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Testimonial on the Anti-FTAA Demonstrations, April 18-22, 2001

By Sara Ahronheim

© 2001 by Sara Ahronheim
Queen's University, Kingston, Canada


Last weekend, I volunteered as a Street Medic for the Quebec City protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, from Wednesday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. In the course of these days I saw so much that I hope never to see again. I treated hundreds of injured people, got tear gassed, felt the effects of pepper spray, and felt the kind of turmoil that a peaceful society ought not to experience.

Throughout the event, the police targeted medics: wherever my partner and I would be treating people, tear gas canisters would land right beside us. Some medics got hit with rubber bullets. On Friday, my friend Sean was on his knees treating a patient in a tear gas cloud on the front lines, when a canister fell right under his face and exploded. After inhaling so much tear gas right there, he tried to stumble to his feet only to narrowly miss a canister aimed at his head. Another canister hit the wall behind him, bounced and hit him in the back, knocking him flat. A final canister rolled by his face again and exploded. He was rescued by another medic team and spent the next two days recuperating in the medic clinic on Côte D'Abraham.

On the front lines on Friday we began treating people as the gassing began. We kept having to retreat more and more to avoid the clouds of gas. At one point a canister exploded right next to me. I can't begin to explain the agony of being hit head-on with tear gas — it suffocates you. I began to walk very quickly, barely restraining the panic, as I coughed and choked. I thought that I would die; I thought that at any minute my asthma would kick in. Everywhere we turned there were more riot police, more gas, and no safe space to calm down and decompress. My eyes were fine, being sealed under swimming goggles, but my skin was burning like fire. Finally we managed to find a corner without gas and I got my breath back. I can't explain the fear that set in afterwards — I was so scared to go anywhere near the police. But I was in Quebec to do a service — treat injured people who were in pain. Now that I knew what that pain was like, I also knew I had to go back into the fray. As we walked back into the chaos, we came upon a girl who had been hit by a canister of gas, which exploded all over her body. Medics were treating her by stripping off her clothing and pouring liquids all over her. The poor girl was crying and screaming, in so much pain. Around us were clouds and clouds of gas, and police advancing on all sides. The cops began shooting canisters high into the air, into the back of the crowd, where we were. There were only peaceful protesters in our area; we were not up by the perimeter fence, and we were not involved in Black Bloc (a militant revolutionary group - change to "a group of militant protesters who form spontaneously at demonstrations") activities up by the front lines. Our space was full of individuals being treated for various injuries, and just trying to recuperate. Yet we were getting hit with dozens of canisters! We had to watch the sky, hoping the canisters wouldn't land on us. We had to continually stand in the center of the action, yelling at people to walk, walk, walk to avoid a mob scene and tramplings. It is so hard to stand still or walk slowly when tear gas canisters at a temperature of hundreds of degrees Celsius are being shot straight at you or above your head.

I broke down so many times in the fracas, because the emotion just ran so high. I thought I was either going to die or be incapacitated or arrested. At one point we were in the middle of a city block when a fire truck came through and the protesters attacked it. At the time I couldn't understand why, why would they attack firemen, but later on someone helped me realize that the truck was going to be used as a water cannon, so people wanted to trash it. Finally the truck went through, after having all its water emptied and the equipment taken. Later a row of riot police formed at one intersection, and lobbed gas canisters to block off the end of the block. There was no escape route for my partner and me and the dozen or so protesters still there. Again I began to choke and almost panic, but we ducked into a driveway. When I saw the pain the others were in my adrenaline kicked in, and I began to treat them. I didn't even think about my state, because I didn't feel it once I saw the injured people that needed my help. We managed to escape through backyards onto another block.

Throughout this weekend, I felt like I was in the middle of civil war (not what I meant - please remove) of urban warfare. I treated so many burned hands, from people who wore thick gloves to throw tear gas canisters back at the cops or away from the crowd, yet got their hands burned. I saw third degree burns. I flushed hundreds of eyes with water and sometimes with LAW — liquid antacid mixed with water in a 1:1 ratio. When we were safely away from gas, I did MOFIBA skin decontamination treatments (mineral oil followed immediately by alcohol) to take away the pain. I treated so many injuries from people hit by tear gas canisters and also those hit by rubber or plastic bullets. I saw back injuries, head injuries, broken fingers, leg wounds, and so much more.

On Friday night, we ended up under siege in our medical clinic as the cops advanced down Côte D'Abraham, firing rounds and rounds of tear gas. The air was so contaminated that we had to breathe through our vinegar-soaked bandannas even inside the clinic. We had all the lights out and were speaking in whispers. It was so scary. I thought that we were going to be arrested for sure. Finally we managed to evacuate down the stairs outside, and get away.

On Saturday night it was a different story. I wasn't there; I was at Ilôt Fleurie under the highway, in the middle of the big party. But I heard from many medics who were there, and they gave me the following account: The police advanced down Côte D'Abraham, shooting tear gas like crazy and shooting rubber bullets down alleys and driveways. When they reached the clinic they marched everyone who was in the alley (the decontamination space) out at gunpoint. This included many medics and their patients, even seriously injured ones. The police forcibly removed all the protective gear from everyone, including gas masks, vinegar bandannas and any goggles, saying "No more protection for you guys." They also took all the medical supplies and equipment that was in the alley or being carried by the medics. They then marched them, hands in the air and at gunpoint, out into the gas. They made them walk one way, then changed their minds and marched them another direction. My friend Sean said that one guy next to him was hit in the head with a rubber bullet, and the cops wouldn't allow him to stop and treat the person. Finally they let the group go, without any arrests. Needless to say, the clinic was evacuated and set up in a different location.

