Policing the People in Quebec

| April 22, 2001

QUEBEC CITY: This weekend, the face of Canadian politics changed. It changed here, at a massive demonstration against globalization. Three things happened:

The Peoples' Summit

This was a coalition of unions and non-governmental organizations from across the Americas. Saturday, the summit organized a diverse and colourful demonstration of about 60,000. People marched side-by-side down a six-lane boulevard. It took them about an hour to pass through the Lower Town that afternoon. The crowd was a generous mix of many cultures. There were also giant puppets, street theatre, drumming and a lot of dancing. Emma Goldman would be proud.

While thousands of people walked slowly through the lower part of the city, hundreds more - mostly youth - were locked in battles with the police near the famous perimeter surrounding the meeting place of the Summit of the Americas.

A major controversy among protesters was the decision of the People's Summit organizers to march away from the perimeter yesterday. The main march turned right. Those wanting to join the confrontations turned left. The majority followed their leadership and turned right, but many were angry not go to the perimeter. Instead, they went to a parking lot several kilometres from the action.

March organizers argued that it was too dangerous to take such a large march into the tiny streets of the old city. No doubt the debate about the various tactics used this weekend will continue for some time.

The Confrontations

As well, there were a few fierce and prolonged confrontations with police. These exchanges drew most of the media attention.

In at least two locations, activists battled police in what looked more like a war than a demonstration. This reporter has never witnessed such a well-organized, sustained fight between demonstrators and police. At the perimeter, combatants positioned themselves on two sides of a wide road. They advanced and retreated as police attacked with tear gas, a water cannon and - later - plastic bullets. It went on all afternoon and into the night.

According to the Ligue des droits et libertés (Quebec's civil liberties union), violence escalated on Saturday primarily because of police tactics. André Paradis, executive director of that organization, told a press conference on Sunday that police escalated their tactics in three ways:
  • First, they used tear gas from the moment of confrontation.
  • Second, they used more aggressive weapons - such as water canons and plastic bullets.
  • Third, they left the perimeter and chased protesters into a residential area, where some property damage occurred for the first time in 48 hours of protest.

According to the union - which had thirty observers on the ground - only 5 per cent of the protesters confronting police were violent. "Most of the demonstrators in the Upper Town [near the perimeter] were singing and dancing and peaceful," said spokesperson Sam Boskey.

Over the course of the day, a growing number of trade unionists and others like the Council of Canadians joined the direct action to support the youth who were battling police.

A full day before the planned demonstration, activist leader Jaggi Singh was snatched from the street by five plainclothes police officers. His bail hearing is not until Wednesday. Singh has been charged with breaching a previous bail order, participating in a riot and possession of a weapon. The weapon in question was the theatrical catapult that was used to hurl stuffed toys at police Friday.

No Peace for the Peaceful

Both Friday and Saturday saw mass peaceful civil disobedience that involved at least 6,000 people. These demonstrators were willing to face tear gas and the police for their beliefs. Even so, some peaceful protesters were treated with unexpected brutality.

Anna Dashtgard is the organizer of the Common Front Against the World Trade Organization. She described a sit-in of about 500 people on a side street near the fenced perimeter. As people sang and held up peace signs, riot police approached from two sides, trapping the group. After only one warning, the police hurled tear gas directly into the group.

"I've never experienced anything like this," said Dashtgard - who also participated in protests at Seattle and Windsor. "It was so brutal."

After dispersing, some people regrouped in different places. One cluster of protesters was assaulted without warning. They believe the weapons of choice were concussion bombs. Another group was warned that police were about to clear the streets. Most of the protesters - frightened by the tear gas canons pointed directly at them - walked away. "The riot police trampled over the few who remained," said Josephine, an activist who was shaken by the experience.

It was impossible to approach the areas where the perimeter had been breached without feeling the painful sting of tear gas. Yet thousands of people, most of them young, climbed the stairs and streets to the Upper City. This is where the standoffs between police and protesters continued all day.

Plastic bullets injured several people - including one woman who was hit in the throat. She required an emergency tracheotomy.

As of Sunday morning, 450 people had been arrested. People were held in jail, denied the right to contact their lawyers or their families, and without food, reported Quebec's civil liberties union. Both male and female accused were stripped and left naked in front of others. These abuses were corrected after the union intervened.

Judy Rebick is the publisher of rabble.ca.

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

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