FRIDAY, APRIL 20, began at the University of Laval. All morning long, streams of activists poured into the buildings and onto the lawns as protesters prepared themselves for the coming confrontation on what was to be the day of direct action against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Organized into affinity groups, dressed in costume, black clothing and masks, or just wearing jeans and a T-shirt, we gathered together waiting for the march to begin. The planned route would take us directly to the perimeter fence surrounding the part of Quebec City in which thousands of trade officials and corporate executives would be meeting to decide the economic and ecological fate of the Western Hemisphere. A woman walked through the crowd on 10-foot stilts, students checked their bandanas and supplies of vinegar, and people began to pound the drums as we became impatient for the day to begin.
A huge cheer went up as we stepped off and organizers shouted to choose one of two paths--go left if you want a less confrontational and entirely nonviolent action, go right if you are ready for a higher level of confrontation with the authorities. Some affinity groups knew what these two marches meant and had chosen in advance; most of us weren't sure what the split meant exactly, but most people heard "confrontation," interpreted it as more militant, and went right. Little did we know that the cops would treat all of us the same once we got to the fence.
As we marched through various neighborhoods, we shouted greetings to people standing on the sidewalk, waved flags, carried signs, laughed and joked together, and wondered what the police had in store for us. As we got closer to the fence, the cheers grew louder, and we passed the streets where there were supposed to be police checkpoints--there were no uniformed cops anywhere. A medieval looking catapult joined us, built especially for tossing stuffed bears over the fence. This dangerous assault weapon would later be the pretext for keeping one of the action's organizers in jail for two and a half weeks without bail. A woman on the sidewalk cheered us on with a sign reading, "Free America, Trade Bush." There were tables set up along the sidewalk with food and water, and the woman on stilts started raining candy on us.
As we approached the perimeter, all we saw was a line of cops in riot gear standing behind two layers of a chain-link fence. "Are they going to let us walk right up to it?" everyone began to ask one another in disbelief. Drums started pounding loudly, and more cheers went up. The entire crowd, now numbered in the thousands, began looking at one another in amazement--we had gotten further in the first five minutes of the action than most people thought we would get all day. All of the sudden, a masked activist mounted the fence and before we knew it he had vaulted over the barbed wire and was inside the perimeter. Then he climbed back up on the fence, wedged himself between a part of the fence where there were two layers of fence, and swayed back and forth to open up the space between them. The cops held their ground. And then, more activists on the fence, a rope and pulleys lassoed around the top of the fence, and a line of protesters all surging backwards as they formed a line to pull it down.
The excitement stirred through the crowd as piece by piece the fence came down and was carried off. Fists went into the air, people shouted in joy, and principled nonviolent activists hugged other activists who embraced a "diversity of tactics" and had physically assaulted the fence. Our common hatred of the fence and our collective desire to burst through it brought us all together. The cops still stood in formation, and once the celebrations eased, we realized that there was nothing between us and the streets inside the perimeter but a few dozen riot cops.
Had we been unified and slightly more organized, we could have broken through the lines of cops and gone for the convention center where the leaders were scheduled to meet. Our hesitation was not due to lack of desire to take this action to the next level, but because of surprise and lack of collective preparation for this possibility. As we began to regroup and talk among ourselves about how to get everyone to attempt to go through all together, the cops got organized. Gas masks went on, backup came from around every corner, and all of the sudden cops were lobbing tear gas canisters from three different directions. People tried to throw them back, but they were landing by the dozens.
You see the gas before you choke, and then everything burns. It's like something large and foreign is lodged in the space just above your lungs. Your eyes shut self-protectively and when you pry them open, it feels like fire. Medics, armed with gas masks and rinsing solution, appeared out of the fog, washed out our eyes, and before we could thank them, moved on.
The only route of escape was through a fence and down a ledge several feet. And although no one wanted to leave this site where we had breached the fence, it was physically impossible, without the necessary equipment, to hold our ground. A scramble ensued and we regrouped down the hill. As soon as we got out of the gas, the burning eased, and before long we were discussing how to get back to the fence. A proposal went up to approach from another angle, and many went that route. The cops were prepared now and wheeled out water cannons. Activists attacked the cannons, looking for ways to dismantle them. One man stood peacefully and silently directly in front of the cannon, a foot from its mouth. Without warning, the cops turned on the water and the man and everyone else nearby went flying. Then they gassed the area all over again. The water makes the gas stick and the burning doesn't stop, so some protesters had to retreat to medic stations to get their bodies rinsed. Soon after, because people refused to retreat for long, rubber bullets started to fly, popping all around, fired into large crowds and targeted at identified leaders and those with camera equipment.
A group of us retreated down the hill to go to another access point at the fence perimeter. We passed through a "green zone," which was meant to be nonconfrontational, and because it was a few blocks away from the perimeter, we had control of the streets. There was a carnival atmosphere, with people talking and sitting in the middle of the road. Although some shops were open, most were boarded up, many with graffiti and posters proclaiming the shop owners' and residents' solidarity with the protesters.
