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La Carnival Contre le Capitalisme

By Brendan Myers

© 2001 by Brendan Cathbad Myers, B.A, M.A.
Guelph, Ontario, Canada



I'm Brendan. I went to Quebec City, to join "La Carnival Contre le Capitalisme", and this is what I saw.

Let me preface this report by saying a bit more about who I am, to pre-empt any "ad hominem" objection to the accuracy and factuality of this story. It is too easy to dismiss reports such as the one I am about to make on the grounds that I am a protester, or a unionist, or a long-haired hippie, or just an angry Generation-X, who couldn't possibly have any objectivity. By labeling people this way we can more easily think of them as the label instead of as a person, and since they are no longer people their voices need not be given any attention. Politicians and the media do this all the time by characterizing certain people as "special interest groups", which selects such people out from the wiser and more enlightened majority and makes it easier to conclude that they deserve whatever injuries they get.

As it happens, I am an unionist (I'm the president of my local, actually), and I had every intention of being a protester on Saturday, and although I do not think of myself as a hippie I do have long hair, which one doesn't see on men much anymore. But I will deny and dismiss any attempt to characterize me as an inarticulate and randomly rebellious youth. I hold a Masters degree in philosophy, and am capable of thinking and articulating myself with clarity and precision. I am well aware of "both sides of the issue", fully capable of weighing them against one another, and no matter how often I approach the principles of international capitalism with an "open mind", its logic still leads me to conclude that it is horribly unjust and does indeed represent a clear and present danger to the rights and liberties of people all over the world.

But lest this self-description single me out as one of the "few" protesters capable of intelligence, let me point out that every person who came with me and who I met at the protest was equally if not more aware of the issues than I, just as well educated, most of them more creative, and each and every one of them possessed of a voice that deserves to be heard.


At six o'clock on Friday evening, I am surfing the internet in search of photographs and news stories about the protest against the Summit of the Americas. The reports that come through do not help much to steady my nerves, but at least I have a vague idea of what it is that I am about to walk into. The corporate press emphasizes the violence and unruliness of small groups of provocateurs, and I am lead to wonder why six thousand heavily armoured police officers and a concrete and chain-link fence line is necessary to defend against "small groups". Counts of attendance at the "People's Summit" range from a few thousand to ten thousand, but with a promise of a doubling or a tripling of this figure come Saturday, when everyone who couldn't get the week off work descends upon the city. Special attention is given to two or three police officers who got hurt. There is also much attention given to what the politicians within the no-protest zone have to say about the protesters: every one of them is dismissive and patronizing, and some more than others. The left-wing press and other independent media isn't much of a help either because although they are more ready to report the protester's experiences and points of view, there is a lot of slogan-repetition.

At eight o'clock I head down to my office, where the organizing team that I am a part of is assembling, to handle any last-minute preparations and to pep each other up. One friend and I fling elastic bands at each other. Other people are taking inventory counts of 'field supplies': bandanas, food, water, clean cloths, clothing, communications devices, swimming goggles, vinegar, legal aid phone numbers. Someone else is photocopying a map of downtown Quebec City and trying to guess where things are going to be happening. At about nine o'clock most of us move to the front door of the building and await the highway coach. Other people are waiting for city buses to take them home, and we joke about what would happen if they accidentally got on our bus and ended up in Quebec. Our bus is a bit late but when it arrives, a cheer goes up and we quickly get on board. Then it's off to Scarborough to pick up about a dozen more people, and then we motor on to Quebec City for nine more hours. I don't get any real sleep, as bus seats aren't the most comfortable things, and because of the palpable excitement and anticipation. We arrive at the "green zone" at about eight in the morning.

The bus drops us off at a park next to a federal government building and the VIA Rail station, both stately and dignified buildings of brick and stone, with sloping green copper rooftops and gables. There are already hundreds of people there, and most of them labour, and most of the labour people are steelworkers, as we can tell by the distinctive yellow flags. We soon notice the blue of CAW and the white of CEP, but the CUPE flag in my own hand is the only burgundy that anyone can see. We establish a time and a place to meet at the end of the day to get back on the bus, and then most people separate into their own affinity groups.

