quebec city -- before the last
plastic bullet had ricocheted off the last gas-shrouded street, activists were already asking questions about what had happened outside the Summit of the Americas. What was the game plan for the demonstration? Did we win? What were we actually doing here?
"People have come here for different reasons," the radical French farmer José Bové tells me. "Some are fighting against capitalism, others just want to oppose globalization. What is important is that they are coming together. When people destroyed the Bastille on July 14th, they didn't know what would happen on the 15th. We're building our movement as we go along."
The Quebec Summit-stopping spectacular, like the ones in Prague and Seattle, saw isolated activists find themselves as they converged, and find each other as they consensed.
But it wasn't always so easy to find the right demonstration. On the parade out of the Laval campus on Friday, the 15,000 participants are split into marches according to their tolerance for direct action. "This way, people! The pacifist demonstration is on the left," a steward shouts. "Which one's on the right?" I ask. She eyes me suspiciously. "The pacifist one."
That's not what the Black Bloc thinks. "We're going to cause maximum disruption of the conference and shut the meetings down by any means necessary," says Brooklyn as he steps out onto the "diversity of tactics" route. Another points to the violence of starvation and UN sanctions that have killed 500,000 Iraqis. "Keep it in perspective," says Legs. "Even my mother's proud of me for marching today -- worried but proud."
José Bové is in the minority turning left. "The wall is a symbol of violence, and I think it's a good idea to march there. But throwing stones at windows might not be the best way to fight," he says. "We want more people to get involved. It's important not to do what they're waiting for us to do. We don't have to fall into their trap."
Bové achieved global notoriety for trashing his local McDonald's in France last year. But creative and imaginative as the CLAC (Anti-Capitalist Convergence) demo is, within half an hour the writing is on the wall, pavement and every available street sign.
The Quebec cops are becoming visibly nervous. Ten minutes after the march turns into boulevarde René Lévesque, one officer dives into the Black Bloc, flailing after a banner he doesn't like, only to emerge bloodied and disoriented, waving his gun at the Bloc from a nearby lawn. He's clutching the banner in his paw.
The first Bloc chant of "Tonight we're gonna fuck shit up" (to the beat of "The workers united will never be defeated") booms out as individuals in the Bloc begin uprooting metal poles to complement their shields. It doesn't seem to affect local support.
Quebecers wave from their windows, and little kids pick up dustbin lids and sticks to cheer on the Bloc as if they were a revolutionary militia marching to defend their hometown.
Then the march goes quiet as the Summit heaves into view. It stays silent even when a Shell station is trashed on the side of the road, and the awed hush continues as we reach the fence. Then all hell breaks loose.
In Seattle, affinity groups and individuals worked toward an objective of blockading the conference entrance and exit points to prevent delegates from arriving or leaving. In Prague, an affinity group spokespersons' council decided on a three-pronged attack at key points, allowing fluffy demonstrators to get into the conference environs by the back door.
In Quebec, the game plan, such as it is, appears to involve marching to the fence at one gateway and seeing what will happen next. What happens next is a carnival of police violence that lasts for two days and nights.
"It's less organized here than it was in Seattle," Dan, a Canadian independent media activist, later tells me. "But there's a greater intensity from both the activists and the riot police. The duration of street-by-street fighting has probably outlasted Seattle. It's been a prolonged battle."
The police response escalates Friday evening -- from CS gas to plastic bullets fired directly at protestors, in contravention of safety guidelines, to abductions. Jaggi Singh's capture is the most famous, but not the only one.
Richard Brooks describes how at 1 pm Saturday he attempted to join the union march with Morgan Stewart, an NDP student leader from Victoria, and another friend, when he was stopped by Fédération de Travailleurs Québec (FTQ) marshalls.
"They were big, burly men, and they pushed us aggressively to the side of the curb, saying, "You have no part of this. This is not your struggle.' They looked like they were about to hurt us, so we walked off, and almost instantly a white van screeched diagonally to a halt in front of us.
"The passenger door opened and a number of men in flak jackets piled out, identified Morgan and pulled him to the ground. Morgan didn't resist, but a crowd formed a semi-circle, shouting "Shame!' and "Grab him.' Someone threw a boulder through the window of the van, and the men pulled him inside, slammed the door and accelerated rapidly up the road.
"It was an abduction. There seemed to be a pattern of assumed troublemakers being picked out and detained or driven out of town and dumped."
Indeed, a number of assumed troublemakers -- usually good public speakers with megaphones -- are abducted around the trade union demonstration. At about noon, I see one activist wrestled to the ground by cops, bundled into a van and spirited away. An officer initially tells me the activist had a gun, but refuses to answer questions when I say I'm a journalist.
Abductions aren't the only surprise at the workers' protest. As the police break out their water cannons against activists who had again ripped down the fencing on the hill above the union demo, some 50,000 marchers are being sent in the opposite direction, four kilometres out of town.
"I didn't come all this fucking way to march to a parking lot," one protestor complains.
A deal the Party Quebecois and local trade union leaders stitched up with the authorities sees the demonstration led to an industrial complex miles from the fence. FTQ stewards link arms to prevent disgruntled unionists from leaving the official march to join activists around the fence.
Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians says, "I've heard complaints about the behaviour of some FTQ stewards, but that's shocking. The confrontation between activists and police was bound to ensure police brutality, and that's what they would have been worried about, but to stifle people's rights like that is shocking."
Jacques Theoret, an organizer of the FTQ demonstration, says, "There was no problem with individuals leaving the march. The problem was small, extreme-left-wing groups of students like CLAC, who tried to arrange a detour for the main parade. Our responsibility was to allow the demonstration to march peacefully. The only people excluded from the march were those wearing masks or carrying big flags that could hurt people."
Carol Phillips of the CAW and march organizers Common Frontiers resigned herself to the turn of events. "It was their backyard and their call. They were afraid of becoming part of a violent young people's demonstration. Hopefully, the Quebec union movement will learn the lesson. We have to learn from the new movements."
Back up on Dufferin Avenue, activists are finding tactics to adapt to the ubiquitous tear gas showers. More gas masks begin appearing, along with vinegar and lemon for soaking scarves.
As the day wears on, the boom of gas rockets mingles with the crack of plastic-bullet guns, while protestors bang on the railings in a rhythmic riposte. Apropos of nothing in particular, bored riot cops aimlessly fire off bullets or gas canisters at drummers or activists who get too close to the fence. It doesn't matter. The streets belong to the demonstrators.
By nightfall, the demonstrators are smoked down from the hill, and their frustration collides with police vindictiveness in the worst violence of the two days.
At 11 pm Saturday, the 34 leaders of the continent are bused out of the old city in a hazy kaleidoscope of red and blue flashing lights, way beyond the reach of activists or journalists. The riot cops on the hill laugh, and the demonstrators down below cry. And the Americas are safe for democracy again.