Another Perspective on the Quebec Summit

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The media stake out their positions on Boulevard Rene Levesque, telephoto cameras slung low on their hips. They are waiting for HighNoon, the moment when the black bloc will arrive for their scheduledconfrontation with the chain-link fence — erected to keepanti-globalization protestors far removed from the Free Trade Area ofthe Americas (FTAA) summit site.

So focussed are the media on this one expected-to-be-violent momentthat they miss us women completely. Not that we care if the mediaignored us. We are there for ourselves and our own agenda. We are a loosecollection of groups ranging from the young women of Eden in Montreal tothe older Shape Shifters of Toronto, plus members of the Voice of Womenand other women’s groups.

We came to speak for the world’s water. Ouricons are boxes of water bottles, passed from hand to hand around ourcircle, then out through the crowd with the invocation, “May you neverthirst.” Our mascot is a papier-mâché mask of the River Goddess, namedafter the spirit of the St. Lawrence River, Magda Goek.

Then, with writer, witch and Seattle-veteran activist Starhawk beatingher drum and leading us in singing “La rivière roule, roule et coule,”we unfurl banners of silk, taffeta and broadcloth, in multiple shades ofblue. We become a “living river,” flowing with purpose and power,drawing in bystanders as they learn the song and its hip-swaying beat.

We make our way towards the chain-link fence and the gathering phalanxof police. And there, with powder-blue chiffon ballooning in the breeze,we make a symbolic presentation of The Cochabamba Declaration to thesummit.

The people of Cochabamba, Bolivia, whose city water had beenprivatized and turned over to the U.S. multi-national company, Bechtel,wrote the declaration. Through direct action and civil disobedience, thepeople of Cochabamba took back local, public control of their drinkingwater and sealed their action with the declaration that water rights arehuman and natural rights; it neatly frames our vision of the world.

Within minutes, the square fills up with the anti-capitalist coalitionmarch. The black bloc is with them, in tear gas proof clothes and gasmasks. Minutes later, a couple of them scale the wall and with just abit of rocking, bring it down. Then the tear gas starts — the first ofwhat totalled an astounding 4,700 canisters of gas warfare will behurled by the police over the next forty-eight hours.

The cameras click into action, and finally we too are part of the news;though by then who we are and what we have to say don’t matter. By thenwe are all targets and victims: all indiscriminate fodder for thecameras, the water cannons and the tear gas guns.

Moving inshoulder-to-shoulder formation, one row from the East, another from theSouth, they advance upon the thousand or more of us just standing aroundin the square. In what appears to be a well-planned attack, they driveus out of Boulevard Rene Levesque, hurling tear gas.

Suddenly my mouth, my tongue, my throat are on fire. And my eyes. Ithurts too much to open them. I stumble, my eyes streaming with tears.We take refuge in a little park several blocks away and form a groundingcircle. But even there we aren’t safe; a resident comes rushing over,out of breath, to tell us she’d just heard on the radio that the policeare clearing the entire district.

We pick up our banners and wearilytrudge on, down the escarpment stairs into the quiet of Lower Town.There, with face paint smeared, costumes askew and faces pale, we linkhands in the middle of a street and try to re-centre ourselves in ourvision of the world.

The next day at the People’s Summit, staged in a huge, white tent andaddressed by a cast of national and international anti-globalizationactivists, Council of Canadians’ Chairperson Maude Barlow defends theanger of young people.“These are people who grew up in a toxic economy,” she tells the crowd,“one pre-occupied with sorting winners from losers.”

“The real violence,” she continues, “lies behind that goddamn hideouswall, with those leaders and their spin doctors staying in five-starhotels, eating in five-star restaurants and thinking they can run theworld by themselves. Well I’ve got news for them,” she declares. “Thereare more of us than there are of them!”

The tent erupts in a standing ovation, and soon we are off. Astaggering number of people-upward of 65,000, carrying signs full of witand political insight. The radical cheerleaders lead the crowd: “FTAA,what do you say? They capitalize, we democratize. They privatize, weradicalize... ”

At the corner of Charest and St. Valee street, the main march turned right, andthose of us who chose to go back to the wall turn left. We are going ina gesture of solidarity with Jaggi Singh and the other demonstratorsarrested, to express solidarity between the people stressing what we areagainst and those stressing what we are for; the importance of keepingthe two parts together.

Naomi Klein is right about the bonding qualities of tear gas. The mostprecious bonds for me are forged during the time spent with women Imarch with, sing with, form ‘peeing circles’ with and, back at thewomen’s space-a gym in the Lower Town generously made available by thefederation des femmes du Quebec — share tea and hummus, bathroom chat andfloor space.

Singing “We are the turning of the tide,” we march up the escarpment stairs, past young men and women running away with streaming eyes. Ourscout returns to inform us that there is a lull in the action on Blvd.St. Jean. Those of us willing to risk arrest pull ski masks andbandannas back on.

Still holding our living river blue banners, wemarch toward the wall. Then we turn up a narrow side street to a spotwhere the riot police stand two deep and in full armour across a gapinghole in the fence. Singing “Gardez la Vision pour la Naissance,”stretching our fingers in the air in the peace sign, we approached thepolice.

One of them calls out to us to leave. Starhawk calls back, saying “Thisis a peaceful protest.” Then Robin, one of the Toronto Shape Shifterscalls for everyone to sit down. We do, hands waving back and forth inpeace signs, voices chanting on and on, settling on a tonal fugue of“Aohhh.” (part yoga chant, part invocation and prayer) I marvel at itscalming effect. Soprano, alto, tenor and bass, the voices weave throughthe gas-stricken air.

Suddenly, I know what to do with the daisies I bought that morning froma florist, who, as it turned out, is a pacifist. He topped up my bouquetwith half a dozen gorgeous big roses, and said, “En solidarite!,” as hehanded them to me.

Sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, I pass the roses forward and watchas they are passed to the front. Then, one at a time, I hand the daisiesforward, too. The Cochabomba Declaration is read. There is applause fromthe crowd watching us from the boulevard at the bottom of the incline.Silence. Calm, beautiful silence.

In the midst of this terrible afternoon, with tear gas and watercannons, rubber bullets and random savage arrests, these women and a fewdozen men seize a bit of time and space, and convert it into peace andcalm.

A young man at the front stands up, holding one of the beautiful rosesfrom the florist. Pulling the protective bandanna away from his nose andmouth, he approaches the riot police, offering his rose.

“We can’t take it,” the cop mutters fiercely from behind his gas maskand Plexiglas face shield. Gracefully and quietly, the young man bendsdown and places the rose at the toe of his boot, then retraces hissteps. Then, one by one, the river women at the front carry forward moreflowers and add them to the pile in front of the boot.

A conversion has taken place.

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