We Were All the Black Bloc

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I didn't actually see the fence come down. The crowd was really large and everyone was having fun. There were people with painted faces, lots of drummers, lots of kids with cameras. There was a really strange medieval catapult hauled by one group. It had car tires and was pulled by heavy ropes. It was decorated with stuffed animals and the bowl at the end of the arm (labelled "Canada Arm") looked as if it was made from papier mâché. It was all street theatre.

The next thing I knew, I was standing on a chain-link fence lying sideways on the street. Lots of people were standing on it.

Then there was a tight line of riot police dressed in green, holding shields and wearing helmets. They slowly moved from what used to be inside the fence, making these little baby steps forward. It looked like it would take them all afternoon to get anywhere. On a street to the right - what used to be outside the fence - there was a looser line of riot police. They wore dark blue. Every now and again, someone would lob a stick or a stone at the shields and it would bounce off with a big rattle. A couple of police officers had white paint thrown on their shields. The two lines of cops contained the mass of demonstrators in a large open area of grass, bushes and wide, empty streets.

Much has been said about a small group of "extremists." I have to say that I never saw a member of the Black Bloc. This was a demonstration of mostly young people  students and those who had been to workshops or had seen videos about the arbitrary violence of the police in Seattle. Probably about a third of people had swim goggles, or a kerchief that they only later soaked in water or vinegar. Some wore absurd gas masks that seemed part of a festive costume.

The police were still doing their little baby steps forward. Many of the protesters had been at other demonstrations, and were not intimidated. Every now and again, there was a determined chant: "Whose streets? Our streets!" There was no sign of the Black Bloc. Where are those people when you need them?

There was some smoke or gas in the air. But it was a big open space and, unless you got real close, it just rose dramatically in the air and maybe stung your eyes a little. It took me a while to realize what it was. The canisters of tear gas began to come a bit more quickly. People ran from them. Some folks - probably the ones who had been to the workshops - kept saying in friendly voices, "Walk don't run." The advice made sense; someone could get hurt running. The exits off the open square were a maze of small alleys through some low buildings and back onto the narrow Quebec City streets. People who got a bad dose of tear gas had others help them rinse their eyes with large bottles of water.

By now, a third line of riot police appeared out of nowhere to block off another street. They didn't move much, but you could see the police tactics. They had created a large V formation and would slowly and gradually move people off the open space. There was a bright yellow helicopter overhead. It was hard to know if it was media or police. The canisters of tear gas were coming even more quickly. People moved back if the smoke was too thick, but then came forward again when it blew away. "You just have to not breath it in," said one person in surprise. Another myth exploded. If you got a lung-full, you did have difficulty breathing, in which case you had to leave the area. Some people got it bad, but their friends doused them with water and they came back.

In the line of riot police, there were cops with large black guns. They seemed to target people who taunted them or who maybe threw a stick in their direction. I saw one person hit either by a tear gas canister or a rubber bullet. The person fell to the ground: friends called and waved their arms for a medic.

The real danger was of being completely surrounded and having all exits blocked by lines of riot police. The police V formation was starting to turn into a large U with the only remaining exits back into the small streets on one side. Two huge white vehicles with big black tires sped along one of the remaining exits. POLICE was written on them in big black letters. Two or three demonstrators simply stepped out and blocked their path, holding their protest signs up against the windscreen. The big white trucks stopped. Then they started to reverse away. A large group of protesters began to notice and came over to cheer. The first truck briefly turned on its weapon. A powerful stream of water came from the turret. A water canon! But then they backed off, to the cheers and laughter of the crowd.

Some people back into the streets and sat with their friends, played music or danced. There was a large circle of middle-aged women in flowing blue robes singing with arms linked. "Ah, river people," smiled a teenager.

The crowd of protesters was really loose. Groups would go back into the main open space to see what was happening.

We got used to the tear gas: a loud noise; a flat can flying in the air like a low baseball. Calculate where it will land to avoid being hit. Move away from the smoke a bit. The festive mood continued, along with some subdued anger at the unnecessary violence of the riot police.

Close to the police lines, a few people yelled, "This is what democracy looks like." Away from the action, on the side streets, people danced and sat with their friends in the sun.

The demonstration was very well organized. There were several different marches and routes. Some were designated "green" because they were in parks away from the famous fence. Friendly marshals gave directions at key intersections in French and English. "Green area this way: low risk, away from the fence." Nobody I saw took the green route. I started out with a group of about 500 people who wandered along streets, occasionally stopping to take a consensus decision about where to go next. "Do you want to join up with the CLAC?" Sure we did.

The other group came along the street, a much bigger one than ours. But they didn't look any different. Maybe their costumes were a bit better - and they had that marvellous medieval catapult.

Alan O'Connor was the founder of Who's Emma? in Toronto. He was a board member for KYTES. (The acronym stands for Kensington Youth Theatre Employment Services - a grassroots group working with street-involved youth.) Alan teaches in the cultural studies program at Trent University.

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

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