An affinity group, for those who have never been a part of an event like this, is a small group of about a half dozen people who spend the day together and take care of one another the whole time. Everyone in the group has a job to do: one is the medic, one takes care of the food, one is the marshal who makes sure that no one is missing, one makes sure that we are psychologically steady and focused on the task and hand. There is no template for the size and job descriptions in an affinity group: it matters only that no one is alone and that everyone has something to do.

There is a tent set up in which several famous lefty leaders are going to give speeches; Maude Barlowe of the Council of Canadians is among them and several people from our bus head off in that direction to hear them. I decide that I want to see the barricade right away, as it was peaceful at that time. So we walk up the narrow, sloping streets of the Old City, between rows of some of the oldest permanent structures on the north american continent. I pass a park where I once saw a stage magician performing, when I was a tourist here eleven years ago. A moment of deja-vu passes over me: somehow I remember that eleven years ago I knew I would return to this place. We encounter the barricade at St. John's Gate. It is a three-foot high concrete highway divider with an eight-foot high chain link fence on top of it. We are able to walk right up to it and lean on it. People have stuck posters on the fence and tied ribbons and flowers to it. About two dozen people are milling about, talking and laughing with one another. Someone has a ukulele and is singing "Don't fence me in". Students from Laval are making an independent video and they interview me, asking about who I am and where I am from and why I came. I tell them that I am here because public protests of this kind are the most visible expression of the people's outrage, and that even if the protest turns out to be futile, since we know the Powers That Be are not listening to us, still it is the right thing to do. It is the exercise of our right to say "No". The students thank me, as others shout across the barricade to the police there: "Did you hear that?". Another Laval student with a press pass talks to us through the fence until an officer orders her to stop talking to us. The people hurl insults at the officer for this. A short while later, she emerges on our side and talks to us, and the people start daring the officer to shut her up again. The reporter said that whenever she goes inside the perimeter, the police constantly harass her and accuse her of having forged her press pass.

The police at this place are about a dozen strong standing in two staggered rows, about fifteen feet from the fence, facing us, unsmiling and unmoving. They are dressed in dark green uniforms with padded armour, black helmets, visors, and are carrying batons. One of my friends shakes the fence a little bit and says "Look, I am shaking the fence!" This is in reference to news reports that people had been tear-gassed the previous day for shaking the fence. At this time, the police do not move, and a moment later an officer orders them off to another location. They march in unison, like soldiers. I shout after them, "Give my regards to Darth Vader", and pretend to shoot at them with a banana.

The posturing continues on both sides. It is a useless gesture because the police are not reacting, but it does boost morale. About two hundred feet away is another gate along the Old City wall, where more identical police are staring down the protestors, and the view through the fence here is particularly heartwarming because the police stand amid sixteenth-century fortifications and eighteenth-century cannons. But these were police, and not actors in costume. This is life, this is reality.

We returned to the People's Summit area after about an hour, to gather our people and join the march that the Federation du Travaille du Quebec had organized. CUPE has lined up behind the CAW, who appear to be at the front, and CEP is behind us. But there are no strict divisions, and the order is not at all a matter of rank. People with whatever affiliation are everywhere. You cannot see more than about twenty feet away from you in any direction because of the density of the crowd, so from the ground level it is impossible to estimate how large it is. One can only see the people, and above them the colourful flags, balloons, banners, puppets, and signs. And above them, appearing to float on a sea of activity brood the majestic train station and federal building. These buildings belong to us, because the spirit of Canada is embodied in them, as it is in our parade-- and this is part of the point of the protest. These buildings belong to us, and we are keeping them.