Medics told me about many other injuries. Derek and his partner treated a man who was severely beaten by police. He had a skull fracture, was in serious shock and had a compound leg fracture that made it almost severed. They waited in clouds of tear gas, with more and more canisters being hurled at them, for the ambulance. Another medic treated a guy whose finger was cut off as he tried to scale the wall. One girl's shoulder was dislocated. I treated a man who got hit in the back with a tear gas canister. One man got hit in the Adam's Apple with a rubber bullet and underwent an emergency tracheotomy. My teammate Leigh had a serious asthma attack in the clouds of gas. There were many victims of beatings at the hands of police — serious injuries from police batons. One guy had his earring ripped straight out of his ear by a riot cop. There were so many more, I just can't remember them all. And the funniest thing is, the mainstream media (e.g. the Montreal Gazette) reported only 300 injuries total. That figure is laughable, since I must have treated that many myself! And there were probably 50 medics treating that many injuries each!

In the midst of all this chaos and fear and pain there were bright moments. On Thursday I was present at the start of the Women's March, which was colorful, beautiful, peaceful, and magical. There were huge puppets and decorated artwork that the women wove into the Wall of Shame. That night I walked with the Torchlight Parade all the way from Université de Laval to Ilot Fleurie. Along the entire route, for many countless hours, the group sang songs, chanted, drummed and danced. Slogans such as "This is what Democracy looks like;" "Whose streets? Our streets;" "Ain't no power like the power of the people and the power of the people won't stop" and "So So So, Solidarité!" were repeated over and over. There was a festive atmosphere, with many residents waving from their homes and calling out their support to the crowd. On Friday things went bad as soon as the next march from Laval reached the perimeter, but I saw some beautiful things through the clouds of gas. A group of women joined hands and danced in a slow circle, singing beautiful songs about peace and nonviolence. They were angelic, young and old, a space of quiet in the midst of a thunderstorm of pain. Starhawk led her Pagan group with blue banners and an aura of calm, straight into the tear gas. I saw them go by and felt safe for just a moment. I heard later that they went straight through the gas and the bullets, and sang and danced right by the row of riot cops. Apparently some were later treated for injuries. Their courage and faith was inspirational to many, including me. On Saturday down at Ilot Fleurie a party was going on all day long. In this space, supposedly the "Green Zone" (safe, non-confrontational, nowhere near the perimeter) had a booth set up for Food Not Bombs, a group that fed us all weekend long. Everyone was welcome to come and eat for free any time of day, and there were containers to eat out of with a washstation nearby where everyone was expected to wash their dish out after eating. There was also an art space set up where artists would fashion their work to use in the protests. By late afternoon there was a huge fire going in the street, with people dancing around it. Many people ripped down street signs and used them as musical instruments — a steady beat went on for hours and hours, late into the night. There was a group dancing to the beat, and everyone felt so free and beautiful. It felt like the kind of society I want to live in, until the police arrived and the fear set in. A whole phalanx of riot police stood their ground at the top of the stairs looking down on Ilot Fleurie, and were an intimidating presence for hours on end (from approximately 5 pm until they gassed us at 2:30 a.m.). Six helicopters circled overhead as well.

What I saw this weekend, what I went through, what I saw people going through - it made me realize how much stronger I am than I previously thought. I kept saying to myself — if you can get through this moment, you can get through the next, and the next, and then whatever life drops on you. And I got through it all, without serious injury and without arrest. But I didn't get away scott-free. My heart hurts. My mind hurts. Most of all, my soul is aching with pain and disbelief.

I can't believe how people hurt each other. I am shocked at the violence I saw in the span of two days, Friday and Saturday. I can't believe the ferocity of chemical weapons, and that a government would allow its police force to use such arms against its own people. I am angered that the Black Bloc, just a handful of protesters, attacked the police and that the police reacted by gassing the thousands of peaceful protesters! I fully appreciate the need of the police to defend themselves against the concrete and plywood wielding Black Bloc-ers, but each of these police officers is heavily armed and protected, and a handful of them could have easily surrounded the Black Bloc and dealt with them instead of affecting the peaceful demonstrators. Tear gas was being shot deliberately at the peaceful demonstrators at the back of the crowd!

I want you all to know what really went down. I haven't even told you the half of it here, but I've tried to give at least a taste of the pain I saw all weekend. I am having a very hard time processing and dealing with this — the feelings I am experiencing are similar to those I had when I came back from the death camps in Poland. I cannot function adequately right now, and this article is part of my healing process. I want to spread this message to as many people as possible. I want the world to know what went on in Quebec, how undemocratic and unfair and immoral and oppressive the situation was.

Yet I also want people to know that a better world is possible — through the gas and the pain and the fear I also glimpsed the possibility, the hope, of that new, beautiful space. People from all walks of life, backgrounds, ages, and races came together in Quebec to fight against corporate rule, and to fight for basic human rights, environmentalism and fair trade. We have a vision of a future where things will be better. I don't stand with the anarchists who want to break this society in order to form a new one, and I don't stand with the protesters shouting "Revolution" in the armed sense. But I do stand with the ordinary individuals, grandmothers, children, laborers, environmentalists, and humans, who want to change things.

So I went to Quebec City as myself, and I came back as myself but with eyes washed clear by tear gas and pepper spray. As the song says, "I can see clearly now the rain has gone — I can see all obstacles in my way". I can see, but at what price to my psyche? I still don't know. I find myself asking, would it have been better to have stayed home and watched it all on TV? It would have saved me the pain and heartache, but it would also have left me in my little bubble of idealism. Not to say I am not still an idealistic, romantic, optimistic young woman — I am — but I am also just a little bit more realistic.


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