Lessons of Quebec City

by Katherine Dwyer

International Socialist Review, June/July 2001


In April, hemispheric leaders celebrated the Summit of the Americas by turning historic Quebec City back into a walled fortress. While 34 heads of state and their corporate backers dined inside on duck breast with beet-jelly sauce and Prince Edward Island potatoes au gratin, riot police used water cannons, rubber bullets, and clouds of tear gas to hold back protesters outside. Separating the two was a 3.8 kilometer chain-link fence guarded from within by more than 6,000 police and 1,200 military personnel.

The "wall of shame," as the perimeter fence came to be known, symbolized all that protesters opposed about the Summit of the Americas and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Advocates of the FTAA, such as George W. Bush, argue that the trade agreement will spread peace and prosperity for all by creating a more integrated, unified hemisphere (except for Cuba, which was excluded from the negotiations). But the fence symbolized the reality of globalization and the FTAA: Instead of one integrated hemisphere, there are two separate worlds. There is one world of wealth and power, where heads of state get together with corporate representatives from companies like Cisco Systems and Verizon Communications (who paid up to $500,000 for a seat at the table) and make decisions behind closed doors that affect us all. And then there's the other world, the world outside the fence where no one is even allowed to see a copy of the treaty, much less to vote on it, and where protest is criminalized.

The contradiction between a meeting that produced a "democracy clause" as its centerpiece and the display of a complete lack of democracy was not lost on many Canadians. The Montreal Gazette pointed out the hypocrisy at the heart of the summit: "Speaking to reporters as helicopters hovered overhead and police continued to douse demonstrators with water cannons and tear gas, [Canadian prime minister Jean] Chretien said having a democratic government is an 'essential condition' of membership in the Summit of the Americas."' Spray-painted slogans comparing the perimeter to the Berlin Wall symbolized what people throughout Canada thought of the negotiations. A Vector poll released by the Canadian Labor Congress showed that 74 percent of Canadians favored a popular vote on any such trade agreement before the federal government signed on to it. Twenty-one percent of all Canadians over the age of 18- 4.4 million people-said they would join the protests in Quebec if time and money allowed.



Tens of thousands of people participated in protests, teach-ins, direct-action trainings, and other forums leading up to and during the summit meetings. In the week before the summit, Canadian-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and labor leaders hosted an alternative People's Summit conference. The People's Summit brought together to discuss alternatives to neoliberalism and the FTAA more than 2,000 international labor leaders, liberal politicians, antiglobalization intellectuals, and a range of activists. Delegates to the conference ran the gamut from representatives from peasant movements in Latin America to John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. While the People's Summit stood in clear opposition to the Summit of the Americas, it was funded in part by the Quebec provincial government to the tune of $300,000.

Whereas the People's Summit represented the forces that mobilized 60,000 trade unionists and others on the giant labor march April 21, a range of other grassroots and student-based organizations focused on organizing direct-action protests. Direct-action groups organized teach-ins, trainings, organizing meetings, and cultural events throughout the city for the thousands of activists who began arriving in Quebec City days before the opening of the summit. Operation Quebec Printemps 2001 organized a welcome center that arranged housing, distributed information, and organized educational trainings for thousands of demonstrators from outside Quebec. La Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes (CLAC, or Anti-Capitalist Convergence) and its Quebec City-based close collaborator Le Comite d'Accueil du Sommet des Ameriques (CASA, Summit of the Americas Welcoming Committee), coordinated a series of events under the umbrella "Carnival Against Capitalism," including a march of several thousand on the eve of the summit and a march to the perimeter fence on the first day of the summit. Le Groupe Oppose a la Mondialisation des Marches (GOMM, Group Opposed to the Globalization of Markets) planned a mass blockade for the first day of the summit outside a main access point. Both CLAC/ CASA and GOMM held organizing or "spokescouncil" meetings that drew hundreds.

