You are here: Wild Ideas > Commons > Library >
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
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.
All content copyright 1999-2006 by the
individual authors, where cited, or by
where not specifically credited.
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs
Site design: Spider Silk Design - Toronto web designers
This page last modified: January 29, 2006