the brutality of the Quebec police, so I won’t go into the details of the escalation on the “everyday” fronts of the second day. The differences showed in other places as well. After some 7-8 hours my feet had developed very large blisters, so I packed it in and went for dinner with two good friends I had come across near the weak link in the wall. Right after we ate, a large group (I guess 1000 or so) of primarily Anarchists walked by and we were now in the suburban downtown area. I was surprised, and delighted to say the least. They were chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and from what I could tell, were people who had been gassed all day and were regrouping to take one last crack at the state.
As they marched along they passed what I saw to be a rave. There was an empty lot on a corner right on Rue Charest (a main street that was not part of the mostly fenced off “old city” of Quebec, where all the busses had been re-routed). Raves are not what they originally were. Beyond the simple drug culture (and that has always been there, front and centre in rave culture), there has been an almost hippie-like rejection of pop culture, where being a “raver” meant rejecting aggression and embracing a different attitude towards other human beings. Also like hippies, this was (and, to some extent, still is) not a real vision it leaves the Imperialists in power but is a lifestyle almost like an activism in and of itself. The other side that was also “activist” in a sense was how the original raves were thrown. A group would invade an empty and/or unused warehouse, set-up a sound system and record tables, etc., and then throw the party. This radical squatting aspect has been all but totally lost for a long time. As someone with a love of the music and a respect for the counter-culture aspects of raving, I have hoped to get people I know who are in this “scene” to cross over into activism. It is trying, but occasionally it works for at least one action. Yet I had not seen anything like what I saw here this night. The “rave” was out of a truck that had backed into an empty lot and simply started “spinning” (playing) different kinds of electronic music. I was impressed that this existed and wished I had the energy to top off the day with a dance of some sort.
Then, the Anarchist crowd of maybe a thousand came back, and they were running down the hill beside the rave. Gas rose above on the hill, and I realised I wasn’t done with the conflicts yet. These people immediately blended into the crowd dancing, while the DJ announced “They think we’ll stop dancing? We’ll show them!!” and then cranked the volume and simply drove his truck across the intersection and took over the side street adjoining Rue Charest. The crowd then built the bonfire and had what amounted to a street party, until the police began lobbing tear gas into it. I left around this time, almost ready to collapse.
There were a few anecdotes I heard from others that are worth sharing. Apparently there was a much larger rave-like event that took place under an overpass, where “Food Not Bombs” had been serving free meals. The people there had built an absolutely monstrous sized bonfire, but had done little else but drink and dance and be loud. The police had apparently launched tear gas from hundreds of metres above on the hills of Old Quebec into the party atmosphere. Why this was done was only logical if seen as a part of how the police wanted to teach the crowds a lesson, particularly the young people. But the lessons they had taught earlier in the day to parts of the student march (ostensibly a “green march”) were ones that I’m still wondering about. According to the comrade from the International Socialists that I spoke to later that night, at one point that same overpass spanning the rave held students against the FTAA aloft on top. The police apparently cut off one side by making a line, and did a false charge at the crowd from the other end. This all after launching gas into this crowd, forcing panic that led one student, thinking his best odds were off the overpass, to jump. The person who relayed the story had no idea of the jumper’s fate, in landing on either concrete or grass, nor whether he survived. If he landed on concrete, my question becomes simply: Would the police and the media tell us if there were a death? It is hard to imagine they could keep this under wraps, and far be it from me to start an unsubstantiated rumour. Nonetheless, the woman who told me the story was visibly quite shaken by the event.
On my three-day bus ride home from Quebec City I had several run-ins with people who were not there, and had questions about the whole thing. I was mentally prepared for the usual dollop of questions regarding the violent protesters, as opposed to the peaceful “legitimate” ones. This didn’t happen, to my own personal surprise. In fact, it still isn’t happening to me as I write these lines a week later. On people’s minds were questions such as “So what is so bad about Free Trade, anyway? I thought it was a good thing.” These types of questions are precisely the ones we need to have people ask, and let us all be frank such questions simply are a result of the Anarchist-motivated resistance so far. And that is the positive role which such tactics are playing in our movement as a whole. They are a demonstration that we are not going to be ignored any longer. That angle the one that is exemplified by “Ya Basta!” is the other part of the popular response I have received across the country and at home. Only nervous comrades and other radicals are expressing to me doubts about the appropriateness of the attack on the fence, or even on the police. What continues to be a bad line is the one of property destruction. It has an air of wanton destruction for its own sake rather than for the politics that inspire it and the message is often lost.
One individual, who at first I thought was an exception but has turned out to be the rule, was a man I estimate to be in his late forties. I met him shortly after boarding the bus for home. He has been a civil-disobedience activist all his adult life, believing as he said himself that non-violence in all circumstances was the way to go. He was a very gentle man, quite unassuming and quiet (he also fed me Tylenol 3′s for my back whenever I asked, making the ride home that much better). He was representative of what, to my thinking, is the grand impact of the days in Quebec. People have, even large numbers who were not there, lost illusions. Seattle was, after all, something that happened in the US, and “we all know” what those Americans are like. But sweet, polite, forgiving Canada sent a ballistic message right to the temple of so many people. And we must seize this lesson and move on it.
