It Won't End in Quebec City

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"My generation doesn't believe that the traditional political institutions represent us," one young man said. He was trying to explain what happened in Quebec City last weekend.

I asked him why he and thousands of other mostly young people kept returning to the danger zones in the Upper City last weekend. I know this young man. In everyday life he gets upset if someone raises a voice in anger. He doesn't like crowds much either.

Yet, last weekend, he and thousands like him suffered seemingly endless volleys of tear gas, risked plastic bullets, arrest and repeated intense emotional confrontations with police. He didn't participate in throwing stones, but he supported those who did.

A Montreal taxi driver who said it was just elaborate theatre for both cops and protesters hadn't been there.

It may have started out that way. On Friday, protesters - many of them in colourful costumes, all but a few of them in a carnival spirit - sang and chanted 10 kilometres as they marched from the university to the perimeter.

La cloture, the Quebecois called it. The ugly chain-link fence dividing a beautiful city became a symbol of their frustration with a political system that refuses to hear their voices.

When part of the fence came down, most people were cautious. Some went through. A handful started to throw stones at the advancing police. Most stood their ground and waited to see what would happen. Things escalated with the first lob of tear-gas canisters. What began was a macabre dance that continued all day Friday. This was no riot. Demonstrators showed extraordinary discipline. They moved off the street to safety when the tear gas hit, and came back as soon as they could see again. The police were also restrained. It went on for hours.

But on Saturday, everything changed. Quebec's Ligue des Droits et Libertes (Civil Liberties Union) blamed police escalation of tactics for the increased violence on Saturday. Police are trying to blame well-known activist Jaggi Singh. Some want to believe it was a handful of hooligans spurring the others on.

What is most important, however, is that the rule of law broke down on Saturday. A significant and important part of the population withdrew their consent to be governed. The state was reduced to what Karl Marx called its essence - an armed body of men.

In two locations, protesters battled riot police for hours in scenes that looked more like Northern Ireland than Quebec. Not more than a hundred participated in the front lines by throwing stones. Yet thousands expressed deafening solidarity by pounding guardrails and posts with stones and placards. Mostly, the police assaulted peaceful demonstrators who were simply blocking roads. Medics, helping demonstrators clean their eyes of tear gas, were among the most frequent targets.

It has happened before:

  • The Oka standoff between Mohawk Warriors and the army comes to mind. It triggered a massive movement for aboriginal self-government that could no longer be ignored.
  • The War Measures Act is another example - it produced a broad movement for sovereignty that, thirty years later, continues to struggle for its goals.
  • It also happened in Chicago in 1968. The wild street demonstrations against the Democratic Convention became a turning point in a youth movement, with a profound and long-lasting impact on our culture.

Quebec City may turn out to be even more important. While youth battled police above, tens of thousands of demonstrators - from unions and groups representing women, the environment, international development, students and culture - marched through the city below. Organizers feared people would be frightened by the violence, yet thousands more than expected arrived in hundreds of buses from all over Quebec and Canada. While some were upset by the violence, others pledged to stand side-by-side with the youth the next time.

All through the week before, 1,200 delegates from across the Americas developed a common platform and a common strategy against undemocratic trade deals. What has emerged is a movement for democracy and equality against corporate rule and, for many, against capitalism. It is being led by the youth.

Canada will never be the same after Quebec City. Jean Chrétien dismisses these events at his own peril. The young people battling police are the best of their generation. They came from all across the continent to stand up for democracy and against corporate rule. They witnessed a profound breakdown in democracy that reinforced their view that existing political institutions must be radically changed.

A flyer being handed out at bail hearings this week said it all: It didn't start in Seattle and it won't end in Quebec City.

Originally published by Judy Rebick's column appears every second Thursday.

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

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