Ville de Quebec is a very good city in which to have a protest, because the downtown and especially the Old City is an architecture museum. This is the reason it was chosen for the Summit as well. Amidst the buildings and the streets was an impromptu festival of thousands and thousands of people. It is a festival of labour, environmentalists, social justice groups, pagans, socialists, civil rights activists, Raging Grannies, anti-poverty activists, patriotic Canadians, patriotic Quebecois, and all sorts of other "lefties". They came from every country in the hemisphere. There were musicians, jugglers, artists, dancers, costumes, and drummers. There are many, many drummers, and one's body moves to their rhythm almost of its own accord. There were black people, white people, Hispanics, Orientals, old people, young people, people with disabilities, many different religions, many different languages, and the whole diversity that is the human race-- in stark contrast to the old white rich men who are the world's corporate elite. A passing FTQ marshal tells me that there are more people in Quebec today than were in Montreal for the national unity rally.

If you were to momentarily forget about the politics of the event and look upon it with innocent eyes, you quickly realise that this wild celebration was a genuine manifestation of human spirit, because all of the activity therein came from direct creative expression. Nothing was a mere repetition of an advertising slogan or reconfirmation of an indoctrinated truth. If there was any indoctrination going on, it certainly was not that of a top-down hierarchical order of power, because there really was no one in charge.

A man standing on a power transformer held two placards in the shape of clenched fists, the word "Rise" on one and "Up" on the other. A man on stilts wearing a mask of Jean Crietien held aloft a water-cooler jug with the word "Mine" on it. One of our marching chants was "Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah", in imitation of all we ever really hear from the politicians. A sign read "34 countries, 33 suckers", in solidarity with Cuba who was excluded from the Summit; several Cuban flags were spotted about the crowd as well. Because all this creativity truly came from within, and was not manufactured externally by political or corporate powers, this march was a profound expression of who we really are and what really unites us, behind and prior to what we are compelled to be by the structures of economic and political power in which we live. I held my union's flag up to the sky and was very, very proud to be there.

The ocean of activity began to move. We are informed by FTQ marshals that there is a break-off point along the march route, and at that place those who do not want to go to the barricade can continue marching one way, and those who do can go the other way. We walk along a road that leads under an highway overpass and into a district of low-rise apartment buildings and local small businesses. Lining the march route are more people with banners, displays, reporters, and hundreds of supportive locals. A friend gives me a small bag of sage and sweetgrass. People are joking that those who hold English-language protest banners will be arrested. Most of us are singing labour songs or civil rights songs. As I pass a reporter, I point directly into the video camera and shout "Do you hear us now, Chrietien?"

Then we get to the break-off point. An FTQ marshal asks me to get rid of my union flag. I understand this-- the unions don't want to be lumped together with the molotov cocktail throwers by the media. I stuff the flag in a friend's backpack and drop the stick on the ground. We group together somewhere to prepare for the confrontation with police that we know will happen: we can already see the thick clouds of tear gas wafting among the buildings less than a kilometer in front of us. Some of us can already taste it in the air. Everyone ties a bandana around her face and douses it with vinegar. People write phone-numbers on their arms, so that they can still call their friends if they are arrested and strip-searched. A rumour goes around: one hundred people were arrested the day before, and they are all still locked up. I tie warrior-braids into my hair and don an old, worn and ripped trenchcoat. Swimming goggles for the eyes, and water bottles ready for those without goggles so they can wash the tear gas from their eyes. The corporate media reported that the only weapons the police were using were tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. But there are rumours of pepper spray and concussion grenades as well. Rain ponchos to keep the gas from saturating your clothing. Rubber gloves to protect your hands. Elastic bands seal off your pants so that gas cannot travel up your leg. We walk up the long ramp that leads up the cliffs into the Old City of Quebec. I have to stop half-way to dry-heave.

When we get within sight of the barricade, it is about five hundred feet away. First thing to do is be sure you know where your friends are and where the exits are. There are already about a thousand people at this gate. It's a different gate than the one I was at that morning, with a wider street and more corporate buildings. There doesn't seem to be much going on except a lot of shouting and fist shaking, so we advance. My friends and I brought a lot of extra medical equipment to help other people, and we station ourselves about thirty feet from the perimeter. The police are in full riot gear here, lined right up against the fence on the other side, dressed all in black and carrying shields. Their badge numbers are printed on their helmets-- they have no names, they have numbers. One gets the impression that they are not people. But we are people-- we have names.

