archives of global protests

The Quebec Chronicles (A20-A21)
From Graeme Bacque
Date Thu, 26 Apr 2001 15:04:56 -0400 (EDT)


(Look for pics at starting later on this evening. I still have several rolls of film left to process).

(I apologize in advance for any errors in identifying place names - this was my first visit to Quebec City and I speak no French.)

I arrived in Quebec City shortly before midnight on Thursday, April 19 with half a dozen friends. Before that, we had all spent the entire day in Cornwall/Akwesasne, as part of an effort to ensure safe passage across the border for U.S. residents who wished to participate in the demonstrations.

Following a couple of hours of frigging around in the unfamiliar city and getting directions from several people (including two city cops!), we finally arrived at our billet at Lavale University. Imagine this scenario - a gymnasium floor larger than a football field, packed wall-to-wall with more than two thousand people! While the sleeping arrangements themselves were rather spartan (sleeping bags laid on the floor), the availability of showers, some food and even a sauna guaranteed relative comfort for the duration of our stay.

[April 20]

Demonstrators had begun to assemble on the streets of the Lavale campus by late morning of Friday, April 20. At this point confusion reigned supreme, apparently due to ongoing ideological conflicts among the various organizers over the tactics to be employed. I eventually found out that two groups were supposed to be departing (the first leaving at 12 noon to go to a relatively low-risk 'green' zone, with a second group leaving at one with the intent of actually approaching the perimeter fence.) As it turned out, the two groups ended up leaving only moments apart sometime after one PM. My friends and I joined the group of thousands of people that was planning to march along Rene Levesque Blvd. towards the 'yellow' zone at the security perimeter.

The march was a long one (nearly seven miles) and for a while the energy seemed to be flagging, but as we drew nearer to our objective, the drumming, chants and shouts rose once more until the air was electric! Finally at a little past three, our destination came into view - twelve feet of chain-link fence, set into a cement base adding an additional three feet in height. Just beyond the fence were more steel barricades, and behind these - hundreds and hundreds of riot cops.

Initially a few signs and banners were hung, and some rather innocuous objects - a small plastic beach-ball, a couple of rolls of duct tape, some plastic water bottles - sailed over the fence. The one young man scrambled up the barrier, clinging precariously to the very top as the people below began furiously shaking the fence to chants of 'Tear down the wall!' With the help of some young people armed with bolt cutters, and the first man who used his body to force the mesh lower to the ground, within a few minutes the crowd had brought a huge section of the perimeter fence crashing down.

After a brief hesitation hundreds of protesters poured through the shattered fence as a hail of debris was directed towards the police lines. The cops reacted rather timidly at first, firing only a few smoke bombs and concussion grenades towards the crowd. This was not to last, as a series of sharp bangs announced the first of hundreds of canisters of tear gas that would be fired at us over the course of that day. The thick clouds of noxious smoke forced the front lines into a choking, eye-watering retreat, but the determination of this huge crowd was a sight to behold! As some folks withdrew, hundreds more would rush to the front - over and over again!

The cops eventually pushed us back to just outside the fence, then formed a solid line in front of it as people variously stood their ground, sang, danced and drummed or sat down in the street. We could see still more lines of cops moving into place in the spaces between the buildings on the south side of Rene Levesque. An occasional volley of tear gas canisters would send small groups of people scrambling madly out of the way. (Many of these ended up being scooped up and pitched right back at the cops). The base of the wall and the media vehicles parked nearby began to acquire a generous coating of graffiti in French, Spanish and English. At one point a large yellow school bus came barreling right through the middle of the crowd, led by a cop car with siren screaming.

Just then, the revving of engines to the west announced the arrival of two huge white trucks with water cannons mounted on their roofs, which immediately began directing powerful jets of icy water into the back of the crowd. Hundreds of people promptly swarmed around the two hulking vehicles, and within a couple of minutes they were forced into an undignified retreat, one of them sporting a busted windshield.

This may have been a diversion, for then the cops began firing a concentrated barrage of gas, with volley after volley sailing up to two or three blocks to land in the middle of the throng. Many people fled, some of us taking refuge among a block of small apartment buildings or on side streets. I found myself running headlong down a steep hill, coming to an abnrupt halt near the bottom as I plunged into a deep snowbank and went sprawling on my back.

