archives of global protests

In Quebec City we all all the Black Bloc
by Alan O'Connor 8:16am Sat Apr 21 '01

Eye witness acount of the police tear gas
operation at the Quebec City meeting on
Friday 20 April

I didn't actually see the fence come down The crowd was really large and everyone was having fun. There were people with painted faces, lots of drummers, lots of kids with cameras. There was a really strange medieval catapult being pulled along by one group. It had car tires and was pulled by heavy ropes. It was decorated with stuffed animals and the bowl at the end (labeled Canada-arm) looked as if it were made from papier-mache. The next thing I noticed was that I was standing on a chain-link fence on the street. Lots of people were standing on the famous fence, now lying sideways on the street. Then there was a tight line of riot police dressed in green with shields and helmets. They slowly moved from what used to be inside the fence, making these little baby steps forward. It looked like it would take them all afternoon to get anythere. On a street to the right (what used to be outside the fence) there was a looser line of riot police dressed in dark blue. Every now and again someone would lop a stock or a small stone from the flowerbeds and it would bounce off the riot shields with a big rattle. A few police had white paint thrown on their shields. The two lines of cops were at 90 degrees, containing the mass of demonstrators in a large open area made up of a wide street empty of cars and areas of grass and bushes. Much has been said of a small group of 'extremists'. I have to say that I never saw a black bloc. I don't even know if it exists. This was a demonstration of mostly young people and students. They had been to workshops or seen videos of arbitrary police violence in Seattle. Probably about a third of the people had swim goggles, or a kerchief that they only later soaked in water or vinegar, or maybe an absurd gas mask that seemed part of a festive costume. Many of the protesters had been at other demonstrations and were not intimidated by the plice, still doing their little baby steps forward. Every now and again there was a determined shout of 'Whose streets? Our streets!' I still couldn't see the black bloc. There was some smoke or gas in the air. But it was a big open space and unless you got real close it just rose dramatically in the breeze and maybe stung your eyes a little. It took a while to realize what it was. 'So this is tear gas', I thought to myself. The canisters began to come a bit more quickly and people ran from them. Lots of people kept saying in friendly voices 'Walk don't run'. I guess they had been to the workshops. It made sense because people could get hurt running. The exits off the open square were a maze of small alleys through some low buildings and back onto the the narrow Quebec City streets. People who got a bad dose of tear gas had people help them rinse their eyes with a bottle of water. By now another street was blocked off by a third line of riot police who appeared out of nowhere. They kept a line but didn't move much. You could see the police tactics. They had created a large V formation and would slowly move people off the open space. There was a bright yellow helicopter overhead. It was hard to know if it was media or police. Probably police describing the scene from overhead to their officers. The canisters of gas were now coming more quickly. People moved back if the smoke was too thick but then came forward again when it blew away. 'You just have to not breath it in', said one person in surprise. Anothe myth exploded. Certainly if you did get a lung full you had difficulty in breathing and had to leave the area. Some people got it bad but their friends doused them with water and they came back. In the lines of riot police there were cops with large black guns. They seemed to target people who taunted them or who maybe threw a stick in their direction. I saw one person hit either by a tear gas canister or a rubber bullet. They fell to the ground and their friends called and waved their arms for a medic. The real danger was being completely surrounded and having all exits blocked by lines of riot cops. The police V formation was starting to turn into a large U with the only remaining exits back into the small streets on one side. Two huge white vehicles with big black tires drove quite fast along one of the remaining exits. They said POLICE in big black letters. Two or three demonstrators simply stepped out and blocked their path, holding their protest signs up against the windscreen. The big white trucks stopped. Then they started to reverse away. A big group of protesters began began to notice and came over to cheer. The first truck briefly turned on its weapon. A powerful stream of water came from the turret. A water canon! But they both backed off to the cheers and laughs of the crowd. Some people wandered back into the small surrounding streets and sat with their friends, played music or danced. There was a large circle of older women in flowing blue robes singing with arms linked together. 'Ah, river people', smiled a teenager. Overall the crowd behaved in a really loose way. Groups would go back into the main open space to see what was happening. We had got used to tear gas. Its just a loud noise, a flat can comes lobbying in the air like a low baseball, calculate where it will land to avoid being hit by the canister, and just move away a bit from the heavy smoke. There was still a festive mood among the demonstrators, along with some subdued anger at the unnecessary violence of the riot police. Close to the police lines a few people would yell 'This is what democracy looks like!' Away from the action and on the side streets other people danced and sat with their friends in the bright sunshine. The demonstration was very well organized. There were several different marches and routes. Some were designated 'green' because they were in parts away from the famous fence. Friendly marshalls gave directions in French and English. 'Green area this way: low risk, away from the fence'. Nobody I saw took the green route. I started out with a group of about 500 people who wandered along streets, occasionally stopping to take a consensus decision about where to go next. 'Do you want to join up with the CLAK?' Sure we did. They came along the street, a much bigger group than ours. But they didn't look any different. Maybe their costumes were a bit better and thay had that marvellous medieval catupult