The number of forces on the ground transformed the small city of Quebec in the week leading up to the summit. From the big white circus tent that served as the center of the People's Summit in the old port area and the University of Laval, which housed thousands of direct-action activists, to warehouses in an industrial section of town where meetings and trainings were held, it seemed like everywhere one went in Quebec City, there was some sort of anti-FTAA organizing going on.


Sympathy for protesters

One of the most striking impressions on anyone who went to Quebec was how welcome protesters felt despite the hype in the press about dangerous bands of youth invading the city. In the gentrifying, yet working-class neighborhood of Saint-JeanBaptiste-an area that runs adjacent to the perimeter fence that had been designated a "green," or nonconfrontational, protest zone by all of the groups-shopkeepers had boarded up their windows, but they also hung posters welcoming protesters.

The sympathy of Quebec residents for the protesters stemmed in part from the fact that they had literally been shut out of their own city by security forces.

Even before the massive police repression, many in Quebec were infuriated with the perimeter fence that cordoned off the city center. An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people who lived, worked, or did business inside the perimeter had to obtain a special pass to get to their homes and workplaces. Residents who lived inside the fence faced constant surveillance by video cameras and security forces who drove around behind tinted windows in unmarked white security vans. Those who lived outside the fence found themselves barred from the center of their own city-unable to visit friends or family on the other side, and unable to go to church on Sunday.

The Montreal Gazette describes how some residents responded:

Alain Lalancette and Bernard Grondin, two residents who live inside the security perimeter, voiced their outrage all weekend at being held prisoners inside the wall. With a banner reading "Justice," the two men joined protesters around the fence-only they were on the other side. Crowds cheered them wherever they went. Because they have security passes, police could not eject them. "We find it terrible that police are suppressing the rights of people" by not letting them in, said Lalancette. "We protested yesterday in front of the eyes of each of the heads of state arriving for dinner," said Grondin.... Their two-man protest within the perimeter was their expression of solidarity with the tens of thousands of people who amassed outside, said Grondin-even those who vandalized banks, lobbed rocks at police, and set fire to Lower Town. "We don't approve of everything," said Grondin, "but we certainly understand their frustration."

The anger residents felt at being kicked out of their own city quickly turned into broad sympathy with protesters once police went on the offensive. The police strategy for defending the summit revolved around using massive amounts of tear gas to control crowds of protesters. According to one estimate, security fired a tear gas canister every minute during the protests. Security hoped that by using the gas, they could avoid direct confrontations between police and protesters that might lend sympathy to the protesters and make the police look criminal. Their strategy backfired for one simple reason: No one could escape the clouds of tear gas. Newscasters choked on gas in the middle of their live reports. Old people had to be moved out of their rooms into another part of a nursing home to avoid the gas flowing in through windows and doors. Police brought in giant fans to force gas away from the delegates and convention center and back into the residential neighborhoods surrounding the perimeter.

Francine Duchesneau, a resident who is demanding that the government clean up the gas lingering in her home weeks after the protest, described what security had done to her neighborhood: "Everyone was completely barricaded, imprisoned in their homes, taken hostage." Riot police fired a gas canister directly into one couple's apartment, forcing the woman to flee to another apartment with her five-month-old baby while her husband threw the canister back outside. Police, who had tried to turn residents against protesters, forced protesters into residential areas to keep them away from many of the public areas around the fence. Even media people with official press passes that allowed them inside the perimeter found themselves banging on the doors of the main press center, which police had locked down to prevent tear gas from seeping in. A security official at the press center told a Montreal Gazette photographer who had been gassed, "You can't come in. You smell." The Quebec newspaper Le Devoir ran a headline that summed up the contradiction of the summit, calling the effects of gas "the tears of a democracy."

The fence and the volumes of tear gas backfired on authorities politically because they gave demonstrators and residents a sense of common cause. Against a backdrop of politicians and business leaders who physically removed themselves from the rest of the population, the tenacity and courage of many activists who refused to back down in the face of intense repression inspired everyone outside the fence. The Montreal Gazette described the mood: "Activists went down like shooting ducks. But after round upon round of alternating tear gas and water cannons coming at them at point-blank range, they got up- again and again." The sense of defiance became increasingly infectious as the demonstrations went on.

