Youthful resisters outfox police

They didn't have the numbers to close down the OAS, but protestors showed they had smarts under pressure

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WINDSOR — There’s something creepily ethereal about watching someone endure chemical dousing in the name of conscience.

I got terribly melancholy when the young woman in the white sweater got pepper-sprayed in the face and had handcuffs put on her. But not for long. The spray meant for her headed my way, and soon I was on the run coughing out my own lungs.

There, behind the 3-metre-high wire fence, sitting on the grass surrounded by RCMP riot police, white-sweater woman might have been recalling the advice of the Shutdown Coalition’s handbook: “You are powerful. You can easily withstand most of what police throw at you. Remember, pain is only temporary, and you are extremely strong.”

The gift of the begoggled, bandana-clad youth contingent to the anti-corporate movement is its free trade in personal courage. It’s the source of a tremendous charisma that makes even a cranky observer like me believe we are all turning an invisible corner.

While their theory is sometimes reductionist (“Capitalism is bad and we have to fight oppression”) and their sense of ancestry shadowy (“The problem with the 60s was that no one knew how to organize”), this “serial protest where people follow trade and financial meetings like they used to follow the Grateful Dead,” as guru Naomi Klein puts it, has ritualized a resistance that is now heading for the youth mainstream.

I’m also noticing the way veteran movement types are starting to speak of this new wave with an almost spiritual reverence. When I ask the Council of Canadians’ Maude Barlow how she sees the youngers, she quickly veers into sentimentality. “If you see the world the way you ought to, as Margaret Atwood says, you see it through tears. That’s how the kids sitting on those barricades see it.”

But this weekend there’s trouble on the ramparts. The Organization of American States, it turns out, doesn’t have much of a profile in placardland, and Shutdown Coalition insiders are short of bodies — several thousand of them, to be exact — while the armed minions of the state strut up and down the city streets like it’s a banana republic.

At the “convergence centre” at the University of Windsor’s Grad House, demonstrators are indulging their particular brand of systematized anarchy. The affinity groups are finishing their non-violence training, flying squads are forming, lawyers’ phone numbers are being inked on arms, Food not Bombs are serving up rice, and the water wagons are ready to roll.

The medical monitors are off at the Feminist Theatre getting their last- minute training. Head medic Scott Weinstein, a 70s radical from Montreal, sighs, “You’re dealing with youth who are still immortal. I tell them it’s dangerous to wear their ear piercing — they do it anyway.”

An advance guard has been doing reconnaissance here for weeks, and media liaison Anna Dashtgard assures me that “people have put hundreds of hours into preparing this.”

But while the organization chart — horizontal as it is — is in fine shape, the strategy is slipping into the ozone. Shutdowns need a surfeit of human material, and by now there are only 300 souls ready to blockade.

At a nighttime meeting by the Detroit River, with the obscene lights of the casino flashing on the water, participants in their chaotic wisdom revise their ambitions.

Deftly cancelled

The group deftly cancels its doomed 6-am blockade for the following morning, and has the savvy to recognize opportunity when it knocks. That comes in the form of Canadian Auto Workers national staffer Carol Phillips, who slips quietly into the meeting and suggests the group join the labour rally the next day.

“Come and blend in with us to protect yourselves,” she tells them. “And while our march goes on you can do your actions and our members who support you will come and witness.”

That’s exactly how it goes down.

At the Sunday labour march, beige-hatted CAW marshals line the route, both a comfort and a challenge. Union organizer Rick Kitchen tells me they’ve been instructed “to be a buffer zone so the cops won’t beat on the kids. We aren’t trying to be father figures,” he says. “We just want to stop the harassment.”

But he admits support for the youthful rabble is a controversial item in the CAW. “We have a lot of educating to do among our members,” he says.

On the other side, some shutdowners see labour protection as less than beneficent. There are complaints that marshals are preventing the hanging of a banner on the fence of the OAS perimeter.

At one affinity meeting in the heat of the action on Sunday, a young protestor argues it’s time to get tough with the CAW marshals “who are stopping us from doing what we came here to do.”

Her comrade with strident yellow hair is infuriated, accusing her of trying to “provoke” a bad situation. “You’ve just come, and you haven’t been in CD (civil disobedience) training,” he tells her. “And besides, I saw you knocking a CAW marshal. I want solidarity with labour.”

Amidst the steel fences, the helicopters, riot police and plain-clothes cops with new running shoes, the young resisters manage finally at 4 pm to pick their moment — a parked and empty bus at one of the entrances.

Their numbers by now have swelled to a thousand, including many unionists who have done exactly as Phillips had foreseen and loyally stuck it out with the youth so they would be witnessed.

Promotional coup

And while full-scale blockading is no longer even a fantasy, they manage a respectable, carefully executed sit-in — civil disobedience at last. With over 40 arrests, they make the top of the news Monday morning — as planned, finessing a promotional coup from an attendance debacle.

And at 2 in the morning, when the arrestees are released from detention, autoworkers are there to ferry them to shelter.

As choreography, it was as perfect as the single rose a protestor passed through the police lines.

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