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Notes From the Front 

The Wall defines two Americas in Quebec

Wednesday, May 2 2001
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On the second day of the Summit of the Americas, as more than 30,000 international demonstrators marched in lower Quebec City and another 5,000 to 10,000 chucked hockey pucks at police and downed the perimeter fence in a symbolic demand for access, the 34 attending heads of state announced a new “democracy” clause in the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Of course, it had nothing to do with democratizing the FTAA negotiations themselves, which was what the protesters wanted. In a twisted case of situationist détournement, President Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Chrétien, Mexican President Fox and other leaders harnessed the protesters’ buzzword as a guarantee against all those who opposed their corporate-led neoliberal economic coup.

The declaration reads: “Any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state’s government in the Summit of the Americas process.”

Which means, roughly, that if you’re some kind of Zapatista or Fidel Castro who doesn’t believe in Wal-Mart, then you’re shit outta luck. (Castro was the only Western Hemisphere leader not invited.) Chrétien went on to make a short speech defending this clause, in which he mentioned the word democracy 29 times.

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The two-plus-mile security perimeter around the summit, The Wall, made it easy to distinguish: There are two Americas, and they don’t really talk. A few hours after the declaration on democracy came out, an unsettling drumming began throbbing out of lower Quebec, at the base of the 17th-century citadelle, as thousands of tear-gassed citizens banged not on drums, but on the actual structure of the city itself, on guardrails, signs, girders, bridge abutments. This so-called “autonomous zone,” sheltered by towering overpasses leading to the upper city, served as an anarchist refuge featuring the soup and gruel of the Winnipeg Free Kitchen, a few chem toilets, a stage, and “art” supplies like paint and markers.

What it became was a Frustration Rave. With no one listening inside the walls, the best that activists could do was make it so that no one in the city could hear anything at all. Soon people began dancing. As Saturday’s street battles devolved into a creeping retreat from hundreds if not thousands of canisters of tear gas, more and more people ended up banging. By nightfall, the roar out of the lower city was absolutely deafening, and it went on, unabated, for hour upon hour.

In many ways, Quebec was a turning point for this newish anti-globalization movement and in the structure of the summits themselves. The division between the people and their corporate-counseled leaders is only growing deeper. Outside The Wall, remarkably well-informed people rose up by the tens of thousands, not only in Quebec but in scores of spots, from Vancouver to San Ysidro to Buenos Aires. That could eventually have an effect on the elected representatives in their districts back home, where the real guts of this fight will take place. Inside the perimeter, however, the substance of these sprawling summits and their global-trade agreements hadn’t changed a whit. This failure to communicate has thrown democracy into crisis.

“You have to tell someone!” screamed a young man from the notorious Black Bloc, anarchists who broadcast their militancy by wearing black from head to toe, his French accent coming through the vents of his gas mask. He had pulled me up to my knees from a cloud of tear gas in the Rue St. Jean and poured water in my boiling eyes. He looked at my official summit press badge and grabbed me by one shoulder with a finger in my face: “You have to tell people what is happening here!” When I squinted at him and started to talk, he waved me off, saying he had to “go vote.”

Which is exactly the point. There was no other way for these 30 or 40 thousand people to vote.

In the 18 months since this same movement shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial in Seattle, there have been scores of summit protests — in Washington, D.C., Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Prague, Davos and Melbourne, among other cities. In response, summit organizers have done nothing but greenwash — and militarize — the events themselves.

Summit organizers in Quebec, for example, made a lot of hoopla about getting input from Civil Society, a slate of relatively safe governmental agencies, nongovernmental organizations and pressure groups. Notably absent were the coalitions that organized the majority of street protesters: Operation Quebec Spring, the Montreal Anti-Capitalist Convergence, the Summit of the Americas Welcoming Committee, Operation SalAMI (“dirty friend” in French), or anything with the word union as part of its name.

About 50 less-contentious groups, from the Sierra Club to the Inuit Women’s Association to Human Rights Watch, were invited to early planning meetings around the summit. They then submitted a whole agenda of recommendations, but the heads of state were under no obligation whatsoever to even read it, and none of these concerns were incorporated into the FTAA agreement. Trade campaigner Leslie Dickout of Sierra Club of Canada — hardly a radical organization — described the exercise as “a joke.”

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