By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
QUEBEC CITY -- It took only 15 minutes for “the wall of shame” surrounding the Summit of the Americas to crash to the ground last Friday. The bravura gesture opened a remarkable weekend of demonstrations against the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), and in support of democracy threatened by new global economic rules favoring corporate power and the dominance of the marketplace.
The crowd numbered well over 5,000 when it left Laval University, roughly half marching to a safe, “green” zone of protest, the other half to a “yellow” zone of direct action and risk of arrest. Marching behind the small banner of the Convergence of Anti-Capitalist Struggles, a group of a couple dozen largely black-clad protesters with masks at first taunted the police, who were carrying plastic shields and wearing Darth Vader helmets, then pelted them with objects ranging from toilet-paper rolls to golf balls. After pulling down the gate, the militants moved through the rupture in the 2.5-mile long, 10-foot-high concrete-and-chainlink barricade. Yet few of the supportive crowd of thousands followed them into the breach. The medieval faction, however, pulling its home-made catapult, did charge through the gate and launched a pink stuffed animal at the police, falling short of its target.
It was a moment of comic relief, like the fool appearing in a Shakespearean tragedy, at once endorsing the battle, noting its ritualized quality and drawing attention to the feudal outlines of the whole scene -- the kings in their castle, the knights at the gates, the peasant rabble rattling the walls. But the sentiments of the crowd were probably more in tune with Shakespeare’s stirring rhetoric from the mouth of King Henry V about “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” prepared to shed blood on the fields of AgincourtQuebec, while in the future “Gentlemen in England [or back home] will think themselves accursed they were not here.”
This was grand political theater, played out appropriately enough in front of the Grand Theatre de Quebec, but it attempted to write history, not just dramatize it. Within a few minutes, the police launched the first of what must have been eventually many thousands of tear-gas canisters, and those of us observing in front staggered blindly down an embankment, seeking out water bottles to wash away the burning chemicals.
It was not just physically serious, with around 90 protesters and a smaller number of police officers injured, but intellectually serious. The thousands of protesters who traveled here, mainly from various parts of Canada, but also from the United States and many countries of Central and South America, came not just for the risky thrill of collective conflict but because they saw contemporary “trade” agreements, such as NAFTA and its extension, the FTAA, as a threat to economic security, the environment, public services, a humane culture, peasants in developing countries and workers nearly everywhere, but most of all to democracy.
As I poured water into my eyes, one University of Toronto student engaged me in a discussion of the “meaning of life” and the menace of rampant consumerism before dashing off as another tear-gas canister landed nearby.
Shortly afterward, another protester earnestly asked, without hostility, “What does this spectacle have to do with anything? Why write about it for the L.A. Weekly?” He, too, left quickly in another burst of tear gas, before I could haltingly try to explain that much as I prefer reasoned debate and nonviolent, if civilly disobedient, protest, the drama of violence and disruption forces authorities -- and fellow citizens -- to pay attention to people who do not have enough money to buy access to power.
“This is what democracy looks like,” protesters chanted, invoking a disturbingly ambiguous slogan from the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999. Certainly protest, even when it‘s unruly or obnoxious, is integral to democracy, but the slogan could just as easily mean that “this” -- meaning the fences and police separating leaders from the people -- is what contemporary “democracy” has come to look like. A robustly democratic society might not look like this at all: The protesters in Quebec would have a more direct voice in the negotiation of a sweeping agreement that could shape their economic and political futures. Their electoral politics would not be dominated by big money. They would have their own mass media to make their views heard. They certainly would be able to see the text of what was being negotiated.
Until the summit leaders agreed last weekend to release the texts, trade negotiators and about 500 corporate executives who heavily influence the substance of such agreements were virtually the only ones who had clearance to read the documents, something that most members of congresses and parliaments in the hemisphere lacked. Similarly, business executives who had paid $50,000 to $1.5 million as sponsors were among the few people who actually hobnobbed with the heads of state, although some mainstream non-governmental groups presented their views to lower-level government officials.
The protesters, after all, did not represent some marginal point of view. Recent polls suggest that roughly half of Canadians oppose or have doubts about the FTAA, even though it had gotten little media attention until this summit, and about one-fifth of Canadians would have liked to join in the demonstrations in Quebec, according to a survey done for the Canadian Labor Congress. (Substantial majorities in U.S. polls also express misgivings about who really benefits from these global agreements and about the abuse of corporate power.) As it was, about 45,000 or more people flooded the streets of Quebec last Saturday for a march that was completely peaceful (with not one of the 6,000 police assigned to the city in sight -- they were busy elsewhere in skirmishes with protesters). Union members were out in force, but so were environmentalists, citizen groups, students, farmers, doctors (worried about the growing threats to Canada’s remarkable universal health-care system from trade deals), and many more.