People began to regroup and moved west along a narrow street for several blocks before making their way back up to Rene Levesque as the gas dissipated. We discovered the cops had succeeded in forcing the bulk of the crowd back several blocks before forming a solid line across the middle of the street. By then it was nearly eight o'clock, and since the energy seemed to be diminshing I hooked up with a couple of friends and made my way back to our billet.

A large screen TV set up at one end of the gym showed continuous live images of street battles that would continue well into the night - it seemed that Rene Levesque was not the only hot point around the security perimeter that night! There had only been a few arrests by that time, although a number of people (including a New Democrat Member of Parliament named Svend Robinson) had been injured by gas canisters or rubber bullets. News had spread that organizer Jaggi Singh had been literally kidnapped from the 'green' zone by three large men in hoodies, scarves and goggles who turned out to be undercover cops!

[April 21]

Many of the people sleeping at Lavale had left to participate in the huge labor-organized march that was assembling on the Plains of Abraham at noon. My friends and I drove down Rene Levesque towards the fence, stopping several blocks away. Secreting our van at the corner of Fraser and Moncton Streets, we made our way cautiously towards the perimeter, not knowing exactly what to expect. It turned out that a sizable crowd had already assembled near the barrier, and it continued to grow as we watched. The stink of gas already hung in the air.

The next several hours were to unfold like some form of bizarre ritual. The crowd would slowly approach the fence. As people drew near, blasts of cold water from the two water cannons (now discreetly stationed behind the partially repaired fence) would cut a swath through the assembled people. The crowd would advance again. A few rocks would get tossed at the cops. Gas would fly. A lone bagpiper in full regalia (including gas mask) would step close to the barrier, with several other men dancing a hornpipe as he played. A burst of water and several rubber bullets soon sent these enterprising folks fleeing. Next, several Canadian Auto Workers union members would walk forward bearing flags, standing their ground as they nearly disappeared into a maelstrom of water, the sun striking the surrounding halo of mist and forming a gaudy rainbow that hung in the still air. The cops would advance, pushing the crowd back a couple of blocks west. Hundreds of people would then sit down in the street. The cops would retreat again.

At about four in the afternoon the pigs launched their fiercest assault to date, firing dozens of rounds of gas all through the crowd. People were forced to retreat among the buildings of a small block of apartments (which was home primarily to seniors)and the narrow, hilly streets in the working-class St Jean-Baptiste neighborhood. Previously, the space among these apartments had proved to be a refuge of sorts, providing a small zone of safety where people could recuperate from the gas. This time, the pigs forced us between the buildings - then proceeded to fire gas in after us! People scrambled further north among the tall rowhouses, ducking into doorways and down alleys. I ran northeast, wiping out on a muddy hill and going all the way to the bottom on my butt, my eyes burning. (Saturday was a much warmer day than Friday had been, with hardly any wind, and it was also suspected that the cops had switched to a stronger form of gas). The air in a large section of downtown Quebec City was rapidly becoming unbreathable as the fumes failed to dissipate. Many peoples' homes were undoubtedly becoming contaminated.

Ran into some friends from New York at this point, and we sat down together in a tiny park to rest. Hundreds and hundreds of people were roving back and forth along the narrow streets. The support from the community itself had been amazing, with local residents offering activists food and water, use of their washrooms or a place to rest. Music blasted from numerous stereos (Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' being an especially popular choice that weekend!) and many of the locals would end up joining the actions.

The rumors circulating by this time were incredible - that the summit was on the verge of being shut down due to contamination of the hotels from their own damned gas; and that the army had been called in to bolster the cops. None of these wild stories were ever substantiated.

I roved around some of the back streets with my friends for the next little while. We discovered that a third water cannon had been brought in and was directing a continuous stream northward from the fence along a narrow laneway, undoubtedly flooding basements in many of the neighboring houses. We found ourselves in a little caged-in cul-de-sac - to my paranoid senses, this seemed like a bad place to be! A couple of gas canisters landing in our midst quickly confirmed this.

