Hi. This is my first post here, forgive me if I didn't tag this right. With the G-20 Summit coming to Toronto I thought that some experiences from the Tear Gas Summit in Quebec City during 2001 might offer some insight or help. I wish everyone the best - don't forget to duck and cover.
The G-20 Summit In Toronto; Tear Gas, Bee Girls, Fences and Riots
by Spanner McNeil
The G-20 and G-8 Summit about to take place in Toronto at the end of June may have a Quebec City model as its template. I offer it as a historical comparison.
In 2001 the Economic Summit of the Americas was held in Quebec City. Presidents, economists and bag men from over thirty countries attended this third in a series of North and South American free trade talks. My girlfriend, Robin and I and her teenage son Alex returned to Montreal slightly after midnight. We were too groggy and tear gassed out to shower when we got home and slept in our funk. If you were close to us then, you would have noticed a heavy stench of vinegar. I woke with a hand full of film rolls in my pocket and my skin was burning.
Everyone just had to see that fence. The government recently constructed a fence around a ten square mile chunk of Quebec City and said no one could go beyond it in order to protect over thirty heads of state and hundreds of Officials. It attracted radicals like moths. There was outrage. People felt they would just go up there and tear that fence down.
We left Montreal around noon and drove the hundred odd miles up Highway 40 towards Quebec City on a beautiful April Spring day. The hills were lovely. The snows were dwindling to patches. The joy of playing bass came through on the radio with Gorillaz followed by Rufas Wainwright and then Radio Head. As we got close to Quebec City with it's population of about a half million innocent souls, I noticed that the main generators and electric power installations were completely unmanned, open and unguarded. We were going to lose another fight. We weren't serious. By we, I mean the collective we of the twenty to thirty thousand people who were going to participate in protesting the Summit over three days from April 20-22. They would demonstrate while feeling excluded and that world leaders were lining each others' pockets, wallowing in corruption. We parked the car near St. Augustine hospital and walked toward the downtown area where we noticed throngs of people walking along the sidewalk carrying signs and wearing interesting clothing. We followed the crowd.
The big secret deal was this: Concrete abutments about two feet thick, four feet long and two feet high had a six foot chain link fence attached to their tops creating a wall. This wall was the wall in the news. It was placed at every intersection in order to create a great circle around old Quebec City. This was the high ground to be protected from siege.
To observe or get a glimpse of the fence was an assault. It meant walking up into a ground fog that varied in density but was most intense from the fence area to four blocks away. Our first hill was up the road towards a flash point where the fence had been breached by the First Canadian Irregulars. They were loose affinity groups of anarchists. Anarcho-syndicalists perhaps. A wide modern street angled up a hill towards a barricade of the fence backed by a phalanx of police who were shooting a continuous volley of tear gas, pepper spray and other noxious bombs into the street.
My first visual of this was from behind the scene about three hundred feet from the fence. At that point I began to gag, tear, snot up and became a tad disorientated. There were hundreds of people milling around the barricade area. It was not possible to be there with an uncovered face. I dropped to my knees, pulled a big winter woolen hat out from my bag, drenched it in vinegar and then cut out holes for my eyes. I covered my face and skin in Vaseline and wrapped a vinegar soaked scarf across as much of my head, face and throat as I could. This get up with my winter navy pea jacket would have to do. The initial humiliating shock had turned into respect now. Gas is gas. You have to be covered and even then it brings you to your knees. There was always someone nearby on their knees. The gas works, that's why it's used.
Anyway, we couldn't approach from there so we went around the corner to the next intersection which had a street that emptied closer to the action. I walked down and got right close to the fence. Fifteen feet was exactly where I wanted to be for some nice black and white as well as colour pix. I got close, knelt and began to take pictures. Middle aged men, teenagers and twenty somethings had tied a rope to the fence and were all pulling with unity to tear it down. A line of police stood ready on the other side of the courtyard.
There was a continuous rush of half a dozen men and women in their late teens and mid twenties. They came running in from the edges wearing gas masks and threw spewing and smoking grenades over the fence into the police lines along with whatever else they could lay their hands on.
There were a dozen women in black and yellow striped honey bee suits wearing bags of rocks across their shoulders and placing them down at strategic points. The beely bopper spring antennas on their heads wiggled back and forth. They grabbed each others' hips in a conga line and snaked forward gathering and placing rock piles like ideas. More people poured in. Pedestrian traffic was going in both directions.
There were continuous shouts for attention. “Medic! Medic!” People were crying on the curbs. People were on their hands and knees. People were running back into the gas.
I kept trying to frame shots. After two minutes and a roll of film I reloaded. Then the wind shifted slightly and I was shooting photos while my eyes filled up and my nose poured like Niagara Falls. I continued framing shots. In the middle of the action my camera seized up. The flash, the manual, the hundred second seized. All I had left was the automatic leaving me attempting to view information in the finder while some one was shaking jars of hot acid on my eyeballs. Snot was running everywhere down my face. Added to the element was knowing lots of journalists had their equipment spray painted, trashed and smashed the day before. There was another volley of gas canisters and then it was time to join the folks walking back through the cries of Medic and searching for water.
We tried to outpace the slow moving heavy gas. That was the 'red zone'. The area immediate to the perimeter was known as the red zone. Further away was the yellow zone where protest groups were milling around with signs, flags and bongos. The green zone was filled with the big established unions. There were about thirty thousand people. Twenty in the green, six in the yellow and about four in the red. Two hundred union buses showed up. Their passengers gathered in the green zone and marched for two hours through deserted streets five miles from the Summit and then left town. They could say they were there. They showed the colours and scampered.
I leaned against a wall and turned on my transistor radio. I thought it might give me a clue as to where the next bit of action might take place. I went up and down both the AM and FM bands. It was all white noise except for one CBC station, broadcasting opera music.
A lot of people at the protest were between twenty and thirty. Many were dressed in their finest hemp clothes – the day before being 420 and all. They were wearing friendship jewelry, some bell bottoms, tank tops, cool rings and hip clothing. There had to be more than six hundred gas mask wearing demonstrators who were well equipped enough to get in to the thick of things at any given time. Several dozens had brought Plexiglas shields. The Peoples' warriors were very polite to one another, always willing to douse a strangers' eyes with water or guide someone to a wall for leaning or vomiting. It was a moving crowd. There were thousands of people in various clumps slowly rotating about the perimeter looking for weak points and continuously straining at the fence. People were moving into clouds of gas sometimes thick sometimes thin but always there. People occasionally fell down to spit up and tear up for awhile and then got back into the slow moving mobs.
Cappuccino or a light anti-pasta were very popular after a good gassing. Many grabbed their credit cards from waist pouches and headed into any of the dozens of open vegetarian cafes for a light lunch after first cleaning up in the ladies or mens room to wipe off a bucket of snot. All the local businesses were open and catering to the riot tourist trade. After a fantastic Quebecois repast everyone would head right back into the corrosive clouds for the business at hand – rioting. It was actually a very festive atmosphere. Quebec City can be a great tourist town.
When people gathered in groups of three or four to stand in the middle of the street or intersection it was soon discovered by helicopter. Five was the same as five hundred. It would hover overhead guiding a rain of well placed tear gas and pepper spray grenades moments later. To stand around was to be gassed, to walk was to be gassed, to be there was to be gassed.
It was a residential area. Plenty of locals lived right there in the middle of it. No one touched their windows or cars. No one vandalized the window sill flower boxes. They were caught in it. Many wanted nothing to do with the tens of thousands of outsiders who had poured in from all over North America. They were doing all they could to keep the tear gas out of their own homes, taping the cracks around their doors and windows.
There was a white haired old woman in her late seventies. She was dressed in her Sunday finest and walking her little dog on a thin leash down the main boulevard. Chunks of rock and broken cobblestones lay here and there. Involuntary tears were running down her face as she walked, chin up, with a little smile into a Saturday afternoon filled with noxious ammunition. Her little dog needed a walk and we do what we have to do.
A thin man in poor clothing had run a hose from his kitchen sink into the narrow street and was filling peoples' water bottles and washing the faces of strangers.
We were taking a break near the Grand Theater beside a bank. I noticed some of the bank windows were broken. Someone had taped a sign on one of the shards that said, “I owe you one window.” Surprisingly in Bill 101 Quebec with its French only sign law, there was a lot of English graffiti that day, more testimony to the outsiders. Inside the corner bank was a lone security guard. He was surrounded by a sidewalk full of bongo players. He sat on a swivel chair facing away from the mayhem. His body language said, “I'm just sitting here. I'm a fifty year old security guard. Please don't eat me.” He certainly wasn't giving anyone the finger.
The police charged fifty yards forward in a uniform line. The quick advance caused the crowd to panic charge backwards for a minute. There is nothing like the rush of standing in the middle of the street when the crowd reverses to charge at you and the gas starts to fly and the smoke bombs smash and the troops run at you but it makes better sense to hold still, wipe ones' nose and frame a shot. The crowd just as suddenly stopped and held its new position.
I bumped into a librarian from Concordia and he'd seen the catapult being dragged through the streets the day before. “ It was built by the anarchists.” He hadn't seen it since. I observed lone cinder blocks that were on the ground deep into the police line. I don't know how that came to be. It's pretty hard to toss one more than seven feet let alone fifty. It was acknowledged that this medieval siege device had been used to fling hockey pucks, donut boxes, wet teddy bears and feather dusters over the fence into the police line. Jaggi Sing would get labeled for that one dragged away by undercover while in the green zone. He sat in the cooler for seventeen days waiting on bail.
