This Ain't No Fooling Around

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A handful of protesters did act with violence. But what of the policies that led to such alienation?

The Calm before the Storm | Of Barriers and Leaks | Scenes from the Class Struggle in Quebec City | My Dance with Oppression

The Calm before the Storm
April 17, 2001

The streets of Quebec City are strangely quiet and peaceful. It is a sunny day, warm for this time of year. Tourists mull about the Old Town seeing the sights of one of North America's most beautiful cities. Locals press on with their daily lives after a long Easter weekend. Normal, perhaps, except for The Wall.

Everyone knew that the Wall was going up, but to see it stretched down streets boggles the mind. The Wall cleaves the old town in two, dividing the people here into insiders and outsiders. A circle of suits stands chatting on the boardwalk outside the grand Château Frontenac, their white pins signalling that they belong on the inside of the security zone, just as my ''Where the Hell is Qatar?'' button marks me as an outsider. There are still openings in The Wall, for another day or so, although security forces are roaming the perimeter staking out the battleground.

Many have already greeted the concrete base of The Wall with graffiti on its concrete base:

  • Wall of Shame;
  • Berlin Nov 1989;
  • démocratie mon ami (democracy my friend);
  • libertad o muerte (liberty or death);
  • non a l'exploitation (no to exploitation).

Others have begun to cover wire fence with colourful flower-shaped cutouts that read:

  • mondalisons la justice (globalize justice);
  • paix pour tous (peace for all);
  • solidarité;
  • agir pour mieux-être (fight for a better life).

As if the Wall were not enough, leaders will be holding their meetings inside the Citadel, an actual fortress dating from 1820. The Citadel was built to defend against an American assault. This week, the Americans are the guests of honour.

Seattle showed how quickly a supposed democracy could become a police state in response to the unanticipated success of protesters. What makes Quebec different is that the police state has been planned a long time in advance. The irony will be running high indeed when leaders make their final communiqué about the benefits of trade and need for democracy from inside the fortress, behind The Wall, and guarded by 6,000 heavily armed police. Is this what democracy looks like?

In a way the opponents of the FTAA have already won the battle. The Canadian government has been on the defensive for the past month, pounded by the backlash from the massive overkill of security, reversing a decision to ban famous French activist Jose Bove from attending the People's Summit, trying to take credit for publicly releasing the draft FTAA text (which remains unreleased). Barring a major collapse into violence and property damage, the protesters will be able to claim victory here, just by showing up. Some 20,000 are expected, maybe more.

The security checks go on to keep people out. Many Americans have been turned away at the border. Those arriving by plane (denoting some degree of status) have merely been hassled, searched and delayed. Ninety people have received the honour of being named on a ''preventative detention list'' of troublemakers to be rounded up shortly before the Summit begins.

The People's Summit began yesterday with the Women's Forum. Today it is in full bloom, with forums across town on agriculture, human rights, labour, communication, the withdrawal of the state, environment and education. Tonight the opening ceremony will set the stage for two more days of dialogue culminating in the People's March on Saturday at the height of the meetings inside.

Of Barriers and Leaks
April 18, 2001

The People's Summit is in its second day of deliberations in thematic groups spread about Quebec City. The scene inside is a wonderful splash of diversity: people of every colour, speaking the four official languages of the hemisphere (French, English, Spanish and Portuguese) with the odd dash of indigenous tongues. People are listening, asking questions and engaging in dialogue with each other about action and alternatives to the dominant model of trade and investment liberalization that informs the 'real' Summit.

Outside, the calm is dissipating and a siege mentality is seeping in. Many shops are putting up boards to cover their windows. A McDonald's has removed its golden lettering, leaving only the shadow of a corporate logo over its storefront. The pre-Summit propaganda about violence and confrontation has clearly had an effect. Unfortunately, the media coverage to date has focused too much on the police and the protesters, not the substance of what is going on inside the Wall.

Then came the leak of the draft FTAA Investment chapter. Two weeks ago in Buenos Aires, trade ministers announced that they would release the draft FTAA text ... "after translation," meaning after the Summit. A shrewd move to dissipate criticism over the secrecy of the negotiations, but likely a whole lot of pre-Summit spin - as if Brazil, the eighth largest economy in the world had been negotiating in English or Spanish, not its native Portuguese. The Investment chapter arrived early due to a leak to a US organization. Once informed of the leak, activists in Quebec sprung into action in a flurry of analysis.

The leaked text, covered in brackets (which signal areas of disagreement in trade negotiations), confirmed fears that NAFTA's dreaded investor-state dispute settlement mechanism was part of the FTAA. Investor-state enables corporations to sue foreign governments over laws and regulations deemed to "expropriate" its current or future profits, irrespective of public interest concerns. Leaders apparently have learned nothing from NAFTA's bad track record to date with investor-state, and some FTAA proposals even push the envelope further.

A press conference was assembled and well attended, but the story has so far been drowned out. Six people were arrested in what the police are calling a plan to transport bomb-making material to the Summit. Or perhaps they just had material for doing street theatre - the details are unclear. This is troublesome as it provides the fodder for the Canadian government to reinforce their media line that all of the protesters are violent troublemakers, even though the vast majority is opposed to violence. The incident serves to justify the Wall, which a judge today deemed to be legitimate in another news story. And there are reports of hotel rooms being stormed by police doing pre-emptive strikes against potential trouble.

Scenes from the Class Struggle in Quebec City
April 19, 2001

You can feel the tension and anxiety in the air, and it is growing. Tonight the barricades close, as leaders and their delegations arrive for the start of the official Summit tomorrow. There is a notable increase in the number of police on the street, most of them dressed in olive drab military chic. Those coming from heavily militarized countries in the Americas might not notice the difference, but for the locals it is quite a shock.

