Twenty years ago today witnessed one of the most significant demonstrations of the “anti-globalization” movement of 1999-2001. This anti-capitalist movement burst asunder the corporate dominance of politics in the 1990s. In Quebec, the imperialist powers walled themselves off in an armed camp and fired round after round of teargas against the assembled protesters, who successfully managed to pull down a section of the fence. Back then, Fightback only existed in embryo. Fightback editor Alex Grant was present at the protests distributing a flyer giving a Marxist analysis of the movement; a movement that was strongly influenced by protectionism and Canadian left nationalism. Here we republish the flyer and Alex’s eyewitnesses accounts to give the current generation a flavour of past struggles.
Summit of the Americas: Quebec City protests April 20-22 (2001)
The FTAA is coming to Quebec City. It brings with it, the head of every government in North America (except Cuba), 6000 cops (with tear gas and plastic bullets), a 4m high and 4km long “security” fence, a freshly emptied prison for up to 800 political prisoners, and the possibility of the largest youth and worker mobilization since Seattle 1999. Members of Youth For International Socialism will be there in force, putting forward the Marxist solution to Globalization. Over the next few days we will include analysis of the movement plus eyewitness reports from the demonstration itself. The first of these is published here below. Watch this space.
Workers and Youth against the FTAA
Since the protests against the WTO in Seattle we have seen the development of an international movement against global capitalism and its institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO and now FTAA). The movement follows the capitalists to all their meeting venues, from Seattle to Melbourne, from Prague to Quebec City, and spreads internationally. What we have seen so far is only the beginning…
In 1960 the richest 20% of world population disposed of an income 30 times higher than the income of the poorest 20%. Today they have 82 times more. Poverty has reached unknown dimensions. Although the world-wide production of food is high enough to cover the needs of the whole world population, 30 million people starve to death every year and 800 million are suffering from malnutrition. In the epoch of globalization the dependence of the countries of the south is bigger than ever. Through the policy of open markets and the privatization of key sectors, weaker economies have no chance of developing independently from the interests of imperialism. The ruling classes of these countries have completely surrendered in the face of imperialism.
The roots of the movement
Seattle was the beginning of a new period of anti-capitalist struggles. This movement is full of creativity and spontaneity, and because of this lots of youth take part in these protests. At the same time we can see a lack of understanding of the real causes of all this social injustice, all this destruction of the environment and the domination of capital.
The attempt to obstruct these conferences obviously has a big symbolic power. However, it would be a dangerous illusion to believe that we are able, in this way, to disturb the whole mechanism of the capitalist system. In the end we reduce our struggle simply to a confrontation with the police. And the police will improve its preparations from conference to conference. If this is the only perspective we can offer to the activists the movement will soon peter out. We have to be clear that only the methods of class struggle (like strikes) can bring this system to a standstill. Without the strength of the organized labour movement our protests will soon end up in a blind alley
The armed fortress in Quebec City and the oppression of dissent must be a warning to all about the lengths the Capitalists will go to defend their system. Youth, workers, and above all the trade unions cannot ignore this threat and it must be opposed by all means at our disposal. In 1968 in Paris the workers struck against oppression of student demonstrators and practically overthrew the State. The trade unions in Quebec must prepare for a similar outcome.
Is protectionism the way out?
Important representatives of the movement against “neo-liberalism” can imagine only a way out through a policy of protectionism and the regulation of the international financial system. They do not question capitalism as a whole but only “globalization”. They call for higher taxation on financial speculation (for example the introduction of the so-called “Tobin Tax”) and new barriers on trade. In the end these left-liberal economists are in favour of protecting the Canadian market from cheap raw materials coming from the “Third World”. The experiences with protectionism in the course of the world economic crisis of the 1930s show that these ideas cannot be an alternative for the working class and youth. World trade would drop and this could spark off an international recession to the detriment of working people.
On the other hand the free trade policies imposed by the multinationals and by the major imperialist powers mean disaster for the ex-colonial countries. Far from resolving the concentration of capital and the growth of inequality, protectionism would only make things worse. The problem does not exist because there is trade but because this trade (be it “free” or “fair”) is carried out following a capitalist logic and the principle of the maximization of profit. We do not want to protect “Canadian” jobs, pitting workers of one country against another – we want international workers unity against capitalism and decent jobs for all.