One reporter's account gives a sense of the solidarity that everyone outside the fence experienced:

In back of the street fighters, the crowd was surreal. Next to green-spiked young women in beaded leather jackets getting their eyes flushed out were middle-class, middle-aged couples joining in the chants. I saw one old woman pushing a walker to get a better look at the nearest squad of police.... One guy complained to me he'd never get inside the perimetre to pick up his kids for the weekend. Meanwhile, the revolutionary types in gas masks were constantly taunting and charging and running away from the police.... Unlike some other protests I had seen, everyone, including the many gawkers, seemed to be at least somewhat sympathetic with the bold militants. When one of them would make a particularly good return of a tear gas canister over the wall, huge cheers would go up. From patrons in the nearby stylish Rue Cartier outdoor cafes, the police received the utmost sarcasm as they trooped up the street in a flanking maneuver. There was a lot of "so-so-so-li-dar-ite," as I heard chanted often. The construction of the hated wall had forced many ordinary Quebec City citizens to think more deeply about the politics of the summit. This wall going up had brought some walls down.

The many simple acts of solidarity outside the fence inspired and emboldened everyone who experienced them. Activists who participated in direct action took great care to help people around them-whether they knew them or not-by washing tear gas out of their eyes. People who spoke different languages would share the last of their water with one another without thinking twice. Residents of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste neighborhood invited protesters into their homes to clean up and rest before going back out on the street. One newspaper described the sense of solidarity between activists and residents who were not participating in the direct actions:

Everywhere there were protesters it seemed, there were residents willing to help them. At one corner in the Lower Town, a bar-owner ran a hose for appreciative protesters as they passed by on their way to another demonstration. They rinsed their handkerchiefs, washed their faces and filled up water bottles as the man held the hose. "This is my form of protest," the man said, as tear gas filled the street and his eyes started to water. One protester poured vinegar on the man's sweatshirt so he could hold it over his face.


Different strategies in the movement

The fact that demonstrators had to defend themselves from the police onslaught began to chip away at one of the key arguments within the movement. As with all of the protests since Seattle that have involved direct action, during the leadup to the summit protests there was a running debate over the place of confrontational tactics in the movement. At one end of the spectrum, Operation SalAMI (Operation Dirty Friend), a direct-action organization that had organized quite militant demonstrations in the past, insisted that demonstrators adhere to strict pacifist tactics. Months in advance, Operation SalAMI claimed, "To achieve our objectives, a number of conditions will need to be adhered to, including that of a strategic, nonviolent discipline and dignified outrage in our mobilization." Operation SalAMI went on to list conditions for protest, including abstaining "from any physical or verbal violence, including insults," property damage, and wearing masks or hoods.', CLAC and CASA, on the other hand, argued for a "diversity of tactics," meaning that no conditions should be put on protesters. In reality, the different organizations were probably not that far apart. CLAC and CASA released an overview of the actions during the summit that clearly stated their actions were "green and yellow," which means either totally nonconfrontational or defensive in the language of direct action. And all of the main groups held a press conference during the demonstration to proclaim their points of agreement. Nevertheless, Operation SalAMI decided to abstain from the direct actions, choosing instead to focus on organizing a teach-in and other educational forums.

The argument began to erode in the days and weeks leading up to the protests, when it became clear that the police were preparing extremely repressive measures against all protesters. Given that fact, even strictly "green" (i.e., nonconfrontational) activists had to admit that they might have to defend themselves physically from the police simply to carry out their peaceful protests. The distinction eroded further during the protests, when police made it clear that they were not going to distinguish between "violent" and "nonviolent" protesters by promptly attacking all of them. Activists from strictly nonviolent organizations, such as School of the Americas Watch, were teargassed at close range for simply holding a banner up to the perimeter fence. In some locations, thousands of protesters watched as police pepper-sprayed directly in the face a single individual who was sitting in front of them. Nonviolent protesters who had planned blockades sat in the-street amid clouds of tear gas, unable to effectively stop anything, since the police themselves were making sure that no one went through the checkpoints in the fence.

