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
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
Katherine Dwyer is on the editorial board of the International