Word was out. I had to see the water cannon. I'd never been to Disney Land but this had to be better. I was walking up another hill attracted by people speed walking in the opposite direction. They were a panicked mob and headed towards another section of the fence.
A water cannon truck had been their adversary in a parking lot on the Summit side of the fence. Its jets of water streamed through the fence into the narrow street. About a half dozen skin heads ran up along side of the buildings into a side alley on the left closest to the water cannon. The white frothy stream followed them creating a roar of fine mist. They were excited, in their twenties and shouting to each other. It was a 400 ASA moment. These were young Canadians doing something they thought important. I ducked down and ran for it covering my camera from the water, feeling it thump against my chest. I got to the end of their line and began to shout over the roar. I knew a fair number of journalists and cameras had been pounded and whacked around lately. I held up my wide variety of both real and fake press credentials while speaking quickly in French and English. They gave me the big hairy eyeball lifting their chins but then laughed and said it was ok.
I was embedded with the Third International Fleur de Lis Hockey Puck Brigade. All these guys, these young strong men were risking their lives and names. They took turns running from the alley up the hill to bring their arms back and fling hockey pucks over the fence at the steel plated armored carrier mounted with a water cannon. The guys kept coming, shouldering bags of hockey pucks. They had hundreds of pucks. They couldn't get much closer than a hundred feet before the spray knocked them down and most of the pucks barely had the velocity to land at the boots of the cops laughing at them. Police rested their rifle barrels in the chain link fence grids and took aim. The Brigade then had to cope with rubber and plastic bullets. They continued to prance and dance back and forth into the spray. They were yelling profanities and throwing pucks. I continued to shoot with my crapped out Pentax.
Tear gas and pepper spray fog filled our lungs and leached into our blood stream. I wondered what sort of extra chemicals might have been added to the water just for experiments sake. These local French-Canadian skinheads were totally hyper. They kept shouting and laughing at one another while pressed against the brick wall. One of them bent over and lifted up his shirt to show me this four inch black bruise where he got shot with a rubber bullet. They had been spending their day taunting the police and collecting a variety of plastic and rubber bullets. That friendly sounding object is about four inches across, six inches long and made of rock hard plastic. If it hits someone in the throat or eyeball odds are that person will be dead or blind. Above our heads, in the alley, a second floor window opened up. Some guy stuck his head out and started screaming at us in French. He screamed about how horrible and bad they were. He was just outraged.
I screamed back at him. “ You fat head. This is the best theater in town. This is better than TV. Why don't you call the cops?” Everyone laughed. Another man in his twenties came running into the alley and he asked if he could take pictures. They had a discussion about it. It didn't look good. They said if he did they would beat the crap out of him. He left.
The water spray changed its viscosity. I don't think it was just water anymore. The following days papers would assert that it was only water. It was slippery between my fingers. I wondered if there was any Agent Orange left over. I don't know what it was but after dodging bullets I ran from skinhead alley to the corner and collapsed again. I was blind. I let myself go to my knees as I'd seen others do. I knelt in the middle of the road and held my face up, eyes closed. I waited. In a minute a stranger passing by sprayed my face from a water bottle.
One can walk into a cloud of pepper spray and tear gas and handle it in degrees like approaching a red hot iron. Everyone has a different tolerance for how close they can get and how much they can accumulate. Normally a few shots of tear gas disperses a crowd. I don't think the planners expected people to dance in it and embrace it from dawn until midnight like some long drawn out snort of forbidden drugs at a rave. One has to walk away from gas. If you run you'll get hurt from falling. The gas stings and it clings to skin and burns and has many effects. After being out of the denser clouds for about five minutes I felt much better, almost as if I came out of a cleansing sauna, except a couple thousand guys were trying to shoot me. People were always milling around giving out or asking for vinegar to be soaked on their face coverings. There was no shortage of demonstrators who showed up with Vaseline and vinegar in their bug out bags. The Woodstock crowd was mixing with Seattle grunge passing on information from one generation to another. It was romantic. Every once and awhile the cops added something extra special to the gas and mobs were devastated by the severity of its strength. It seemed to have some kind of residual build up that smacked one down like a roach in an ancient cartoon Raid commercial. One of the side effects from hours of breathing it in was hysterical amused anger. At any rate, these crowds were not likely to be fearful of tear gas again. They might even seek it out as a high. I wondered what future demonstrations would be like. They seemed to be snowballing bigger and greater all over North America.
