Quebec City: a first-hand account

Numbers, militancy and solidarity make April anti-FTAA protests a milestone

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International protest against the FTAA at Blaine on the U.S.-Canadian border. Photos by Su Docekal.

In April, I was one of thousands of people who flocked to Quebec City to march against the Summit of the Americas, the first meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Thousands more, including comrades of mine in the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, turned out in solidarity at the border between Washington state and British Columbia and at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego.

Just as in anti-free trade protests I have been part of in New York City and Washington, D.C., the detachments in the streets of French-speaking Quebec City were mostly youthful. Demonstrators from Canada, Latin America, and the U.S. displayed an internationalist spirit in bright banners and militant, bilingual slogans.

What I found especially striking this time around, though, was the astounding level of support from the people of Quebec City itself. A local coalition of labor and other organizations coordinated housing for nine thousand visitors.

At the public school where I and hundreds of others stayed, friendly students staffed the facilities 24 hours a day. A community group served free food in a park next door, and yellow school busses crowded the entrance delivering and picking up protesters.

Residents not only welcomed the throngs who came to their city, but themselves turned out in the streets, swelling the number of marchers on Saturday, April 21 to between 45,000 and 65,000 people.

In Quebec, I had my best look yet at what the growing mobilization against global corporate rule, which has swept the globe from Chiapas in 1994 to Seattle in 1999 and Melbourne last September, has the potential to become: a truly mass movement.

Determination at the border. I travelled to Quebec from New York City in a three-van motorcade organized by the International Action Center (IAC). When the 45 of us reached the border, Canadian Customs spent two hours x-raying our baggage, taking pictures of us and our vehicles, and interrogating everyone.

Authorities picked out three of us for a second round of questions: “Have you ever been arrested? Have you ever appeared before a judge?” In the end, I was the only one of this trio allowed to cross the border. We had prepared ourselves, as a group, to encounter harassment, and our policy was to get as many of us as possible across the border and on to Quebec City.

In contrast, a group of 400 New Yorkers organized by the Direct Action Network (DAN) refused to cross the border because they decided that either all of them would make it into Canada or nobody would. As one of the people in my van commented critically: “That’s great! The ruling class doesn’t have to bar them from entering Canada. They’re keeping themselves out!”

Community opposition to the closed summit. Late in the afternoon on Thursday, April 19, we arrived in Quebec City. After checking in at our lodgings, a secondary school in a working class neighborhood, we joined up with a night procession of about 700 people.

Marchers headed out from Laval University toward the infamous “Wall of Shame,” which was erected around a whole neighborhood in the historic upper city where the FTAA met, and then veered off, winding down steep, narrow streets to the flatlands below.

The wall, a chain-link fence three meters high and anchored in concrete, became the focal point for the weekend’s demonstrations. It embodied the élitist, closed nature of the summit, and it helped to expose the hypocrisy of George W. Bush. When Bush spoke of the democracy of the free market and hailed neoliberalism as the solution to humanity’s problems, the barricade spoke louder, a graphic contradiction to his demagoguery.

The fence had already become a rallying point in the months leading up to the summit. Neighborhood groups began organizing against this six-kilometer monstrosity during the initial stages of its construction. For weeks, one community staged nightly objections by playing household audio equipment at full blast, in open violation of local noise codes. By the time the summit convened, the barrier looked like a democracy wall, bedecked with flowers, banners, balloons, bras, placards, paintings, tapestries and quilts!

Hurrah! The barricade is breached. On Friday, the massive protests began in earnest with a “Carnival Against Capitalism” organized by a local coalition of anti-authoritarian groups including the Montreal-based Convergence of Anti-Capitalist Struggles (or CLAC, according to its initials in French).

Once again activities kicked off from Laval University, this time in bright sunshine that mirrored the upbeat mood of the overwhelmingly youthful crowd — 7,500 male and female students, leftists, anarchists, and indigenous people from all over the Americas.

People happily grabbed the two leaflets I was handing out. One was a Freedom Socialist Party statement written for the occasion, “End the Dictatorship of Wall Street,” which called for abolishing the FTAA, NAFTA, and the WTO and establishing global cooperation among workers. The other was an IAC flyer urging support for African American revolutionary and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In deference to differences over tactics among participating groups, organizers offered marchers the choice of ending up in an area more likely to be safe or taking a riskier route. The vast majority of protesters opted for the latter and set off briskly toward the Wall of Shame, chanting “So-, So-, Solidarité.”

The atmosphere was tense but determined. When we got to a Shell gas station, the first windows were broken. Television sets all over the world showed what happened next.

Once the march arrived at the perimeter, anarchists led the attack on the fence and brought a section of it down. A phalanx of police with shields stood guard over the breach in the wall, while other cops lobbed a huge number of tear gas canisters into the gathering. Young men in black, some wearing gas masks, hurled back pieces of concrete, broken from the base of the fence. This was the beginning of a pitched battle between demonstrators and police that lasted for the better part of two days.

In a stroke of luck, a brisk wind blew the tear gas back at the cops. By afternoon’s end, the fumes had reached and polluted the ventilation system at the summit meeting site, delaying the opening ceremonies for a few hours.

Growing unity. Saturday’s march, put on by Canadian labor unions, was gigantic — at least 45,000 strong. Leaders of the FTQ, the Quebec affiliate of the Canadian Labour Congress, provided event marshals who directed people along a course that ended up in a parking lot, where protesters dispersed.

Dissatisfied with this non-confrontational route, impressive numbers of people left the main march to go to the upper city and join the radical young demonstrators still intent on tearing down the barrier. Among those who chose this tack were many unionists from the FTQ itself and particularly from the Canadian Auto Workers.

Over the course of the weekend, about 400 protesters were arrested. Using a tactic familiar to anti-free trade protesters in the U.S., the Canadian government employed preventive detention. For example, Jaggi Singh, a Canadian student organizer, was swept off the streets at the beginning of the weekend, held incognito, and only released more than three weeks later!

On Sunday, a bank was attacked, and this brought into the open disagreements among activists over the rightness or wrongness of violence against property. But, significantly, this did not lead to a wave of some protest leaders publicly admonishing and distancing themselves from their more destruction-minded compatriots — as happened in the aftermath of the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations.

In Quebec City, protesters showed a greater degree of radical solidarity. On Saturday, in fact, CLAC held a press conference and said that it would not condemn Friday’s assaults on the fence or other property, because this would detract from the legitimate protest against the violence created by free market forces.

Another political step forward was taken at the People’s Summit, an assembly held in the week before the street actions. People’s Summit organizers — union, environmental, and human rights reformers — called for cosmetic, woefully inadequate changes in the FTAA. But they met with vigorous opposition, and in the end the gathering’s main resolution unabashedly denounced the FTAA.

The Quebec demonstrations sent the message once again that wherever the representatives of global big business meet to push their devastating agenda, they will have a bold counter-force to reckon with.

But, as of yet, the opposition movement lacks definition, pulled in one direction by reformist labor leaders and in another by anarchist street fighters.

For now, the anger over the global goring that is taking place under the name of free trade is force enough to fuel each new protest.

But for the resistance to survive and grow, to retain the commitment of those already enlisted and to attract and educate larger numbers of people, it needs a clear working class program and tactics. This is what will allow it to build durable alliances, to last over the long haul, and to make real change. This is the challenge facing the movement, and this is its opportunity.

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