The impact this will have on Social Democrats (the NDP) will tell much of the tale. It felt to me as if the events really showed the irrelevance of parliamentary games. Surely the language used by all the party’s members (save for Svend Robinson perhaps the last true socialist in the party) was that of the state. They may have come out to this gathering of activists, but they seemed to have no place in it whatsoever. It remains to be seen what will happen to the party in the aftermath, and no doubt they will continue to try and make political capital out of the protests. Nonetheless, it seems as if the party tried to garner relevance out of the Quebec crowd and perhaps will get the opposite effect: Third Way rhetoric sounds very scripted right now. The rank and file of the New Democrats are the main group that new organising will be focused on. Today there are many very good comrades in the party for lack of anywhere else to go, in their mind. Now is a great time to give them something, and divorce it from Ottawa-based games.
The Council of Canadians earned some respect from me. I saw a few members in suits running around at the front, holding their Council-printed signs and getting gassed. Perhaps a torch was passed among the “respectable” representatives of the Canadian left. The CBC offered Maude Barlow (leader of the Council) many opportunities to come down against the “violent” demonstrators and to instead praise the legal, peaceful ones. She did no such thing and sounded angry and ready for confrontation. The Council is strongest in the East of Canada, so all such influence must be measured with caution for those of us here dangling our toes in the Pacific. The politics of the Council do not provide what I would call any real answer: there is a deep reflection towards the “good Canada” of yesterday, akin to the left-populism of Ralph Nader and his Greens in the United States. Nonetheless, the people here are not parliamentarians, nor are they old and worn out as the NDP increasingly feels and looks. Perhaps, as far as coalition politics are concerned, this is the great impact of their positive role.
How do we seize on this buzz across the country? We need to strike while the iron is hot. Right now, the weakness for the ruling class here is in democratic practice, or rather their lack of it. The first step is to find among our people some that are able to organise a coalition of the groups who are getting the most positive responses from this outburst. This is a very diverse bunch, but basically it means all those who put the advance of the struggle above polemics within it. What is the enduring pulsation of people is the feeling that they can go after those who run the world. That must be grabbed. If such forces are to emerge that can actually pool together a singular demand, perhaps we might succeed in taking a page from our one ally inside, at the negotiating table, Hugo Chávez. Chávez is proposing that his country, Venezuela, should hold a referendum on entry into the FTAA. He also demanded the inclusion of “participatory” rather than representative beside the word democracy in the declaration. These demands left the document with a solitary asterisk on them his dissent. In a recent speech to commemorate May Day, Fidel Castro the only head of state not invited to Quebec City did the same, likewise calling for a plebiscite on the FTAA.
The Canadian ruling class held a referendum once, and they were summarily humiliated by it. The Charlottetown constitutional proposals, even with the backing of both the right and left wing parties, were rejected in a 1992 referendum as not good enough and lacking in content that the Canadian people could find acceptable. The resounding popular rejection came even after nearly the entire political class of Canada including the media, the parties, the “experts” all except former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau saw what they felt was a bad deal. The pain hasn’t gone away, and the Canadian ruling class is not likely to trust the public to rubber-stamp their plans again.
It seems to be self-evident that the main reasons so many sympathise with the demonstrators in Quebec are that the bourgeois have at least momentarily lost their claims to the mantle of democracy. We should seriously think about what that Wall represents. It is something that comes from a long trickle of lies, similar to a creek that builds a canyon. People have an internal knowledge that this system really isn’t for or about them. Thus, it is time for us to attempt to go for the jugular in the battle of ideas. The ruling class is increasingly exhausted in their search for legitimacy. We, on the other hand, are fresh and new. We can speak with the optimism of a new and better world, and do it now! I cannot stress this enough; time is of the essence.
The beauty of a possible referendum call has many facets. One is the simple fact that the ruling class can never grant such a referendum. Trade agreements like the FTAA are the very heart of global capital’s current agenda. Within that agenda is the maintenance of the democratic façade. They cannot give up either the agenda or the façade, yet a demand for a referendum forces them to drop one. If I were a betting man, I’d give great odds they would have to refuse the referendum in favour of their class interests. Being a stodgy old Marxist, I tend to think that the bourgeoisie acts in its own class interest above all else, every time.
The proposal for a plebiscite carries an implicit solidarity with the left in South America. After all, we aren’t demanding anything other than that we in the North act simply as democratic as Venezuela. Chávez’s call is similar to the kind of politics put forward by Anarchists here: the right of self-determination. So long as we can bring on board people who have diverse feelings about where this is leading, we can do something with it immediately. A demand for something that the ruling class cannot possibly give is revolutionary. Yet it is supported by heads of state.
