quebec city -- the riot of fun
and fury that shook Quebec City last week was the work of a movement hugely rich in non-violence and desperately struggling to get comfortable with itself and its high aspirations. The signs of this were everywhere, from the growing disenchantment with the Black Bloc to the difficulties anti-globalizers had with the stress of unscripted moments.
Beyond the clowns and the costumes, the drumming and the rage, mostly inexperienced young people returned again and again to the torture of tear gas so they could maintain a presence at the perimeter. And as thousands of them wandered the hilly, gassed streets of the upper town for 48 hours of surreal jubilation, the irony became apparent: the anti-corporate culture they have created is now so vibrant and so successful that its tribal structures are having trouble coping.
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It's Friday, late afternoon, and an unfathomable miracle has landed in the laps of the thousands of protestors surging to the boulevarde René Lévesque perimeter. The 3-metre-high chain-link fence on its concrete base has been sent crashing to the ground in a cool seven minutes flat.
Suddenly there is stasis. A frozen frame. Is it really true that this flimsy barricade was built by the finest military minds in the country? In the shock of it all, no affinity group is ready to sit down and link arms. Demonstrators mill tentatively, police seem stunned. Vacuums are dangerous things in crowd behaviour -- they're where fools rush in. The Black Bloc hurls missiles at the police: metal pipes, rocks, spiked potatoes. The charming catapult starts shooting teddy bears. And then the response -- volleys of tear gas -- and I'm suddenly running with thousands of others in searing, disorienting pain.
The fact that the perimeter is a piece of junk creates its own logic: once there's a possibility that the thing can actually be taken down, the idea becomes a fixation, very unlike the OAS summit in Windsor last June, where it was clear the solid fence couldn't be breached, so practical protestors switched to blockading.
The question now hanging in the air like the stale smoke is how much force is too much. At the spokescouncil meeting Friday night, in the foyer of Laval's Desjardin building, protestors are noting the shortcomings of the brilliantly conceived green, yellow and red zones (green, no confrontations; yellow, non-violent civil disobedience; red, whatever). To the great credit of even the unrelenting Black Bloc, green actions on Thursday tended to stay green. The green torchlit march that sent thousands surging through the narrow streets in utter darkness remained peaceful. No one messed with the yellow women's march either. There, participants under the leadership of a 15-foot Goddess of Nemesis summoned to "haunt those who have committed evil for the rest of their lives' decorated the perimeter.
But despite the general goodwill, the lines are starting to fuzz up a lot by late Friday. At the 10 pm spokescouncil, someone complains that "a small group threw things at the wall today and endangered people who hadn't consensed to have this happen."
Anarchist Anti-Capitalist Convergence types (CLAC in French) have been very clear about the limited reach of their own leadership. "We've always said we organized the demo until the demonstrators in their affinity groups would decide what to do," says one. But the Black Bloc, which isn't a group so much as a state of mind, can alter the tone of any gathering. Their own self-concept as discriminating vandals (corporate targets only) is not exactly reassuring to many protestors, and the gentle live-and-let-live consensus is fraying. "I don't want to disrespect what you do," says one protestor at a midnight strategy session, speaking to a Black Bloc'er who can't find any takers for the bucket of paint balls he's trying to pass around. "Just don't do it around us."
By 3 Saturday afternoon, all the windows of the CIBC are smashed in and someone has put up a sign: IOU one window -- the Revolution. But there are more messages: "We are sorry, we tried to stop them," says one. At 5:45 pm, some demonstrators attempt to set fire to the building, throwing flaming material in through the windows. A group from Pennsylvania, veterans of the School of the Americas sit-ins in Fort Benning, Georgia, rush to intercept the action and empty their bottles of water on the growing flames. One incendiary helmeted Bloc'er attacks a fire-queller, and a fist fight breaks out.
"I'm here to break the negotiations, not someone's property," Isaac, one of the Pennsylvania crew, says.
And when a contingent of 40 or so Black Bloc'ers ceremoniously march down René Lévesque at 5 pm lugging a 12-foot battering ram, the crowd boos. Someone yells, "You're no better than the cops." The woman beside me complains that "in Europe the Bloc are supposed to protect demonstrators from police, but here they just throw rocks.'
While those equipped with full gas masks are able to tolerate the chemical contamination (my newly bought goggles are of limited use) and spend their time sparring with police at the perimeter, thousands drift aimlessly through the narrow, acid streets in search of meaningful gestures. There is drumming and dancing and marching bands and little clots of people eating trail mix and talking strategy, and lots of ambition as contingents build steam and march on a perimeter entrance only to disperse when the gas starts wafting in.
And in this lies the vulnerability of the affinity-group structure. It's far superior to old-left leader-follower constructs, gives everyone a grounded and safe place in a confusing choreography and inspires self-generation. But it also happens that protestors are often only as effective as the collective experience of their affinity group.
Take the episode at the forgotten Grande Allee entrance a mere few blocks from the epicentre of the battle. Why no one has thought to block this gate has confused me for several hours now. It's barely locked, and buses have been freely coming and going all day. In Windsor, protestors sent out scouting missions to probe vulnerable points in the fence.
But finally, at midnight, a cluster of affinity groups -- about 400 people in all -- discover the oversight. They march to within two blocks of the gate and sit down in the road for a meeting. One speaker establishes the essential: "We need to keep this action yellow. No throwing things," he says pointedly to the Black Bloc'ers on the periphery. Some sweet soul announces he's spent all day with his wire cutters making a hole in the isolated Plains of Abraham perimeter, but he says he's getting nervous and could anyone come and help him? One francophone speaks passionately in favour of a silent sit-in -- "Everyone just shut your mouths," he proclaims, though its evident no one can do it. They can't decide whether to block this route or some other; they can't agree on whether there are enough escape routes or how close to the fence to sit. In fact, they are so busy deciding what their consensus is that cars are inching around the supposed blockade. "There's a car coming," yells one frustrated protestor. "Can't we just block this one fucking car?"
By 1 am, after a valiant struggle against the centrifugal pressures to party, the group throws in the towel and becomes just one more clutch of people dancing to the drums and pipes on boulevarde René Lévesque.