Watching thousands of armed, highly trained police in full riot gear pummel dozens of mainly young activists armed with little more than vinegar-soaked bandanas, or the occasional gas mask and bicycle helmet, clarified who exactly was responsible for violence on the demonstration. As one reporter described:

The rather widespread acceptance of "violence', was striking. As I had heard on Canadian radio on the way back to the ski lodge, some of the Quebec protest organizers were deploring it as counterproductive. But on the troop level, the revolutionaries and the non-violent protesters were perhaps closer than these leaders imagined. "Look at the violence of the police and globalization!" so many people told me when I brought up the subject of the Black Block's (sic) activities.

Even the most confrontational element within the demonstrations-the anarchist Black Bloc-was seen as an integral part of the protest by the majority of demonstrators, rather than as a force to be feared, avoided, or denounced. Although many disagreed with their method of organizing, very few complained when groups of anarchists ripped down the fence and lobbed tear gas canisters back at police. Even the Montreal Gazette, one of the many mainstream newspapers that attempted to whip up fear about the Black Bloc, had to admit, "Vandalism in Quebec City was mostly targeted at corporations: Shell Oil and CIBC [a bank] had their windows smashed." ~' Residential neighborhoods remained largely untouched by protesters. The same paper noted that there was more property damage at the last two Stanley Cup celebrations in Montreal than in Quebec.

Even advocates of nonviolence within the movement were reluctant to condemn young protesters. Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, who is known for exposing the hidden horrors of the FTAA agreement, gave a speech to kick off the labor rally where she responded to reporters who asked her what she was going to do to control the angry youth. While Barlow clearly stated her own organization's adherence to strict Gandhian nonviolent tactics, she was clear about where the real violence comes from:

These are young people born into a toxic economy, a society that deliberately sorts winners from losers and measures its success by the bottom line of its corporations, not by the well-being of its young. These youth are the result of years of poisonous economic and trade policies that have created an entrenched underclass with no access to the halls of power except by putting their bodies on the line.... The question isn't what I am going to do with angry young people. The question should be put to Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President George Bush, and all the other leaders here to promote the extension of this toxic economy, with its emphasis on ruthless competition and the wanton destruction of the natural world, that has created such deep wellsprings of anger in such large sections of today's youth, and it is you, the political leaders, so beholden to the private interests who put you in power, who must be held accountable.... The first vandalism was in that scar of a wall they put up in our beautiful city.... [T]he real violence lies behind that wall, with the thirty-four political leaders and their spin doctors and their corporate friends who bought their way in, sleeping in five-star hotels and eating in five-star restaurants and thinking they can run the world by themselves.

While the courage, tenacity, and solidarity displayed by protesters gave thousands of activists renewed confidence in their ability to take on the politicians and their corporate sponsors, Quebec also raised one of the key questions of the movement: How can protesters have a significant impact on the negotiations going on behind the fence? Protesters did have an impact. The opening ceremonies were delayed by more than an hour as a result of activists breaching the security fence. George Bush was forced to cancel or reschedule meetings with five heads of state, including those of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia. In addition, the police used so much tear gas that great clouds wafted inside the perimeter, making it difficult for delegates to leave their cars and hotel rooms without getting gassed themselves.

The sentiment for mass action to succeed in getting through the perimeter fence was there throughout the demonstrations. But when the fence did come down, at first a few, then two or three hundred walked through to the other side, but many held back, supportive but uncertain. Would the police charge' For about 20 minutes it wasn't dear. And there was an uneasy standoff. In that breach, a determined and organized force-even as small as one or two thousand-could have marched into the no-go zone. But this critical mass was not organized-nor could it be simply marshaled on command. Quebec brought the question of timing, size, and preparation to the fore. As one reporter put it: "If hundreds of determined militants had rushed past the thin line of cops in the first few minutes after flattening the fence, they wouldn't have been stopped. Independent affinity groups and anarchy are great to prevent the infiltration of dreaded hierarchy, but from a purely military standpoint, some planning would have been useful."