A group daringly moves up to the fence and begins to shake it. A cheer goes up. Then a loud explosive Bang reverberates between the buildings and a thick white fog of tear gas quickly fills the space. The fence shakers get it right in their gas-masked faces, and a moment later the cloud envelops everyone.

When you are exposed to tear gas, your eyes fill up with tears and starts to burn, your throat burns, and your skin burns. Your breathing becomes more labourious. The pain can last up to twenty minutes if it is not treated right away, and remain an irritant for the rest of the day. It is excruciatingly painful. You can not touch your face because you will rub it into your pours. You can not run away either because you will just breathe heavier and ingest more of it. The most you can do is link arms with your buddies and walk away. This is not communicated when the corporate media describes tear gas as "non-lethal". My friends and I walk to a place about sixty feet away: Water is flushed through my eyes, nose, and mouth, and a clean cloth wipes my face dry afterwards. Even so, it is at least five minutes before I can see properly again, because I did not have goggles for my eyes. A friend has to pry my eyes open because my pain reflex is holding them shut. The gas residue fogged my glasses and I wipe them clean on the lining of my coat.

By the time I am okay again, I climb some steps at the doorway of a building to see what is happening on the front line. An armoured truck has arrived and suddenly it opens fire with its water cannon. A water cannon is not a garden hose. It delivers enough blunt trauma to knock a wrestler off his feet and badly bruise him. About a half-dozen people fall to the ground, their gas masks flung from their faces. The stream from the water cannon is sustained for two minutes. Anger rises in me almost involuntarily, and I scream at them: "You bastards!" A friend tries to calm me down, but a moment later someone running by says the water cannon is pepper spray, and my friend screams the same outrage.

We no longer refer to the police as police. Now we call them "cops", or "pigs". People are speaking openly about "the revolution".

As soon as the water cannon stream ceases, one of my group and I check out a side street to see if it is a safe exit, should we need it. I ditch my bandana and produce a clean one, doused with fresh vinegar. When we rejoin our group, people have come back up to the fence line so the cops launch another tear-gas attack, this time from the roof of a building. Our position, about sixty feet from the perimeter, is not safe enough and we must back up some more. I am traumatized by tear gas for the second time in five minutes and my friend must treat me again. Mere moments later someone near me enters an epileptic shock and although I can not see properly I pull her over my shoulders and take her to some nearby medics. The faerie wings she made were broken. At the front line we are all just people, asserting our rights and protesting our injuries. No other affiliations matter. People trade water, bandanas, food, and other supplies freely. The solidarity is incredible. We have a common enemy, but it is not our enemy that unites us. Our humanity unites us.

We take position near the top of a stair that leads down the cliff. I stand on a fire hydrant to observe the front line: more tear gas, more water cannons, and now rubber bullets are added to the fray. Looking down the stair to the street below, the march is still moving on, just as thick with people as when we were in it, and with all the colour and joy. But we knew what these people were walking into and because we knew that, our act of looking at them was different and we saw them differently. We saw a stream of innocent and playful faeries from right out of Celtic folklore, blissfully walking into a blast furnace. I sat down on the stair and cried. I cried for my people and the land of my country, my Canada, who I love so much, and I cried that the state was so willing to use such terror on its own people to impose its will. I had known about the way the state attacks dissent before, and this was not the first protest I had ever attended: but seeing, hearing and feeling it demands a reaction that written words do not. I am ordinarily a very emotionally controlled person-- I do not often experience even happiness. But the supposition that "men do not cry" is part of our indoctrination and not part of what it is to be a man. My tears are part of the protest. However, I swallowed it soon because there was work to be done.

The people who went to the perimeter were people who had come a long way, some of us thousands of miles, to be there. We were daring and courageous. We were willing to expose ourselves to chemical weapons and possible arrest in the service of what is right. The police were there because it's their job. We were there because we wanted to be there. We were capable of looking in the face of the world's largest form of organized evil, and we were not afraid.

