archives of global protests



Saturday 21 April 2001

Violent clash in Quebec

Demonstrators rupture fence, battle riot cops
The Gazette

At 11 last night, the opening night of the Summit of the Americas, and nine hours after clashes began between police and protesters, the streets of this city's Old Quarter continued to burn with rage and smell of tear gas.

Plastic bullets and canisters of tear gas flew at the exact site where demonstrators marched up to the security perimeter at 2 p.m. and tore a hole into a chain-linked barricade that was supposed to withstand the impact of a speeding car.

Hours earlier protesters shouted over and over one of their favourite slogans:

"This is what democracy looks like.

"This is what democracy looks like."

For a few hours of bedlam on the first day of the summit, democracy looked like a sea of black-clad youths in bandannas and khakis, brandishing baseball bats and hurling water bottles.

It looked like ranks upon ranks of police in riot gear thumping their shields.

It looked like teenagers collapsing in clouds of tear gas, too overcome to shout for help.

What police and protesters waged yesterday was not war, but it was ugly nonetheless - and ugly from the beginning.

On one side: masked protesters with two-by-fours, rocks and chunks of concrete. On the other: armour-clad riot police with truncheons, tear gas, water cannons and plastic bullets.

After a quiet morning of demonstrators milling restlessly in clusters around the security perimeter, teach-ins and a peaceful march from Universite Laval, several thousand people converged on one of the main gates around 2 p.m. with one thing in mind: confrontation.

A tidal wave of people holding banners, chanting and beating drums marched up Rene Levesque Blvd. to Claire Fontaine St. They packed Parc de L'Amerique Francaise, a square within sight of the conference centre where many of the summit meetings are taking place and where the leaders of 34 countries were to meet for the opening ceremonies a few hours later.

The leaders of the pack of protesters wore bandannas over their faces, hoods and gas masks.

One group of identically dressed black-clad protesters carrying a banner reading "Anti-Capitalist Offensive" mowed down a news photographer and tried to spraypaint his lens as they approached the fence.

Others lobbed bottles, soda cans, rocks, smoke bombs, snowballs - even a pink teddy bear - over the wall, aiming at the phalanx of police in helmets massing inside the security perimeter.

As soon as the demonstrators reached the fence, they grabbed onto it and began shaking.

One man climbed the barrier and for a few seconds, perched directly above the riot cops. Then he squeezed between two layers of chain link and began prying it apart with his lower body.

Those below rocked it wildly, sending the man bouncing precariously between the layers to a resounding roar from the crowd.

The fence seemed to crumple as easily as paper under the combined strength of dozens of husky activists who simply attached rope to the chicken wire and peeled it down.

Others used the weight of their bodies to lean on the steel poles and push them over.

In the end, it took only a few short minutes for the wall - which was supposed to be strong enough to withstand the impact of a speeding car - to fall.

When they had ripped a gaping hole in the fence, 15 to 20 protesters infiltrated the perimeter and were quickly shoved back by police shields.

Four people were arrested just inside the broken-down gate. Dressed in a white padded suit, one of them bled from a gash just below his wavy blond hair. "The police did this, man," he said, as he was hauled away by officers and thrown into a dark blue van.

The second protester told police his name was George W. Bush, while a third yelled from inside the van that he was a student photographer from the University of Ottawa newspaper, the Fulcrum.

Police unleashed an arsenal of weapons on the demonstrators, beginning with tear gas. They lobbed canisters into the crowd, but the gas wafted back toward the cops on a light northerly breeze.

As the riot squad closed in on all sides, a defiant group of protesters remained in the middle, taunting police and throwing back the canisters of tear gas that were fired at them.

One protester was hit square in the chest with a rubber bullet from one of the riot-squad officers, who received a slap on the back from a colleague for his good aim.

Protesters also managed to pelt the cops with various objects from near-point-blank range after they tore down a stretch of the fence right next to the front line of officers. Police quickly subdued a handful of those protesters and dragged them away to a waiting police truck.

Demonstrators on the front line stood their ground, having donned gas masks and vinegar-soaked bandannas to diminish the effects of the tear gas.

Peaceful demonstrators in the back of the crowd alternately cheered, hurled snowballs or stood watching in stunned silence. They would retreat then creep back toward the action.