The presence of the fence ended up unifying protesters on the ground. So while CLAC and CASA had planned to march to a theater near the perimeter where affinity groups could break off and do their own actions, everyone on the march ended up walking right up to the fence instead. Similarly, GOMM had planned to blockade one of the major access points by sitting down in a section of road some distance from the fence. But once the march headed toward the fence, people kept on walking until they reached the perimeter. These actions-which each involved thousands-were in reality a combination of some coordination in advance and on-the-spot decisions. What was missing was advanced planning for a mass action to breach the fence and move in, perhaps for a mass sit-in or some other kind of protest.


Labor on the march

The key to the Quebec demonstrations was that, as in Seattle, they brought together a range of independent activists fighting around various issues with the organized labor movement. This kind of unity is crucial for taking on the FTAA because workers have the ability to challenge the day-to-day implementation of the FTAA and the organization to bring together huge numbers to protest in the streets.

The difference was that in Seattle unity was almost accidental; in an effort to control protesters, police in Seattle ended up inadvertently bringing labor and other activists together. In Quebec, it was not. Both the direct-action forces and sections of the labor movement had made an effort to coordinate action. A small group of trade unionists attended CLAC and CASA spokes-council meetings. For their part, CLAC and CASA announced plans to participate in the big labor march the day following the main direct actions. GOMM, a mainly student-based organization, coordinated their direct-action march with a contingent of 2,000 from the People's Summit led by steelworkers. The two groups met at the People's Summit and joined forces to march on the perimeter together.

The attempt to build solidarity between the direct-action activists and groups of union members extended to the main labor march on Saturday, April 21. The Ontario section of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)-CUPE's largest district-put out a public statement on April 18 calling on trade unionists to break from the labor march at the point where the march was set to go away from the perimeter fence: "Walls, barricades, and obstructions to democracy only come down when people confront them head-on. More than a thousand CUPE members from Ontario will be on the front lines marching toward the barricades in Quebec City this Saturday, not away from them." Sid Ryan, president of CUPE Ontario later explained:

When I read that some labor leaders were talking about walking away from the wall, it was clear that we needed to give it some leadership by marching in solidarity with the younger people who were taking on the police. What got me was the symbolism of walking away from the wall-I thought it was terrible.

Ryan went on to explain: "The objective should have been that we want a couple thousand protesters to go in and peacefully sit down in the streets and say this is our city as much as it is their city, and we're taking it back." That kind of plan could have worked. Security forces would have had to think twice about attacking a joint sit-in of antiglobalization activists and union workers.

Yet CUPE Ontario's call ran against the grain of the top leadership of the Canadian labor movement, who had specifically planned the march as a nonconfrontational protest. Rather than marching toward the perimeter fence and the Summit of the Americas meetings, march organizers chose a route that marched from the People's Summit away from the fence, through largely empty residential areas to the parking lot of a stadium in a vacant area several miles away. Henri Masse, the president of the Federation des travailleurs et travailleuses du Quebec (FTQ), explained, "I deplore that we are so far from the center-city.... But it was a question of security." One thousand marshals from the FTQ kept very tight control over the march. When the march came to the point where some activists planned to split off and go up the hill to the fence, FTQ marshals signaled the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) contingent walking behind CUPE to sit down and stop the march so that FTQ marshalls could lock arms and prevent others from leaving the official march route.