Soon it became a kind of dance-- we would come up to the fence in an effort to pull it down that we knew was futile, and then the cops would gas us. Then we would "advance to the rear" (we do not "retreat") until the air was clear, and then advance again. Then the cops would gas us again. Then again, then again. We did this all day. The people inside the perimeter have nothing to lose-- they are already wealthy and powerful. The people outside the perimeter have their entire livelihoods to lose. And because the protest itself was largely an affair of culture and creativity, a matter of laughing at the enemy instead of engaging the enemy, therefore in the end the people will win.

My group decided not to go to the front line again for a while, and instead rejoin the parade which was still going on. We wanted to see what was down the other direction after the break-off point. At one place I passed the off-duty riot cops on a side street, where they were washing themselves of sweat and gas with water and vinegar. The cops and the people just stared at each other silently, not confrontationally, but in acknowledgement that both sides were playing the rules of someone else's game. The physical change of location rendered a completely different psychological environment.

On the rest of the parade route, there were more wonderful displays and street-theatre performances and the like. A man sat on the service platform of a billboard, a big papier-mache piggy bank beside him, dangling a giant gold coin from a fishing rod. Below him in the structural support frame stood three people with newspapers stuffed in their mouths. We applauded them.

After dinner we went to the protest zone again, this time hoping to stay a safe distance away and watch. We were able to see the huge clouds of gas wafting among the buildings as if it was a predatory animal, and we could even smell it up to a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the highway overpass, we observed the same gate we had been at that afternoon from a different angle, about a hundred feet away. The dynamic was much different now. The cops were gassing the people with absolutely no provocation whatsoever. Anyone who walked within ten feet of the fence was shot at. They were firing the tear-gas canisters directly at the people's heads, as if the canister launcher was a kind of gun. Bricks and rocks littered the barricade where people had thrown them. The flags close to the front were not the flags of labour that I was familiar with, but the black flags of anarchists and the red flags of communists. A group of black-clad, gas masked men whom the corporate press had called "Le Black Bloc" were using bricks and molotov cocktails to attack the police. We timed the tear-gas launches at an average of three per minute, and if the anarchists had thrown a molotov cocktail then cops would launch four or five tear gas canisters simultaneously, and one of them would come out of the perimeter to shoot the anarchists at point-blank range with rubber bullets. One affinity group of five people sat on the ground in a circle about ten feet from the fence line and simply peacefully endured the tear gas and water cannon attacks. Another man sat on a rock of some kind and just stared at the police unflinching. The row of riot cops on the other side of the fence were banging their shields with their batons in unison to intimidate us. But we were banging the metal guard rails of the highway and our noise completely drowned out theirs. It was as if to say, "You want to make noise? We can make noise. We can make a lot of noise."

Tear gas canisters were regularly tossed right back at the cops by people who had hockey gloves to protect their hands. We joked that the tear gas factory was inside the perimeter. We had to make jokes about what we were seeing once in a while to steady our nerves. We were observing a scene right out of a war zone, live and in one of my country's own cities. The cops were also firing the tear gas canisters on high parabolic arcs to land in the middle of the peaceful crowd-- one of which came close to us and we removed ourselves another fifty feet. Someone picked it up and ran with it all the way to the fence line. There we watched the action for another two hours in relative safety, aside from the occasional low-flying helicopter buzz, until a tear gas can rolled under our bridge and wafted everyone on it. This was our fourth exposure to tear gas that day. Then we left, went to our regroup place to pick up the bus. We walked through the narrow, sloping streets of the Old City amidst boarded windows, although none of the unprotected windows were broken. There was very little garbage either, despite the absence of garbage pails (presumably, the police removed them so that bombs could not be concealed within them). The Sierra Club had been cleaning up after all of us all day. Anarchists running their supply lines were heard saying to each other, "Don't smash the windows. These people are on our side." When we got back to the green in front of the train station, we collapsed in physical and emotional exhaustion, and traded stories of the day with each other until the bus arrived.