Everyone was doing their job. That is to say it was a great day to be a cop. It was a great day to be a journalist. It was a great day to be a provocateur. It was a great day to be a protestor, a medic, an anarchist or a tourist. Everyone did their ideal type job. Everyone was allowed to fulfill their roles. It was a privilege to be there. It was about six months prior to 9/11. In retrospect I think if anything like this party had happened recently after September 11 the security forces probably would just have opened fire with a steel wall of live rounds. When I thought back on it I did remember some rumours floating around weeks before the Summit. Something was going to happen somewhere sometime. There was a feeling. It wouldn't be fair to link the two but I did find it odd that the usual Middle Eastern protest groups seemed to be absent. They were at most of the two hundred other demonstrations and riots I'd been to. I didn't see them there that day.
The red zone anarchists, spontaneous and otherwise, were seen to go at it hour after hour without being captured. Crowds of observers were joining in the confrontation by degrees. Where perhaps in other demonstrations it might have happened that anyone seen to be violent was shunned or loved to peace by the crowd, it was not the case that day. The dynamic was such that the crowds were giving a lot of tacit approval and aid, either by knowingly acting as camouflage for unrest or fueling the behaviour. For their part, the police did not pull a Chicago 1968 or a Gastown 1971 with full police riots. The mobs of fashionably dressed rioters correctly judged the situation and did not escalate to deadly force. The police did not use deadly force. The perimeter worked like a large rubber band absorbing shock and dissent while the rich chocolate fudge center of foreign and domestic leaders escaped the grasp of wild and angry civilians. A tear gas canister about the size of a pop can hit a lady in the side of the throat. She went down hard. Spontaneous medics came to her aid.
By mid-afternoon it was obviously time for a joint and a beer. We stood across from a large Gothic church whose steps were covered in masked and loosely garbed people. It was nice to sit in the sun. I pulled a joint from a plastic bag tucked in my sock and sat back sipping a beer purchased from a local store. I inhaled tear gas. An older man with white hair was strolling down the street. People immediately started to shout at him in recognition. “Chanson. Chanson!” He opened his guitar case and played quick loud Quebecois tunes on the church steps. People gathered. He played unmasked like that for five minutes but the gas was getting too strong. He saluted, closed up the hardshell and continued walking. Everyone was pretty pleased.
This walking around, milling, gassing, stumbling, spitting up and general attack of the snot monster went on for a few more hours and then it was time to go home. Come twilight, police had started to form their lines into squares and columns in classic Roman formations. They intended to surround crowds. Old hipsters saw it for what it was and got out of the formations as they became apparent. By sunset more people dressed in handmade civilian armour began showing up. There were more Plexiglas shields and contemporary gas masks. Clearly, it was going to get hot. We retreated towards the car. A woman showed me a rubber bullet and the molded bruise on her kidney. The bullet was about the size of a pen and a half inch across.
We listened. There was a lot of rapid booming. We were now three miles away and could hear the huge sound of thousands of cops, all in unison, beating their shields with truncheons. It was very compelling and scary. Those standing just a few feet away from it were screaming with beastly rage. A rush. The late TV news would show volleys of Molotov cocktails and a rain of broken cinder blocks against a gas bombed night sky.
There had been six thousand police on the other side of the fence shooting off one sort of thing or another. I figured that meant there were another thousand engaging the crowd. The head anarchist for the Black Block was dragged away by three undercover agents. The reporter for Time Magazine was captured by the police, striped of his shoes and socks and didn't get out of a soaking wet jail until Wednesday. Hundreds and hundreds were rounded up and thrown into jails with floors covered in a half inch of water and stinking noxious chemicals. Trials without lawyers were held all week. The Van Doos, front line military ground troops, had been standing by. Reinforcement police had been flown in from western Canada and Ontario.
The Canadian army and Police officials admitted they ran out of tear gas and pepper spray before the second day was out and had to ask the Americans to loan them some. I can't imagine what kind of crap the CIA had for lendsies. Canada ran out. The army, police and three Canadian provinces ran out of tear gas and pepper spray. Multiple reports had it that they used up five thousand cans that day. The fires and battles spilled back and forth all night.
By Sunday morning the show was over. Alex had a story for school. Robin had pepper scented hair. The worlds' leaders left for the airport. A week later I met some journalists that had been at the same Summit but on the other side of the fence. They said their view was awful. They could smell the gas but no one would let them near any windows or out on their own on the street. They got close ups of George Bush but they weren't allowed to take pictures of wet teddy bears soaring into disputed space. They missed the terror of hockey pucks against armour.
The 4th and 5th Summits held in Argentina in 2005 and Trinidad in 2009 would be bereft of honey bee girls and catapults. Sound cannons were not yet a part of the national dream.
Five months later the world shifted. That was the last Canadian demo. From that September on we'd never see a riot like that again. No one wanted to be confused with terrorists. No one wanted to be used as camouflage by unknown elements. Many felt their name had been added to a list. They weren't afraid of tear gas though. The maple leaf rocked.