A few thousand, including students, activists, and trade unionists from CUPE Ontario, CUPE Alberta, and the Hospital Employees Union, left the march to go to the perimeter. Ultimately, too few went to the fence to get through the heavy security, and most ended up rejoining the labor march. Yet, the idea of marching on the perimeter was extremely popular with the vast majority of rank-and-file union members and others who did not break off the main march on Saturday. Many of the trade unionists who participated in the march wanted to go to the fence as well. Carol Phillips, director of the international department of the CAW, explained, "It's been very difficult for our members to keep them on this route [away from the fence]."~8 Phillips told the Toronto Star that many members of her union were disappointed and embarrassed when they found out that they were marching away from the perimeter fence. She said, "A lot of our members who came to Quebec are now telling me they want to take part in the fight-back that takes place in the streets. A lot want training in direct action." This view was clearly shared by many more rank-and-file trade unionists on the labor march. At the end of the labor rally when someone announced that six points in the perimeter had been breached, a huge cheer went up through the crowd. Groups returning from the labor rally decided to go up the hill to join protesters facing off with police.

What happened in Quebec planted the seeds for future action. Referring to the fact that her union helped keep the labor march from going to the fence, Phillips said, "I don't think that will happen again.... Now we're no shrinking violets in our union; we do plant takeovers and that kind of thing. But this is different. Our activists are becoming more radical. This is what they're telling me." CUPE Ontario's Sid Ryan registered the same optimism:

This movement will really take root when we begin to get 100,000 or 200,000 people in the streets protesting what they're doing behind those closed doors. That's not pie-in-the-sky stuff, because we in Ontario had 200,000 in the streets of Toronto protesting the right-wing government of this province. If we can get that kind of protest going in a major city, I think we have a real good chance of defeating their agenda.'



The very real potential to take on these kinds of trade meetings and institutions can only be realized if the debates raised in Seattle and again in Quebec are taken up inside the U.S. Iabor movement. Continuing collaboration between student activists and steelworkers bodes well for the future of united action in the United States. And the AFL-CIO's recent campaign to demand amnesty for immigrants is an important step in building solidarity across borders. But AFL-CIO president John Sweeney's recent backing of the key elements in Bush's energy plan are threatening to undo the fragile alliances that have been built inside the U.S., symbolized by the Seattle slogan "Teamsters and turtles, together at last." Moreover, the Teamsters' campaign to stop Mexican truck drivers from crossing into the U.S. is counterproductive to building such crossborder solidarity.

Sweeney promoted solidarity when he spoke at the People's Summit in Quebec, but the fact remains that the AFL-CIO mobilized small numbers of American trade unionists to go to Quebec. The U.S. Iabor movement needs to continue to forge links between workers across borders, and with students, environmentalists, and other activists who oppose all of the injustices that the FTAA represents. Leo Gerard, the new international president of the United Steelworkers of America, spoke of building on the lessons of Seattle at an anti-FTAA demonstration in Chicago, Illinois:

We need to build a global economy that raises everyone up, not pushes everyone down.... When we got to Seattle we were able to show workers from more than 100 countries together. Environmentalists. Students. Human rights activists. Workers' rights activists.... People from all over the world coming together and linking arms and showing that what was really going on is that the rich are getting richer in every country in the world, and they are robbing us of our future.... Well let me tell you, you can have all the damn meetings you want. But a system that robs people of their democracy...is destined for failure.... It's up to us to make sure it fails.

In some ways, the main lessons of Quebec lay not in what activists were able to accomplish, but in a vision of what is possible. Quebec gave a whole layer of activists a taste of what it would be like to actually shut down a major trade meeting. Ultimately, the power to alter the politicians' and bosses' trade agenda lies in connecting mass protest against the major institutions that promote corporate globalization to day-to-day organizing on a grassroots level-in workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools. The FTAA would create environmental degradation and attacks on social rights throughout the hemisphere. It would result in layoffs and inferior services due to privatization of vital public services such as health care and education. It would further erode democracy by vastly expanding the power of large corporations. The key to defeating the FTAA lies in connecting the activists who are fighting against the many injustices created by the FTAA with the force that has the size, discipline, and power to take on corporate rule: the organized working class. More than anything, Quebec showed that this is a project that more and more people want to take on.


Katherine Dwyer is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.

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