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Notes From the Front

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.

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.”

“If we’re going to have a process that’s going to be inclusionary, we have to sit at the table as equals. And that’s never going to happen,” Dickout said while organizing an Earth Day cleanup of a Quebec shopping district that would be trashed on the final night of the summit.

Civil Society, in fact, turned down an invitation to join with the heads of state inside The Wall to present their findings. Smelling a trap in the form of a photo op, the groups instead threw in with the Peoples Summit, a weeklong assemblage of speakers and teach-ins outside the perimeter that brought out such anti-globalization thinkers as the Council of Canadians’ Maude Barlow and No Logo author Naomi Klein. The Peoples Summit, which declared itself pro–fair trade (as opposed to free trade) and was more reformist than radical overall, eventually released a final communiqué condemning the FTAA and saying it should be scrapped.

By Saturday night, even the slightest prospect of dialogue was dead. The moderates had moved, joining ranks with the radicals in a remarkable consensus: The FTAA could not be reformed.

“We decided that the wall itself had to come down,” said David Graeber, sitting in the Université Laval student union that night. A member of the Yale anthropology faculty who found himself running with Mohawk traditionalists, the militant group Ya Basta! and the Black Bloc (“purely out of anthropological interest,” he chuckled), Graeber was on the frontlines when The Wall was first pulled down. “The wall is a symbol,” he said. “Neoliberalism — what they like to call ‘globalization’ — is really about creating walls which imprison the poor in little enclaves. Then they’re desperate. Then you cut services inside the wall by privatizing everything, getting rid of social programs, and rich people can fully exploit them.”

One of the leading advocates of this critique, well-known Montreal activist wonk Jaggi Singh of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, never got the chance to cast his vote because he was whisked away in some kind of pre-emptive police black op. According to Helen Nazon, of the Summit of the Americas Welcoming Committee, she and the decidedly un–Black Bloc Singh were talking to friends on the Rue St. Jean on Saturday, blocks away from any action, when four men jumped out of a van, threw Singh to the ground, kicked him, and only identified themselves as police after bystanders moved in to stop what they thought was an assault. Singh was then disappeared overnight and finally charged with “possession of a weapon,” which even journalists such as Klein regarded as specious. So much for what Chrétien called “Canada’s proud tradition of democracy.”

One has to wonder. Will an alternative structure emerge for future economic summits, or will they simply decamp like the WTO, which will hold its 2001 ministerial meeting in the protest-proof Arab state of Qatar? Bush said he’s not going to let even legitimate concerns “derail” his agreement. “Derail,” in this case, meaning to change the language in any way. He’s going to sign this FTAA thing unless a gang of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans jump him Korean Parliament–style and physically restrain him from doing so. Which they might, in a manner, by refusing him Trade Promotional Authority — but look how popular NAFTA was in Congress. Even if he gets denied, they’ll just bump it down the line to the next summit meeting, and sign it someplace where the summit kitchen isn’t closed down from C.S. gas contamination.

The pounding in the lower city intensified beyond midnight into the new day. At 4 a.m. on Sunday morning I walked up to the gate on the Boulevard Rene Levesque, where the water cannons and the tear gas had been concentrated, to find the park in front of the Grand Theater deserted. Not one person remained of the thousands who had been there for the previous 48 hours. Now there was nothing but drizzling fog clotted with searing pockets of C.S., and some graffiti I had seen in the lower city came to mind: “Quand la paix n’est rien de moins qu’une guerre interrompue” — “When peace is only war interrupted.” The implication was that such a peace is false, and the hundreds of exhausted police huddled out of the rain in every doorway certainly made this scene feel false, but this graffiti wasn’t referring to the cessation of hostilities. It referred to the everyday peace that is life in go-along Canada in its hundred-somethingth year of market capitalism, and by extension life in its ambitious big brother, the United States of America. It was the everyday peace that was quickly re-establishing itself now that everyone was going home. It was democracy itself that was emerging as false.

“The old myth is dying, the myth of progress,” a middle-aged woman had told me earlier, choking back tear-gas tears. She gave her name only as “Unruly Mob Goblin.” “The new myth is being born here,” she cried, “the myth of connectivity.”

I walked past the motorcades inside the perimeter and under the scrutiny of 34 different sets of secret service, wondering about that word, myth. We would be connected to one another, but not to the inside of the Hilton Hotel, where the lights were mostly on and the Free Trade Area of the Americas continued to be born. Eventually, a local homeowner had told me, the protesters would “elect their own gray-hairs and become the government.” Is that what it would take?

Dozens of spent muzzle-dispersion C.S. cartridges lay scattered with rocks and broken bottles inside the fence. A policewoman sat on the sidewalk taking off her armor, and looked up at me as though from the bottom of an ocean of fatigue. Democracy had become the ritualized dialogue of two armies, which is no democracy at all.


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