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Quebec: One More Crack in the Wall

To shield various world leaders from popular protest, Quebec City became a virtual police state last weekend. One silver lining to the military crackdown was how it unified anti-free traders of all stripes.
 
 
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QUEBEC CITY -- "Excuse me, but is this Canada?"

Scrawled on the "Wall of Shame," a 10-foot high, 2 and a half mile long fence erected to keep protesters away from George Bush and 33 other leaders gathered at the Summit of the Americas, the slogan just about says it all. The graffito underscores the radically different visions of democracy on either side of the wall: one espoused by Bush and company and one expressed in the streets of Quebec this past weekend.

While the assembled presidents expounded on their commitment to democracy, the city surrounding them became a virtual police state. The Canadian government mounted the largest security operation in its history, with some 6,000 police in hi-tech riot gear deployed to defend the wall, and more than double the usual number of airport security personnel on duty to keep tabs on entering protestors. In the days preceding the summit, there were also reports of police searching activists' hotel rooms without warrants.

Where were those friendly Royal Canadian Mounties? What most protestors saw looked more like a phalanx of Darth Vaders.

A silver lining to the military crackdown was the unifying effect it had on anti-free traders of all stripes. For example, prior to the summit some of the more radical activists suggested that participants in a week-long international Peoples Summit were harmless "reformers" who would receive a red carpet welcome from the government. Canadian immigration agents helped put that notion to rest by treating many of the 3,000 delegates to the alternative summit just as shoddily as those who arrived later in the week to participate in direct action.

Hector de la Cueva, the Mexican leader of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, the international labor-NGO network that hosted the Peoples Summit, was interrogated for more than an hour and then issued a visa that restricted the length of his stay and his movements. De la Cueva's colleague Silvia Sandoval faced much worse. After arriving alone at the Toronto airport, she was handcuffed and held for six hours without being allowed to make a phone call. Sandoval, who doesn't speak English, was released after a frightening night in detention. Several other participants were sent home, with the reminder that it is a "privilege and not a right to enter Canadian territory."

Up Against the Wall

Meanwhile, the much-reviled security wall provided a vehicle for creative expression, at least during the days before the area became a war zone. One 50-foot section was covered with hundreds of bras and underpants, hung by feminist activists during a candlelit vigil in which they expressed their anger over the impact of free trade on women. Other protesters attached balloons, flowers, and children's drawings to the chain link fence, creating an image reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, with its array of colorful graffiti on one side, contrasted by austere gray on the other.

With the city already on edge, paranoia among local business owners intensified after Jose Bové, the French farmer now famous for dismantling a McDonald's, commented to the press that "breaking a few windows should not be considered violence." Within a matter of hours, carpenters were busily nailing plywood to the windows of about two-thirds of businesses within a mile of the wall. Graffito on one panel read: "The only good thing that free trade has done for the Canadian lumber industry." (The United States and Canada have been locked in a trade dispute over Canada's logging subsidies.)

On Friday, the day the presidents arrived to begin three days of discussions of the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the Canadian security operation faced its first real test. At about 2:00 pm, some 1,000 trade unionists gathered in front of the Peoples Summit's big tent meeting space. The Canadian Labor Congress (a counterpart to the AFL-CIO) had mobilized to show support for a youth march that was heading towards the town center from a nearby university. One contingent of students had made it clear that they planned to engage in direct action. Although the CLC did not encourage participation by its own members, "it was critical that we do something to counter the perception that we don't stand with the students," explained International Department chief Steve Benedict.

The youth were organized primarily by the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (known by its French acronym as CLAC), which had worked with other activist groups to designate three types of protest zones: green zones for safe, legal activity, yellow for disruptive but defensive action, and red for disruptive and offensive tactics. Maps marking the various zones were widely available.

At about 3:00 pm, the trade unionists, many of them carrying colorful union flags, began marching up the hill. The plan was to link up with the youth march and stop at a park. However, when the two streams met, the trade unionists instead turned up the street and marched side by side with students who were headed towards the fence. At the top, a student leader used a bullhorn to ask the first 500-700 people in front to sit. Then, alternating between English and French, she explained the situation to everyone sitting, who repeated it in unison so people farther back could hear. "A green march has ended up in a yellow zone," she said. "Let's pause so that those who prefer to be in a green zone can leave."

Most of the labor forces peeled away. Not long afterwards, a few of the remaining protesters began lobbing rocks and bottles at officers and attempting to break through the fence. Police responded with tear gas. Protesters picked up some of the tear gas canisters and tossed them back at police.

Thus began three days of skirmishes between the Darth Vaders and one faction of the protesters. By all accounts, the Canadian police were far more liberal with the tear gas than those at previous anti-globalization protests in Seattle, Washington, DC, and Prague. The tri-color zone map quickly became meaningless as the entire area within several blocks of the wall filled with what one journalist described as a "Niagara of gas."

On Saturday, the clashes escalated, as police fired rubber bullets and water cannons indiscriminately at militant and peaceful protesters alike. They also added a uniquely Canadian tool to their security arsenal: gigantic snow-making machines, used to blow the gas away from the presidents. Despite their ingenuity, the police couldn't prevent at least some of the fumes from seeping into the air conditioning ducts at the official meeting, forcing them to turn off the system twice and delaying the opening ceremony for 90 minutes.

Strategy Debates Continue

The drama of the clashes once again helped put the free trade issue on front pages around the globe. On the other hand, it re-ignited the difficult, and perhaps irresolvable, debates over whether this type of attention helps or hurts the movement against corporate globalization and how best to handle relations between protesters with diverse tactics. These questions came to the fore on Saturday, because of a legal march organized by the Hemispheric Social Alliance. The local government had refused to grant a permit for a march route anywhere near the wall. Organizers worried that marchers would appear divided from their colleagues on the front lines as snaked away from the battle on the fence towards a rally site in a remote parking lot.

However, it was clear that the march had to proceed as buses from many parts of Canada and also the United States (primarily organized by Jobs With Justice) began arriving, loaded with trade unionists, students, and others expecting to have the opportunity to participate in a safe demonstration. Crowd estimates ranged from 30,000 to 45,000. Although still a small minority, protesters from outside Canada and the United States played a much more prominent role in the march and other events in Quebec City than they had at the anti-globalization protests in either Seattle or Washington, DC. The Peoples Summit brought hundreds of farmers, workers, and other activists from Latin America and the Caribbean to Quebec for a week of educational and strategizing sessions held in four languages. The Alliance released a nearly 100-page alternative proposal that demands substantial debt relief and the elevation of basic human, labor, environmental, and indigenous rights over corporate interests.

In a powerful symbol of this international solidarity, about a dozen Latin American delegates were selected to lead the march, linking arms with a few of the lead Canadian organizers. Directly behind them, other Alliance members proudly carried flags from Brazil, Haiti, Mexico, Jamaica, Peru, Chile, and Cuba (the only country in the hemisphere excluded from the FTAA summit.) Although the march physically split the marchers from the activists at the wall, many of the speakers at the permitted rally called for unity. When they returned to the city center, they issued a statement condemning excessive police force. "As participants in the peaceful March of the Peoples of the Americas, we are not indifferent to repression of protesters who chose to express their views in other ways," organizers explained.

On Sunday, the highway leading out of Quebec City was dotted with weary police and even more haggard-looking protesters who were hoping to hitch rides back to Montreal and elsewhere. On the radio, the CBC was reporting that George Bush had called on his fellow leaders to show a commitment to protecting labor and environmental standards. The word "democracy" appeared in the Presidents' Action Plan 12 times. The long week of actions in Quebec forced at least a rhetorical response from the hemisphere's leaders and forged a bit more unity among the wide spectrum of free trade critics. The wall didn't come tumbling down, but it did suffer some serious cracks.

Sarah Anderson is the Director of the Global Economy Project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.