A Change in Consciousness Quebec City Protests, April 20th - 22nd, 2001

The events this weekend in Quebec City mark a clear turn in the situation for Canadian youth and workers. The mainstream media reports are a series of lies and distortions from start to finish and it increasingly becomes the job of the movement itself to get the news out. This article follows on from the previous eyewitness report, "And the wall came tumbling down."

Saturday, April 21st 1pm. I have been to many demonstrations in my 10 years of political activity but never have I seen such an impressive display of banners and only once have I seen more people. Canadian labour has come out in force to oppose the FTAA. There is a sea of blue CAW/TCA banners (autoworkers), pink CUPE flags (public sector workers), FTQ in white (Quebec labour federation), plus teachers, steelworkers, machinists, citizens' groups, youth groups, and international support from the AFL-CIO amongst many others.

If you read the corporate press, they will tell you that there were twenty to thirty thousand people here in a carnival atmosphere. However, I fail to see how a march that takes two and a half hours to move past a single point on a wide boulevard can be that small. By my (and many others') estimation, the crowd is at least 75,000 strong, including 7000 autoworkers. The favourite chant is "So-so-so, Solidarité". And with great power it winds its way through the commercial district, below the hill where 34 presidents and prime ministers are hiding behind a 4 metre high wall and 6000 cops. Looking up leftwards onto the hill we can see the clouds of tear gas as the youth confront the Police. Sporadically the breeze brings the gas down onto the march, making everybody cover their faces.

After 15 minutes of walking there is a sudden commotion. For some reason the union marshals are directing the march rightwards, away from downtown and away from the fence. Youth activists hold up a large banner saying, "LEFT TO THE FENCE", shouting "Gauche, gauche, gauche! - Left, left, left!" At the last minute the trade union bureaucrats altered the route of the march, previously planned to go by the fence, taking the massed workers away from where they were needed. Most workers believe that the rally point will be only a few short blocks away, giving them the opportunity of joining the protests at the fence. However the bureaucrats are trying to dilute the message as much as possible. The meeting point is a 90 minute walk away, in the middle of nowhere. Once there, marchers are fed a diet of music with a few speeches about how wonderful everything is and how fantastic "Solidarity" is. (This is obviously the definition of solidarity, that includes running away and deserting your comrades). Not all workers are duped: many Steelworkers, CUPE and Autoworkers turn back, angry at the trick, many vowing to raise hell about this betrayal. They play an exemplary role in that day's struggle, despite only having a few hours until their buses depart.

Back on the hill the movement has developed a strategy and an infrastructure. Behind the fence at one gateway, storm troopers flank a water cannon tank as it sprays the immediate area. A line of riot police block a street on the left of the wall. On the protesters' side a few thousand people stand out of range of the tank, both on the approach roads and on an overpass below the gate. Below the overpass is the Mad Max-esque "anarchist" camp, where there is free food, info, and a place to relax from the struggle. About 100 metres down one of the approach roads lies the medical centre, where anybody can be treated and de-contaminated. Nearby lies the independent media centre, co-ordinating activists with camcorders and webcams, disseminating information and ensuring that police brutality is recorded and published on-line. In the no-man's-land within range of the water cannon lie two groups: ineffectual stone-throwing youths and gasmask wearing protestors sitting on the ground. Mother Nature was clearly not on the side of Capitalism this weekend. Consistently the weather was pleasant and the wind into the face of the police. When they let off tear gas, it came back to them. So the riot cops developed a strategy of firing the gas up high, to land behind the protesters. The gas then blows back onto the mass of people.

I did not witness a single occasion where the cops gave warning of any action they were about to carry out. To those concerned with legality, this is a clear breach of our right to free assembly. Thousands of people protesting well away from the fence were repeatedly gassed. If anything can be said about human nature, it is that we can adapt to any situation. You would think that the pain and blindness induced by tear gas would cause everybody to run away (this is the initial reaction). But you get used to it. You walk away, cry, never touch your face, and wash your eyes with clean water. A few minutes later you are back in the action. A vinegar-soaked scarf protects your lungs. In this situation bandannas and gas masks cease to be pretentious r-r-revolutionary chic and become an absolute necessity if you are going to continue the struggle.

We were not to be beaten that easily. A network of glove- and gas-mask-wearing activists first catch the tear gas canister (it is very hot) and throw it into the no-man's-land. Then the sitting protesters throw the canister into the police lines, completely obscuring their vision, before peacefully sitting down to accompanying cheers. This is not without its classically Canadian moments: protesters frequently use ice hockey sticks to hit the gas canisters into the stormtrooper "goal".

We gradually lose our fear of the State. Normal police cars look amusingly colourful and "Mickey Mouse" once you have been confronting riot troops. Even the stormtroopers, (with gas masks, helmets, smoked visors, and no numbers), fail to intimidate when the crowd hums the Darth Vader intro tune from Star Wars ("Dum-dum-dum," etc.). Drums and music also play a fantastic role in rallying the crowd. On the overpass, hundreds of people bash stones and sticks against the railings to create an awesome cacophony, which ends up sounding like a heartbeat rhythm. It is no wonder that CNN never includes audio with its pictures.

The police are irritated with our defiance. They start firing canisters directly at the sitting protesters. I witnessed a single cop run out and hit a man who was at the front waving a red flag bearing a hammer and sickle (there are just as many red flags as black flags). They escalate to plastic bullets with laser sights on the guns. At this point I decide to go to a different side of the fence, around to St-Jean street. It is about 7pm.