Expropriate the multinationals!
Radical problems call for radical solutions. As long as the key sectors of the economy are concentrated in the hands of a small number of multinationals it won’t be possible to control the production and consumption in a democratic way. Today a small elite of owners of capital has the power to decide on the fate of humanity, ignoring all social, environmental and democratic standards. They have the power to do this only because the right of private property of the means of production is not challenged by anyone.
If we want a world without exploitation and oppression, without pollution and wars, we have to have control over the economy, the political system and the international financial system. This is only possible through the establishment of a global planned economy, democratically controlled by the workers and consumers. A society based on the satisfaction of needs and not on the maximization of profit. This is only possible when we expropriate the multinationals, banks and major industries.
The international working class has a key role in this struggle. Seattle was the best example of how the trade unions can make a qualitative difference when it comes to stopping the dictatorship of the capitalists. We, the Marxists, will fight within the organizations of the labour movement, the trade unions and the workers parties, for a revolutionary, anti-capitalist program and for a socialist alternative. The protests against the FTAA in Quebec City are a further step in the building of an international movement against this system of exploitation. Join Youth For International Socialism in our fight for a better world.
And the Wall came tumbling down…
Today, the mass movement of youth united with immense élan to oppose Capitalism and its institutions. As I write this I am yet to see the news reports, so these are my impressions from the street and of those I talked to.
I arrived in Quebec last night, the airport was already dominated by the police with military helicopters everywhere. When I got into town I walked to the security fence, and it was immediately clear that while the State had control behind the wall, the perimeter was clearly ours. Young people walked up and down, talking, sharing stories, discussing ideas (Marxism, anarchism, how to defeat “them”, etc.), there was a mood of enthusiastic tension.
This morning I headed down to the People’s Summit down by the old port. It felt very much like most political events I am used to attending, trade union officials, info tables, news conferences, average age about 40. At 1pm we decided there was not much going on so we headed back up to the fence. When we got there the mood had changed considerably, many youth were congregating by the main exits. As soon as I got out any literature, people were coming up to me and asking me for it (we were selling L’Humanité and passing out English and French translations of our anti-FTAA piece). What is more, people frequently sat down on the spot to read the contents. It was clear that many of the youth here were new to politics, searching out for the right ideas, unsure what they are for but determined about what they are against. The average age at the wall was probably about 20.
The gate we were at (Saint-Jean) had a surreal quality, a womens’ demonstration had woven dozens of bras onto the fence, young people danced and chalk-painted the ground, while a cop guarded a cemetery on the other side of the fence (obviously even the dead need policing!). Suddenly, almost without warning, the crowd turned into a march. This was the youngest, fastest, most energetic march I have ever been on. It started with about 1000 people, but it kept on pulling more and more young people in, almost out of the ground itself. It is hard to describe the sheer elemental nature of this movement with all the strengths (and weaknesses) of youth. Trade unionists were present but not many, also most of these unionists were already linked to the youth movement (e.g. CAW service sector, CUPE York University).
We turned up the hill to the main gate to the summit on Renè Lèvesque Boulevard. We stopped to hear impassioned speeches in English, French and Spanish. The crowd (which had now grown to about 5000) immediately went silent to hear the speakers who were speaking without the aid of platforms or sound systems. Then we turned down Renè Lèvesque away from the summit. Still the crowd swelled, until we met head-on with the march coming up the road from Laval University. Now we were at least 15,000. We turned around to face the wall.
At this point it is probably useful to point out that Quèbec City is one of the most “French” cities in Quèbec. Few people here speak English fluently and it is the home of Quèbec nationalism and separatism. At no point were these divisions present on the demo – French Canadian, English Canadian, American, and Latin American youth communicated in all languages and united against the common enemy.
Marching back towards the wall there came a point where certain groups had decided that the march should split into three. A so-called safe “green” zone, a more forceful yellow zone and the red zone where attendees should expect arrest. But this plan fell apart by the demonstrators heeding the basic need for unity – most people just marched straight ahead (I think this was the yellow zone, but it made no difference – mass action is the key). Also the “safeness” of the green zone was definitely not respected by the police, I was later told by an NDP MP that the 7000 people there were tear-gassed without warning or provocation.
