It won’t end in Quebec City
By Judy Rebick
“My generation doesn’t believe that the traditional political institutions represent us,” one young man told me in 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 volley after volley of tear gas, risked plastic bullets, arrest and intense emotional confrontations with police time and time again. He didn’t participate in throwing stones at police but he supported those who did.
The Montreal taxi driver who told me it was just elaborate theatre on both sides, the cops and the protesters, wasn’t there. It may have started that way. On Friday, protesters, many of them in colorful costumes, all but a few of them in a carnival spirit, marched singing and chanting 6 miles from the University to the perimeter. La cloture, the Quebecois call it, an ugly chain-link fence dividing a beautiful city became the 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 and 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. Singh is still in jail on a trumped up weapons charge. They charged him with possession of a dangerous weapon. The weapon was a theatrical catapult built by a surrealist group from Alberta and used to hurl teddy bears on police lines. The story and a photo of the medieval mock weapon can be seen on www.rabble.ca. 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 one hundred participated in the front lines throwing stones but thousands supported them pounding guardrails and posts with stones and placards in a deafening show of solidarity. 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 of police.
It has happened before. Oka comes to mind, the standoff between the Mohawk Warriors and the army. A massive movement for aboriginal self-government that could no longer be ignored emerged after Oka. The War Measures Act is another example. This produced a broad movement for sovereignty that thirty years later continues to struggle for its goals. It happened in Chicago in 1968. The wild street demonstrations against the Democratic Convention became a turning point in a youth movement that had 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, women’s groups, environmental and international development groups, student and cultural groups marched through the city below. Organizers feared people would be frightened by the violence but 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, 1200 delegates from across the Americas developed a common platform and a common strategy against undemocratic trade deals. What has emerged is a mass and diverse 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. Politicians dismiss these events at their 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. And 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 the bail hearings this week said it all, “it didn’t start in Seattle and it won’t end in Quebec City.”
Judy Rebick is the publisher of rabble.ca (www.rabble.ca) where you can find more news about Quebec City and other things of interest to the rabble.