St Jean is packed with protesters. In total I estimate there to be about 25,000 people scattered around the hill. Combine that with the labour march and you have 100,000 protestors, twice the size of Seattle and 4 times the predicted turnout. If you take into account that Quebec City is not very easy to get to then you have a good idea of the depth of discontent that was expressed here. As I walk down the street, I unexpectedly walk into a line of riot cops. Previously the fence in this area was cut open so the cops have blocked off access to that section of the street. St Jean is very narrow with few places to move. If tear gas is let off there, it will not disperse. They are preparing for an escalation with nightfall.

At 8.00 the police move to surround the protesters on St Jean, and advance at the other locations. At St Jean a crowd peacefully sits and sings in front of the riot cops. Apparently, left wing New Democratic Party MP Svend Robinson is present at this demo. As it escalates he is gassed and is grazed by a champagne-cork-shaped plastic bullet. Throughout the day, police kidnap squads target those deemed to be leaders. They drive up fast in a van, 3 plain clothes cops jump out and grab the demonstrator, and before anybody can do anything they throw them in the back of the van and drive off very fast.

One of the weaknesses and strengths of the movement is a lack of leadership. The police can move and we can only react when they are on top of us, but conversely it makes it difficult for the State to decapitate the movement. Future protests will need better leadership, organization, and above all communication. Important individuals and centres will need to be guarded.

The police have decided to illegally clear the hill of all protestors. They increase the concentration of the gas, or mix it with pepper spray, and use snow-blowing fans until nobody can move without a full gas mask. This is also a major residential area - thousands live on the hill and in the surrounding area. There have been reports of people's pets dying from gas seeping into houses. The locals are very supportive, leaving out water or putting anti-FTAA signs in their windows. The cops attack the medical station, taking away their masks. The medics have to retreat down a long flight of steps with their hands over their heads. One man shot in the kidney with a plastic bullet has to be evacuated while lapsing in and out of consciousness. I have a confirmed report of a girl being struck in the neck, and unconfirmed reports of a 16 year old boy struck in the head with the possibility of brain damage, and one person falling off the overpass. All parts of the protest infrastructure are now legitimate targets.

As night falls, all but the most militant have fled or have been arrested. The right-wing make a lot of noise about the destruction of property, and there is a repeatedly-used picture of a couple of youths smashing the windows of a Starbucks coffee house. (A bank was also hit.) This was a direct result of the police forcing the protestors off the hill and down into the main commercial district. Bonfires are lit to act as barricades and there are running battles until 4am. About 400 people are arrested, and 57 protesters and 45 police are injured, giving the media the justification to brand the protesters "violent thugs".

Sunday, April 22nd. In the morning people are tired and in no mood for further protest. It is raining. Where previously we had owned the streets, now the occasional car drives down them. Tourists come to take photos and trophy hunters pick up pieces of spent ordinance. (The careless also get a face full of tear gas in the process). The cops have taken off their helmets and patrol outside the fence with smiles, obviously trying to diffuse any further build up. Despite the rain, there is still gas in the dust that can unexpectedly get you in an air pocket - you cry with no idea of which direction to move away. Down at the Indy-media centre people swap stories to piece together what happened the night before. I am amazed at how little property damage there is downtown. A jail solidarity protest is organized with a shuttle to take people out there. No more gas is released today, but there are reports of the snatch-squads picking up anybody with a gas mask. I start wishing I had booked my flight home sooner as it looks like nothing will happen today.

Yet back up at St-Jean the mood is picking up. Someone has set up a small speaker and microphone and people volunteer to speak from the crowd. We own the street again, but the people want analysis, not protest. Most of the speeches are in French, but English and Spanish are also used. This is an elemental and spontaneous democracy. I pick up the microphone: "Never let anybody tell you we were defeated here this weekend. There were 100,000 people here in opposition to capitalism and its institutions. We should open up the history books to France 1968. There the students protested and were struck down by the police. The workers demonstrated in solidarity and were also beaten. Then the workers came out on strike and occupied the factories - 50 in the first day, and by the end of the week, the entire country was at a standstill in the largest general strike in history. We will never win by direct confrontation with the police. They will always be better equipped, better prepared. We need to strike at the heart of capitalist exploitation - strike, occupy, and take away their profits. They can tear-gas us away from the fence but they can't tear-gas us back to work!" I talk about the need for unity between youth and workers. I talk about the betrayal by the union bureaucrats, turning right to nowhere instead of left to the barricades. Afterwards I am liberated from the remaining leaflets and magazines I had brought with me (over 1000 at the start of the weekend), and continue private discussions with individuals late into the evening.

So where now? They have included a so-called "democracy" clause in the FTAA draft - it would be more accurate to call this a capitalism clause. It allows them to put sanctions on any regime that dares to work against the big powers. The FTAA is in effect free trade in the service of protectionism (against Europe and Japan). Bush is quoted as saying, "We have a choice we can make: we can combine a common market so we can compete with the Far East and Europe or we can go it alone. I submit that going on our own is not the right way". This agreement is in the interests of US Imperialism through-and-through.

The movement is building up; the movement is strong. They will heap slander on us to try and erase the memory. We must not let this happen. It is not an accident that Canada is currently in the middle of a small strike wave. 19,000 Newfoundland Public sector workers defeated the government after 5 days on strike (with 70% popular support). The prison guards in Quebec settled an illegal dispute a week before the summit. The schools in Toronto have just closed after a month long strike by 13,000 support workers. Calgary bus drivers struck for 40 days. Vancouver bus drivers have been striking since April 1st with a 99% strike vote. British Columbia nurses also have an unprecedented 95% strike vote. And all at the height of the capitalist boom. This is just the beginning.