We made it to the next access point on the perimeter. This was where the less confrontational demonstrators on the march had ended up, and they had been joined by civil society and labor leaders who had been attending the People's Summit nearby. The cops were so concerned with keeping people away from the perimeter and preventing another breach that they gassed this group as soon as one person jumped on the fence. When we arrived, red-eyed and looking for another way in, we found a group of activists sitting peacefully in a circle several feet from the fence singing the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome." The only provocation the cops needed to relaunch the tear gas was the hanging of a School of the Americas Watch banner on the hated fence.
Again the burning. We could taste it. People fell down coughing and spitting up. The medics were spread thin, so people started ripping their vinegar-soaked bandanas apart to help each other breathe. Barely able to see, people groped around for their water bottles, grabbed other activists they didn't know (often those who spoke a different language), and began rinsing their eyes out. The cops kept firing the tear gas, but those hit worst couldn't move or run to get out of the line of fire. People who had just met stayed with those who could not move so no one was left alone.
The fence and the bombardment of tear gas had made the divide between ordinary people outside the fence and those inside the perimeter more stark than any lengthy theoretical explanation ever could. This level of repression was something people might have seen on CNN in some far-off dictatorship, but Canada was supposed to be a democracy, modeled after and right next door to the world's most powerful "democracy."
Standing in front of the fence and watching the chaos caused by the cops, I was reminded of things I had read about kings and peasants during medieval times--when royalty sat inside walled fortresses ready to shoot flaming arrows and boiling oil on angry peasants. Luckily for us, pepper spray washes off much easier than boiling oil--but the setup seemed to me the same.
And so the day went on. Local residents let injured people into their homes to rest and gave them food and water. Activists met one another, discussed their struggles at home, approached the fence, got gassed and pepper-sprayed, sat on curbs to recover and then marched right back up to the fence, mostly unable to penetrate but not willing to walk away, and got gassed again. The fence was breached momentarily in several places and some things did make their way across the line--teddy bears, stuffed Barney dinosaurs, some tear gas canisters that got returned to sender, and a mattress that read, "How Can You People Sleep at Night?"
News came in throughout the day--the summit had been delayed by more than an hour because there was so much tear gas in the air that the delegates couldn't leave their hotels. The press center had been locked down because the gas was getting through the heat and air conditioning vents and was choking people inside. People cheered and rolled on the streets in laughter.
On Saturday, while 50,000 trade unionists marched to show their disgust with free trade and corporate globalization, the gassing at the perimeter continued. This day the atmosphere was more like a carnival. There were fewer people, but they were just as determined. The cops used more tear gas and pepper spray and turned on industrial fans in order to drench us in their chemicals. In total, the police admitted to using more than 4,700 canisters of tear gas and more than 800 plastic bullets. At one point, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the police were firing 30 canisters per minute.
By the end of the day, graffiti covered the city--with slogans denouncing free trade, corporate greed, and capitalism in general. Along one wall next to a road leading to the perimeter, scrawled in huge letters: "When Did Protesting Become a Crime?" Some windows were smashed--almost all were those of banks and corporate headquarters. The glass in front of one bank lay shattered, with cops in riot gear lined up on the street next to it and kids dancing in front of them. Somehow the advertisement for the bank had survived. It had a picture of a lovely looking child on a tricycle and read, "Par ce qu'il faut profiter," which means, "Because one must profit." The protesters were making it clear that they saw the world and its needs quite differently.
But once we stepped out of the commercial area and walked into the residential working-class neighborhood only a block away from the protests, it was as if the sanitation department had just been through. Not one broken window, not one speck of graffiti. The media never covered that part of town, nor did they get up early enough to catch the crews of college kids, walking through the drizzle, dressed in garbage bags with peace signs taped on them, cleaning up the debris left on the streets.
Saturday night, there were still activists roaming the streets, facing off with riot gear-clad cops who looked inhuman in their face masks, rubber suits, and belts stashed with tear gas canisters. They stared straight ahead as people tried to speak to them, cursed at them, and lay down in front of them, listening to music and smoking a bong here and there. As long as we didn't get too close to the fence, the streets were ours, and there was a swagger in the stride of the young people still milling around. No one moved for cars, people ate their dinner in the middle of the road, and the sense of disdain and utter disgust for the authorities was palpable. You could tell that whatever came out of anyone's mouth from inside the perimeter would hold no credibility with these protesters. An activist walking next to me paused with a look of wonderment on his face and said, "They're losing control of an entire generation."
One could argue that they started losing control of our minds years ago, but now they were losing control of our bodies and our actions as well. Quebec City was an experience I will not soon forget--for its sense of solidarity and hope, and for its lessons for the struggles that lie ahead.