In addition to their intimidating presence, the police have become more aggressive, in what constitutes a major crackdown on civil liberties. It is worst for those that look 'suspicious': indigenous people, youth, those wearing clothes that steer too far from the middle of the road. For their crimes they have been stopped on the street, questioned about their motives, searched.

Police roadblocks have been established on the way into town, and there are rumours that chartered buses destined for Quebec City have been cancelled. Rooms in hotels on the route from the airport to the Summit have been searched. One owner refused when she was asked to turn over the list of hotel guests to the police. The crackdown also extends beyond the city to the other end of the country - in Vancouver, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has been making house calls to people too vocally opposed globalization in the past.

In the Old Town, most storefronts outside the Wall now are covered in plywood. Some have signs that say ouvert in front to indicate that they are still receptive to tourist dollars. The Roots store hired spray paint artists to turn its plywood fronting into a big advertisement. Other stores, jewellers mostly, have eschewed the boards for wire coverings that still let passersby gawk at the precious wares inside.

The Wall has a rhetorical counterpart in the words emanating from each side. After much deliberation in a daylong plenary session, the People's Summit wrapped up with an inspirational Declaration attacking the neoliberal development model and arguing that another Americas is possible. Before the official Summit has even begun, the final Declaration has already been leaked - standard fare for most international gatherings, where the final outcome has been negotiated and scripted well in advance by bureaucrats. In terms of substantive decisions, it is all over but for the cocktail parties, the speeches and the photos.

On the ground it is difficult to piece together what has transpired, apart from word of mouth. At times I feel that my wife in Vancouver may have better information than I do because she has access to media reports. There is definitely a buzz of activity across the city, with so many different actions planned that even those 'in the know' cannot keep track. Uncertainty and anticipation are the evening's main course. Tomorrow is the big day.

My Dance with Oppression
April 25, 2001

This ain't no party.
This ain't no disco.
This ain't no fooling around.

Talking Heads, Life During Wartime

The Summit has now been over for a few days. I am back in Vancouver and have computer access once again. I've had some time to catch up on media and personal reports to reflect on the weekend past, and how I, like thousands of others, was attacked by my government for doing nothing more than be there to peacefully oppose my government's overly enthusiastic push for an FTAA.I did not get very close to the Wall during the melee, yet the volume of tear gas in the air gave everyone more than just a small taste. I felt the sting of tear gas on Saturday, during the height of the Summit, when canister after canister was lobbed into the crowd of peaceful protesters. On Sunday, I was walking around surveying the scene when the wind picked up, whipping up the particles on the ground into the air, and I was gassed all over again.

Many protesters experienced lingering physical effects from this highly noxious substance. For a few days after, my throat was sore, my stomach upset and my nose runny. I feel sorry for the citizens of Quebec, whose beautiful city was turned into a toxic stew. A lot of protesters were better prepared than I was - wearing goggles and masks. Almost everyone had legal and medical emergency phone numbers written their forearms in permanent marker, just in case.

It is true that a handful of protesters acted with violence at the outset. But we cannot isolate this from its context of two decades of market-based policies - privatization, deregulation, social spending cuts and trade and investment liberalization. The FTAA is just the tip of the iceberg. These policies have led to parts of the population that are alienated and that have no voice. They are outside the Wall all the time, and they are angry. We may not agree with throwing rocks and sticks at police (who themselves are pawns in the bigger game) as the outlet for that anger, but we have to understand why it is there.

It is a shame that fires and property destruction marked Saturday night into Sunday morning. These acts perhaps served to even the score in the eyes of the public for what had been a clear victory for the outsiders. The worst of the destruction happened just as the insiders launched into their carefully crafted public relations pitch to close the Summit with a declaration about democracy, however rife with contradictions. But lost in the media images was the feeling that the damage from final night was a reaction to the violence of the police during the day, albeit juiced up by drunken revellers who were not representative of the typical protester.

All said and done, this was probably the most excessive display of force against the population since the War Measures Act, and in some regards, worse. For the Summit, the Canadian government imported tactics common in Latin America: an extreme military presence; the abduction of Jaggi Singh by plain clothes police; the perpetual sound of helicopters; the horrific treatment of those arrested; and, the intolerance of dissent. Instead of raising the bar on democracy, the legacy of the Summit is a decent by Canada into the worst aspects of police repression that has plagued Latin America in the past.

More than $40-million was spent on the security for the Summit. This is the crude price of oppression; measured in canisters of tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and rubber bullets. The Wall is the most potent lasting symbol of the Summit (Is this the vision for the FTAA - a US-style gated community?). Because of a courageous few, however, the Wall did come down, if only for a few brief moments.

There were other victories as well. The opening ceremonies on Friday were delayed due to tear gas that blew back towards the convention centre instead of into the crowd. On Saturday, the convention centre had to be locked down for two hours with the air flow turned off so as not to expose the leaders to tear gas. This incited Chilean journalists to bang on the doors, and when journalists were allowed back in they were accused of bringing in the scent of tear gas on their clothes. Finally, up to 60,000 people showed up on Saturday to express their discontent, showing that the FTAA is now firmly on the public radar, and the opposition is strong and growing.

For those who came to protest only to be attacked, it was an emotional and radicalizing experience of highs and lows. Ultimately, it was an experience that was a defiant show of solidarity. This was only reinforced by the actions of the police - we have become a movement united by tear gas.

Marc Lee is a Research Economist with the British Columbia Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the author of the document "Inside the Fortress: What's going on at the FTAA negotiations." His journal also appeared on the CCPA Website.

For more rabble news coverage of the Quebec Summit and its aftermath, please click here.

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