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Meaning of Life in Quebec

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.

There was a group in business suits with bar-code gags across their mouths (objecting to people being turned into commodities), the Radical Cheerleaders (dressed in red), the Radical Cooks (“Too Many Cops Spoil the Broth,” and “Free Food -- Not Free Trade”), a Ronald McDonald puppet with moneybags, and a host of people carrying placards like “No to Government of the Investors -- Democracy.”

The official script is that these agreements are about trade, and more trade creates growth, and growth creates prosperity. There are serious empirical doubts about how well the agreements work for most people in providing prosperity or even growth: A study by the Economic Policy Institute released just before the summit concluded that working people in the United States, Canada and Mexico had largely lost ground or experienced no gain since NAFTA went into effect. But there‘s no question that these agreements are more and more about protecting the rights of investors and corporations than about traditional trade and tariff reduction.

Critics envision a future in which corporations can use the powers under NAFTA and an expanded FTAA to force deregulation and privatization of public services, from education to health care, all under the guise of promoting “free trade.” But neither governments nor citizens can bring actions against corporations, and indeed under NAFTA and, most likely, FTAA, corporations are granted wide-ranging rights and powers with no reciprocal responsibilities.

It would be hard for government leaders not to realize how much opposition to these deals has grown, making it even harder for them to reach agreements. Despite their pledge to reach an FTAA by 2005, the 34 heads of state in Quebec have numerous immediate conflicts among themselves. Those include trade disputes between the U.S. and Canada, the U.S. and Brazil, and Canada and Brazil. There are also strategic differences (Brazil and other Latin American countries want to consolidate regional pacts first) and domestic political pressures (Bush is going to have a hard time winning “trade-promotion authority,” formerly called “fast-track authority,” and several presidents mentioned either the protesters or popular misgivings back home as indicators of the difficulty in selling an FTAA). Hovering over it all are Latin American misgivings going back to the Monroe Doctrine about U.S. domination of the hemisphere and intervention in their governments, with new anxieties generated by Plan Colombia, the U.S.-financed military war on drugs (and incidentally, left-wing guerrillas).

The summit, the wall, and the protests -- which reduced the meeting of the heads of state to a play within the Shakespearean history play in the streets -- together intensified public questioning about the future of democracy in the Americas, even in the most democratic countries, and even among those citizens who are not highly political.

As protesters streamed past his home in an old section of Quebec, Tim Allen, a middle-aged physician and medical-school professor, stood in the street with a garden hose to wash tear gas from eyes and throats. “I think the fence needed to be pulled down,” he said. “It’s a bit of a symbol. It‘s hard to agree with violence, but the wall is a slap in the face, an insult to our intelligence, to our participation in our government. It’s an American model, a rich fortress with the poor outside. They‘re having the summit in an artificial world. I’m not brave enough or foolhardy enough to be on the front line, but it‘s impressive that people would go through this to stand up for ’silly‘ rights.”

The “free trade” power grab by multinational corporations is on a rocky path when the Tim Allens of the world can find some common ground with the black-clad anarchists and the waves of peaceful protesters who came to Quebec on behalf of democracy and human rights.

(David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times and a fellow of the Nation Institute.)