An experience like this tends to re-order your life priorities, and separate what matters from what does not. Suddenly, things like pro sports, or the ups and downs of my social life, are of no importance whatever. One thing we all take from it: having stood up to power there, we can stand up to power anywhere.


In retrospective contemplation, now that I have returned home, I offer the following seven summary comments.

  • First, Quebec really is a distinct society. (Get over it, Alberta.) Whether this gets admitted as a constitutional amendment or as a declaration of independence remains to be seen (and I would prefer that they stay in Canada), however all the separatists that I met seemed to realise that international capitalism is more truly responsible for all the things that they usually blame federalism for. One separatist I met who was carrying an FLQ flag was savvy enough to realise that the erasure of Quebec's national identity is happening simultaneously with the erasure of everybody's national identity.
  • Second, firing a tear-gas canister or a rubber bullet is an act of violence. The Summit leaders and some of the activist leaders sanctimoniously denounced the protesters who had been throwing bricks and molotov cocktails. But did anyone denounce the police for their acts of violence? After getting a face full of tear gas fourty times in an hour, returning fire becomes an extremely attractive prospect. If you have epilepsy or asthma and are exposed to tear gas, you will not be able to breathe at all. A rubber bullet strike in the eye or the temple at point-blank range will kill you. Let me say this clearly, and let there be no mistaking: If the police continue to use these weapons, it is only a matter of time before someone dies.
  • Third, Canada is not a democracy. What is democracy? It entails far more than rule by the majority: it entails rule by certain beliefs and ideas. The beliefs and ideas that rule a democracy are encoded into our constitution and our laws, and are open to perpetual debate, revision, and scrutiny; moreover the debate is something that everyone may join, and is free from intimidation by wealth or military force and so therefore may be based entirely on what is right, what is just, and what is in the public good. Such debate is the essence of democracy. But the people were forcibly excluded from the debate at the Summit of the Americas: they were gassed and shot at for asserting their right to speak, and to peacefully dissent. If this were a true democracy, dissent would be permissible, not silenced with chemical weapons, and the terms of treaties like the FTAA would not be closed nor secret. Moreover, the Government of Canada is guilty of incredible hypocrisy, for it represented the purpose of the Summit as "to increase democracy and liberty in all the Americas". The police actions at Quebec were the actions of a police state, not a democracy. We no longer have the luxury to stay uninvolved in the resistance against the destruction of our democracy.
  • Fourth, the Government of Canada is responsible for the violence at the fence line. Had the government opened the FTAA treaty to public scrutiny, ensured protection for the commons, not erected so tangible a symbol of its utter contempt for its own people as a barricade, and provoked violence by defending it with heavily armed police, then the protest might not have been so violent. If the people are already outraged, the solution is not to barricade them out of the process. Moreover, had it done its duty to democracy and engaged with the people on the people's terms instead of on its terms, entered into treaties to guarantee the protection and empowerment of the public civil commons instead of entering profit-driven trade deals, and just simply cared for the people, the protest would never have occurred at all. Who knows what would have happened instead: an impromptu festival perhaps, rather a lot like the parade, in thanksgiving to each other for giving to ourselves the greatest country in the world in which to live.
  • Fifth, one or several of the following three things will happen at events of this kind unless the politicians change their ways. One of the police will die, or one of the protesters will die, or one of the police will drop his shield and helmet and join the side of the people (as happened at the recent liberation of Serbia). The first possibility will turn the tide of public opinion against the protest, whereas the second and third may well be what it takes for the protest to succeed. It sounds horrid to say that death is a precondition for success, but may I remind you that a protest is not a tea party. The impact on public opinion would be powerful. On the other hand, Dudley George was killed by OPP officers for his nonviolent protest and it still did not shame the provincial government into backing down.
  • Sixth, the protest is a spiritual activity. In many ways the protest is the assertion of who we are, and also who we are not. We are not mere functionaries in the capitalist profit machine, as consumers or target markets. We are people. We are the land. I hope I have shown this throughout this story.
  • Finally, and most importantly, you should have been there.

In solidarity,
Brendan Myers.


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