One man on a soapbox near the fence screamed: "We do not want violence!" and "Calm down!" into a megaphone.

Soon riot cops closed in on the park, pushing the demonstrators back down Rene Levesque Blvd.

Two hulking white trucks with water cannons sped up the street and began firing into a crowd observing from the steps of the Grand Theatre. This sent demonstrators stampeding in all directions.

As they escaped down side streets, the clash metamorphosed to hand-to-hand combat, with skirmishes in various areas of town.

Police created a wide perimeter around the bedlam and formed a line across Rene Levesque.

A number of the most aggressive agitators faced off with the riot squad there for several hours with police firing sporadic rounds of tear gas and plastic bullets. There were injuries on both sides.

A squawking walkie-talkie in a protester-run station on Charest Blvd. told the tale of a demonstrator hit in the leg by a plastic bullet.

Ten people were treated in four local hospitals, said Denise Lacoursiere, a spokesman for the Regional Health and Social Services Board in Quebec.

Four protesters were treated for burns, probably caused by tear gas, she said. Another two protesters suffered fractures and minor injuries. Another person attending the demonstration was taken to hospital suffering from hypothermia, an elevation of body temperature.

Police officers were among the injured. Two suffered minor injuries. A third was treated for a heart condition.

A police dog lay on the ground in the aftermath as his trainer bandaged his foot.

Former Bloc Quebecois MP Daniel Turp, one of five human-rights observers dispatched by Quebec Public Security Minister Serge Menard to monitor protests and police intervention, was on the scene. He said his initial evaluation of police response when the fence came down was that officers were "fairly restrained."

What ensued for the next several hours, however, looked far from restrained to most observers.

Jane Buker, who came from Vancouver to protest at the summit, said she gave water to a man who had been hit in the neck with a tear-gas canister.

"He seemed to be in quite a lot of pain," said Buker, as she sat on her bicycle after the crowd moved off Rene Levesque toward St. Jean St.

"But then (the police) threw more stuff and he said he had to go."

Buker said she also witnessed two police water tanks spray the crowd on Rene Levesque.

"Some people were just sitting with their cameras on the curb and were just washed away," Buker said. She, like many, was overcome by tear gas.

The police apparently followed one group of protesters who moved onto a side street, de Salaberry, and fired tear gas. The can hit a car parked in a private driveway, however. It broke the passenger window and started a fire. Two fire trucks put out the flames.

The owner of the car arrived a short time later, apparently unaware of what had happened. The man, who refused to give his name, counted himself lucky.

"I think it could have been a lot worse," he said.

As most peaceful protesters fled, the battle between police and those who remained escalated. A group smashed the windows of a police car and yanked out some documents.

They also trashed a CBC-TV van, tearing out gear and carting it off.

Before 6 p.m., a marked Surete du Quebec squad car sped down the road, leading an empty yellow school bus. As it headed toward the front line, protesters attacked it, causing it to nearly lose control and swerve into the crowd.

Around 6 p.m., a fire truck attempted to drive the same route. Demonstrators blocked it and pushed it back. They then opened hatches and ripped out helmets, yanked down the fire hoses and stretched them across the street to block the way.

They turned on the taps and filled their bottles and buckets with the water pouring out, then used it to flush out their eyes.

This allowed them to turn back and face the cops again.

By 7 p.m., a couple of men with megaphones walked through the streets north of the perimeter, notifying protesters that the police presence was so strong that anyone who continued protesting risked arrest.

Green-garbed police sealed off access not just to the perimeter, but to many of the narrow streets that circle it.

As the sun set on the first day, it was impossible to find a gate that didn't have a phalanx of cops locked in an uneasy eyeballing contest with a group of demonstrators.

The streets of Old Quebec were jammed with people, and reeked of tear gas.

For a while, everything was quiet. But a once peaceful afternoon demonstration escalated late last night, as police in riot gear continued throwing tear gas over the fence at a large group of protesters.

Smoke from a fire lit beside the fence mingled with gas fumes wafting up toward Place Quebec - an underground shopping mall that links the convention centre to the hotels where several dignitaries are staying. Several delegates sneezed and gagged on the fumes as they passed by.

Copyright © 2001 CanWest Interactive and The Montreal Gazette Group Inc., A division of Southam Publications, a CanWest Company.