What often has Social Democrats in a place that makes compromise difficult is a belief that democratic change of really significant proportions is still possible. So my call to those rank and file types, both inside and outside the NDP, is: let us challenge the ruling class to prove it. We have nothing to lose and much to gain from a unified demand.
These are proposals for a further heightening of the anti-globalisation movement. Primarily, they are simple steps, yet they will go a long way if we can unify any serious forces around them. One thing that is needed immediately is an end to worrying about direct action. In my time since returning home, many of my friends and acquaintances who are not usually interested in politics have taken the time to congratulate me, to thank the demonstrators in Quebec. They are talking as if the protests really did represent them. They are not interested in debates about bricks. If they are not, then why on earth should we be? It is time for a moratorium on critiques that go beyond friendly criticisms. A while back I saw an interview with Mohammed Ali while he was standing beside Stokely Carmichael (later named Kwame Ture). The reporter asked Ali if there were any differences between the Nation of Islam and the Panthers. His response was “Yes, but these are differences between brothers, and they are not for you to hear.” Such an attitude must be grasped now by all of us, if we are to be serious. After all, A better world IS possible. And now, so it seems, a lot of people know this. This is the great change.
The corporate media also know they are in trouble. The forms of attack on the protests all angles have been putrid and dripping with contempt. The CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Company], hardly a bastion of even the centre let alone the left, was attacked by the National Post, after the first day, for “hours of pandering to hooliganism.” Then there was a story which read “some of the protesters are violent; the rest are idiots.” Lines reminiscent of the ’60s started showing up: “When the water cannons came out, some of the demonstrators got their first bath in weeks.” Then there was an entire article devoted to how April 20 is a national pot-protesters day, and that people were wandering around selling and using all kinds of drugs (a total lie I didn’t smell pot at all, except once at the spontaneous rave). According to this “journalist,” people were selling LSD for $25 a hit (this was indicative of the honesty of the article LSD has a street value of five bucks). These are only a smattering of the responses. Needless to say, they verged on the hysterical. The press barons have given no quarter in appreciating the significance of the protests. This conveys a deep fear, one I didn’t expect to see spread out on their pages anywhere near so starkly.
The last few days as I walk around Vancouver, I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel different. What is this feeling? Is it pride? No, I’ve long been proud of being an activist and an anti-capitalist Marxist and proud also of my comrades for actions I witnessed or was a part of. That isn’t a new feeling. Is it confidence? I’ve been confident in the justness of our cause as long as I’ve been a part of it. It took me a while to come up with a word for it, but I finally figured out what that word is. Relevance. Never before in the five years I’ve been a self-described revolutionary has being such seemed to be as immediately relevant as it does now. It is this the feeling that we have something to offer and that people are going to be interested in what we have to say that is new, different, and utterly intoxicating.
I decided to test out a lot of these feelings by attending the May Day march in Vancouver, more as an observer than as a participant. The organising started quite late, mainly because of other work being done, particularly around the FTAA and a solidarity demo held here (which pulled in some 6000 people at the Peace Arch border crossing). I figured I was wrong if the demo pulled in some 150-200 people. The numbers, as reported by the CBC were around 600, so the “swell” I was hoping to see was evident: the numbers were only slightly less than last year, when many months of planning went into the demonstration. The difference was the tone; many little discussions of “what is to be done?” were erupting. Beyond that, I felt an anger in the crowd. The police have now changed as well. At the end of the demonstration, two women who had been postering in favour of the striking transit workers were arrested for this. Others blocked the paddy-wagon, calling this a political arrest. For their troubles (with linked arms and expecting to be carried off the road) the police attacked them with bikes used as rams and with pepper spray. Things have changed, on both sides. But the change is still chaotic; now it needs direction.
The look I have been receiving from strangers and friends alike is not the one I got upon my return from Seattle. After Nov. 30, 1999 people were interested, wanted to hear the story and thought it was neat that “youth” were doing this sort of thing again. The look I get this time is a thanking one. People have a respect for those of us who are doing this. I have never been granted instant respect by a stranger simply because I was an activist before. It has frankly always been the opposite. That change, while it feels very nice, says a lot more about the people who now show this respect than it does about me.
The events of the last week can fizzle quickly. We have a decision to make, through our actions, as to whether or not to grasp the moment and make it something more. The democrats have lost their claim to democracy. We are the ones who now have the only democratic answer to both political life and economic and environmental survival. We can start looking for our friends, and stop treating one another as enemies. Most importantly, we must keep the vision where it belongs, and in the only arena where it can have an effect. We must keep and nurture this struggle as an international struggle. The salute the Quebec demonstrators received from Fidel Castro was indicative of the form of struggle we are engaged in. It reminded me of a statement that Cuba’s Communist Party released a few years ago, which more than ever seems prophetic: “The struggle against the kind of domination imposed by globalised imperialism must also be globalised.” Truer words have rarely been spoken.