Carnival of Protest Ended in Tear Gas and Choking
Printer Friendly Version
E-Mail This Article
Summit of the Americas
Quebec City's Carnival of Protest Ended in Tear Gas and Choking
by Thomas Walkom
QUEBEC CITY - The carnival of protest began in the sun yesterday. It ended in tear gas and choking.
Somewhere in between, the security fence surrounding the Summit of the Americas was breached and the summit itself briefly disrupted. No one was injured seriously. At least 25 were arrested.
For the roughly 2,000 demonstrators who marched against the fence yesterday to protest the proposed Free Trade of the Americas Agreement, it was a symbolic, if limited, victory.
They had broken down the chain-link barrier which has come to represent everything that critics say is wrong with this summit - its secrecy, its exclusivity, its isolation from the real world.
The federal government had a victory in that it was able to keep the summit going.
But the events of the official summit - the arrival of hemispheric leaders such as U.S. President George W. Bush, the unofficial meetings of the 34 nations participating - all were overshadowed by the people who had come to protest.
The two-hour march against the leaders that some protesters call ``the 34 dictators'' began as a colourful, often imaginative affair. Yet from the start, it was leavened by a hint of what was to come.
All week, buses have been flowing into Quebec city. This morning, at Laval University, about 6 kilometres away from the summit site, the people who came on those buses began to gather.
For some, like Chris Jones and Claudia Cortinois of Ryerson University, yesterday's march against what they see as a world economy dominated by corporate power, was to be strictly peaceful.
``We just don't want to get arrested,'' said Jones, as the Ryerson contingent of 45 milled about on the lawns of Laval.
But for others, there was every expectation of a confrontation with police. A few yards away from Jones, a woman identifying herself only as Leslie from New York City was coaching a group of eager students on the best ways to protect themselves in the event of a police charge.
This split - over how best to bring pressure on the political leaders meeting behind the fence - was never entirely cut and dried. But it was also never resolved.
A protest march, particularly one where there is no overall command, is a curious and often wondrous thing. There is an indescribable sense of energy which ripples through a crowd as it gets bigger, energy that can swiftly shift from high spirits to raw anger.
Yesterday at Laval, the mood was one of high spirits. A bagpiper in full kilt played ``Amazing Grace''; a young man threw a beach ball; women admired each others' outlandish costumes.
As in so many things, style in a protest march is important. The modern style, demonstrated with great effect yesterday, included heavy boots, woollen socks, long underwear (it was cold) and, for the experienced demonstrator, a nylon shell to keep out the tear gas.
From the beginning, the dispute over tactics dominated. Two marches had been slated to leave Laval, one organized by the Group Opposing Globalized Markets or GOMM, the other by the more radical Anti-Capitalist Coalition, or CLAC,
The former was supposed to be non-violent. The second march was headed for confrontation.
As the piper played and the crowd grew restless, organizers argued. Would the two marches go together after all? Or would they take different routes?
Solidarity against the 34 dictators? Or safety for those who didn't want to run into the police.
In the end, the two marches left separately. Then, in one of those curious turnarounds that affect mass protests, they ended up together again, with everyone headed for the summit fence.
In some ways, it was like the Santa Claus parade - with different groups clad in different costumes, some even with their own floats.
One group calling itself the Medieval Bloc dragged a homemade catapult. At the summit fence, this group would try - unsuccessfully - to use their machine to hurl stuffed toys into the enclosure of the 34 leaders.
``They built the wall to keep us out. So we built a catapult,'' explained a Medieval Blocster from Western Canada who identified himself only as Vincent Van Go-go.
Another group, called Flies on the Wall, carried artificial flies made from plastic water bottles mounted on sticks. Later, they would do soothing dances as the tear gas exploded around them in Quebec's Old Town.
Another group proclaimed themselves the Red and Anarchist Skinheads. All had long hair. A woman on stilts was dressed as the Statue of Liberty holding a U.S. flag upside down.
The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty waved its banner.
And in the middle were those the police were waiting for - the men and women all dressed in black, some carrying staves, most with faces masked.
Two carried a steel fencepost.
Some wanted to do more than talk. First in ones and twos, later in fives and sixes, they climbed up the fence.
It took less than 10 minutes to bring the structure crashing down.
Then the projectiles began to fly - smoke bombs from the marchers, tear gas from the police. And then it was chaos, a jumble of charges and countercharges. Overhead, police helicopters buzzed.
And in the streets away from the fence, the young people came up to one another with an excitement that approached glee. ``Did you get gassed?'' asked one. ``I did. It's awful.''
Two protesters hold a sign as they face-off with a line of riot police outside the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, Canada, April 20, 2001. (AP Photo/CP, Tom Hanson)
Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited