Hundreds of Students, Occupiers Take New York Streets in Solidarity with Largest-Ever Demonstration in Quebec
The chant is becoming familiar by now: "1, 2, 3, 4, tuition fees are class war!"
But on May 22nd, the New York City streets echoed also with "Solidarité!"
Hundreds of thousands of people--some estimates go as high as 500,000--were in the streets in Quebec, fighting--and in many cases directly disobeying--a new "emergency" law put in place this weekend to try to stamp out student strikes. May 22nd marked the 100th day that students in Quebec have been refusing to go to class, and the biggest "manifencours" (an abbreviation of "manifestation en cours" or demonstration in the street) yet against tuition hikes and the increasing neoliberalization of not just education, but of public services in general in what has been Canada's most social-democratic province.
(image via Translating the printemps érable, a great resource translating francophone media about the strikes into English)
The new Law 78, which explicitly bars gatherings of 50 or more people for political purposes without express permission from the police, carries fines that are designed to punish not just the individuals involved, but unions--student or labor--that call for gatherings.
Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry commented:
In a way, it’s actually a lot worse than explicitly making protest illegal, because that would at least be a law that could be consistently applied. If you want to argue that society must be defended, do so. Because then, at least, the principle of legality would still exist. What this is, and should be seen as, is an expressed commitment on the part of the Québec government to put into place whatever legal mechanisms are necessary to stop a specific set of protest. If you want to argue that a specific law is necessitated by some kind of universal principle, you cannot then change basic principles to match the perceived needs of the moment without admitting, pretty clearly, that principles are irrelevant, window dressing, the lipstick you put on the pig when it’s not being slaughtered.
Occupy Wall Street knows something about targeted crackdowns on protest, and many of New York's student activists have already been working in solidarity with the Quebec students (read Biola Jeje and Isabelle Nastasia for AlterNet on what they learned from a trip to Montreal) and have adopted the red square as a symbol for a transnational movement. (The red square, according to Free Education Montreal, "comes from the French saying 'carrément dans le rouge,' which means 'squarely in the red' or basically, that students were in debt because of tuition increase and cuts in bursaries.")
So a solidarity action was an easy decision to make, and several hundred New Yorkers took part. Starting midday at the 1 Rockefeller Plaza offices of the Quebec government, demonstrators brought their outrage over Law 78 to the streets.
Then, as befits a protest with its roots in the university, the Occupy Wall Street Free University held a pop-up university in Washington Square Park. Beginning at 6pm, two "classes" sat in circles on the ground for horizontal discussions, respectively of "counter-insurgency" tactics by police against Occupy and other popular movements, seen on display in Quebec and also this past weekend in Chicago for anti-NATO actions, and of Quebec's Law 78 and the Quebec student unions themselves.
The discussions drew passers-by into the circles, as Quebec natives and activists who'd visited during the actions explained what they knew about the protests and the law, as well as the student union model, organized by department. "The humanities departments went out on strike first," one woman noted, and another man, who'd visited Quebec recently, pointed out that McGill, the elite English-speaking university, had the fewest students on strike, while the francophone universities had started the process.
"Regardless of actual economic conditions," one woman pointed out, "the language of austerity is being used to cut social services." In other words, the protests are about a lot more than a small (relative to the US's education costs, anyway) hike in tuition. They're about neoliberalism generally, about privatization of social services, about a government that simultaneously claims to have prevented the economic crisis from rocking Canada and also is pushing to cut spending any way it can.
Discussion turned, of course, to how such massive strikes and actions can be replicated in New York--and then, invigorated by the conversation and debate about debt strikes, student unionism, general strikes, and other tactics, a few hundred people, some all in red, some with squares of red fabric pinned to our clothing, set out on a march. Right up the middle of Washington Place, in fact, going directly for the center of the street.
Chanting "Sol, Sol, Sol, Solidarité!", the group made its way past the NYU building that had once been home to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, holding "Book Bloc" shields and signs in English and French.
And then the march took Broadway. Turning left, the wrong way onto the one-way street, the marchers poured past taxis and buses, slapping hands with taxi drivers and waving at people inside stores.
The police--a few community affairs officers and a few uniformed officers--seemed unable to or uninterested in stopping the march from taking the street, contenting themselves with shouting at protesters to take scarves off their faces.
The march made it all the way up to 13th street before turning right, still marching against traffic, still chanting, singing. Still not conflicting with the police very much. A woman with a shopping bag over her arm had stopped on the sidewalk to dance along, giving two thumbs up.
(warning: sound clip is not safe for work!)
At 2nd Ave and 13th, the police met the march head-on, and the cat-and-mouse game began. Moving onto the sidewalks, the marchers kept moving, some splintering off, some darting in and out of the street to bait police. A group of CUNY student activists started to sing "Which side are you on?" as they took over the sidewalks.
What appeared to be the first arrests came in a crosswalk, two girls handcuffed, one in tears. Another girl was arm-locked by a police officer as she tried to reach her friends, her arm twisted and held straight, but she was released.
Up St. Marks, a more violent arrest caught my attention, as one of the many young men in red was tossed on the sidewalk, held down, and at one point choked by a police officer who had both hands around his throat. It took about five officers to finally subdue him, knees on him, hands on his throat. The police cleared us to the other side of the sidewalk, pushing us onward, and I followed the trail of the Illuminator--the 99% Batsignal, a van geared up with a projector to spread Occupy slogans on the walls of buildings around the city--back down Lafayette street to catch the remainder of the march, still around 100 people strong despite splits and arrests.
The group finally wound up at Union Square, which was lined with riot police with plastic cuffs dangling from their belts as if they'd been waiting. But spirits remained high--occupiers danced and sang "A - Anti - Anticapitalista!", spread the Occupy Wall Street banner, and settled in for a while, gradually dispersing, little red-clad clusters, off into the night.