Retreated to the north and found ourselves in a fairly large group of people headed roughly north-east through the streets. Suddenly someone shouted a warning, and a solid block of several dozen cops emerged from one of the larger streets, moving in at a rapid jog! Everyone fled, making their way down two steep flights of stairs set into the side of a cliff.

As darkness fell, we found ourselves under a soaring highway turnpike near the base of the steep bluff, which would prove to be the scene of the most surreal and riveting spectacle I had ever seen. This was like the gathering of forces before some kind of strange medieval battle! At least 3,000 people had congregated here, and many of them were beating out a ringing tattoo on anything they could find - drums, buckets, tin cans, even the highway guardrails! We all watched in amazement as a lone man scaled the towering cliff, starting a small avalanche and almost falling before other people along the top pulled him to safety, to our resounding cheers. Hundreds more people were dancing wildly to the intoxicating din. Bonfires blazed. A large field kitchen had been set up, with the hardworking folks from Food Not Bombs providing meals for thousands of weary activists. High above, the top of the cliff would occasionaly fade from view behind a noxious veil of gas, with the occasional stray shot streaking down into our midst like a small meteorite. Lines of cops and groups of demonstrators roved back and forth on the highway ramps overhead.

I was to spend several hours down there, until about nine-thirty or so. A group of us tried the stairs at one point, only to discover a crowd of cops awaiting us at the top. We retreated back into the pit.

By then I was pretty much done-in, what with breathing tear gas for two solid days,and all the running around. (I won't hide the fact that I'm a middle-aged man with a belly). Someone pointed out a safe retreat route and where to catch the city bus that would take me back to Lavale.

Stories of police brutality were emerging thick and fast by this time. We heard of a large group of people who had been cornered on the turnpike being forced to scramble down the 150-foot cliffs or leap twenty-five feet down to a neighboring ramp to avoid being clubbed and tear-gassed. There were many arrests being reported by this time, with most people being grabbed in the 'green' areas or even by roving police 'snatch squads' while walking (or in a couple of caes, riding their bikes) along city streets! A street medical clinic set up by protesters had been attacked with gas, and the CMAQ (independent media) building had been surrounded and fired on with rubber bullets, with one person being wounded in the leg. In the end, more than 450 people would be arrested and detained for periods of up to several days.

At the prison, people were reporting being held handcuffed on the buses for many hours without access to water or toilet facilities, public strip searches being done, and a 'decontamination' process that consisted of being forcibly hosed down with cold water. There had been many injuries from gas canisters being fired horizontally into the crowd and from rubber bullets, including at least one man who wound up in critical condition. I personally assisted one man whose arm had been broken by a gas canister fired at point-blank range, and a friend of mine was struck in the neck by another canister, which then exploded in his face. (Incredibly, he was only slightly injured).

The numbers present that weekend were absolutely phenomenal, with an estimated 10 to 20,000 people participating in the various direct actions around the perimeter for two days, and up to 60,000 more taking part in the Saturday afternoon march. On the other side was a security force of at least 6,000 cops from the RCMP, Surete du Quebec and the Montreal Police, among others. (The few Quebec City cops present were largely irrelevant). At an estimated total cost of $100 million, this was the largest police operation in the history of this country!

By then, the mainstream media, politicians and even the more mainstream of 'protesters' were making many sanctimonious statements about the supposedly 'violent' tactics being employed by people around the perimeter. As usual, the authors of these statements failed to mention the inherent violence behind the erecting of a fence around these thirty-four 'leaders' with the express purpose of keeping all others out, or of the thousands of storm-troopers who were enforcing it. They failed to mention the violence of a system that continues to practice widespread repression and genocide of indigenous communities throughout the Americas, or allows for the rampant poverty and homelessness that has taken root even in the most wealthy of member nations.

Far from being 'violent', the resistance at the perimeter was a powerful and unifying experience that will likely lead to the radicalization of many of the participants. Many people acquired important organizational skills over the weeks leading up to these actions.

A tremendous amount of momentum was generated by these two days in Quebec City. It is now vital that participants carry this momentum forth into the work they do within their own communities. The consequences of globalization will be felt right in our own backyards as well as in neighboring countries - and it is in our own backyards that the most important organizing work must now be done.

Graeme Bacque
April 26, 2001

Québec, A20 Reports