By the time we got back to the wall we were about 7000 strong. The tension level rose significantly as we moved up face to face with the fence, about 30 riot cops were lined up on the other side. Then people grabbed the fence and started pulling back and forward on it. One guy climbed up on top and served as a counter-balance that increased the force of the crowd. And then with a cheer the fence came down. The first wave of tear gas came and momentarily there was panic, people ran in anticipation of the inevitable backlash. But the cops didn’t come and the crowd turned around after running 10 meters. Some started throwing bottles, cans and a few stones. There was a back and forward process of the crowd pushing at the forces of the State, testing it out, working through our collective fear. We realized that tear gas hurts but is tolerable. We had done it, we had torn down the fence, that insulting symbol of corporate power on our streets.
This back and forward proceeded for 45 minutes, we were not prepared to move forward but we would not retreat (despite the gas and pepper spray). Chants of “Who’s streets? – Our streets!” stiffened the crowd’s nerve and proclaimed the elation. Looking up, a helicopter flew in directly above us. Obviously it’s intention was surveillance for whatever the police were planning next. Almost out of nowhere a line of storm troopers appeared on the left, moving forward step-by-step while bashing their shields. A volley of tear gas overhead, straight into the heart of the crowd, got everybody running. And then behind us two huge tanks, sporting water cannons, drove up Renè Lèvesque. Now we were concerned that they would block the crowd off with no place to escape. Despite this some people attacked the tanks with stones. The tanks retreated a short way and then opened up with water. Discretion was clearly the better part of valour at this point as the crowd ran down the side streets to escape (some shouting “don’t-run!” to ensure a safe retreat). Despite minor scuffles after this point it was over. The mood changed to finding answers – where now? What next? Which way forward?
The wall came down, for that we can celebrate an incredible symbolic victory of the power of youth. Yet we have to be absolutely clear that this is only a symbolic victory. We have changed nothing and we have won nothing. The FTAA will still be signed (or not signed if protectionist capitalism overtakes free-trade capitalism). Maquilladora workers will still face unbelievable oppression. McBurgers will still be flipped. The only power youth have in this society is to act as a spark to ignite the power of the workers’ movement. Youth can make a lot of noise on the streets but it is workers’ struggles, strikes and occupations, that can paralyze capitalism. Milosevic was only overthrown when the Serb miners struck and the security forces stood aside feeling their strength. Tomorrow the forces of organized labour will join the march. Forward to the unity of youth and workers, for socialism and international solidarity!
A Change in Consciousness Quebec City Protests, April 20th – 22nd, 2001
The events this weekend in Quebec City mark a clear turn in the situation for Canadian youth and workers. The mainstream media reports are a series of lies and distortions from start to finish and it increasingly becomes the job of the movement itself to get the news out. This article follows on from the previous eyewitness report, “And the wall came tumbling down.”
Saturday, April 21st 1pm. I have been to many demonstrations in my 10 years of political activity but never have I seen such an impressive display of banners and only once have I seen more people. Canadian labour has come out in force to oppose the FTAA. There is a sea of blue CAW/TCA banners (autoworkers), pink CUPE flags (public sector workers), FTQ in white (Quebec labour federation), plus teachers, steelworkers, machinists, citizens’ groups, youth groups, and international support from the AFL-CIO amongst many others.
If you read the corporate press, they will tell you that there were twenty to thirty thousand people here in a carnival atmosphere. However, I fail to see how a march that takes two and a half hours to move past a single point on a wide boulevard can be that small. By my (and many others’) estimation, the crowd is at least 75,000 strong, including 7000 autoworkers. The favourite chant is “So-so-so, Solidarité”. And with great power it winds its way through the commercial district, below the hill where 34 presidents and prime ministers are hiding behind a 4 metre high wall and 6000 cops. Looking up leftwards onto the hill we can see the clouds of tear gas as the youth confront the Police. Sporadically the breeze brings the gas down onto the march, making everybody cover their faces.
After 15 minutes of walking there is a sudden commotion. For some reason the union marshals are directing the march rightwards, away from downtown and away from the fence. Youth activists hold up a large banner saying, “LEFT TO THE FENCE”, shouting “Gauche, gauche, gauche! – Left, left, left!” At the last minute the trade union bureaucrats altered the route of the march, previously planned to go by the fence, taking the massed workers away from where they were needed. Most workers believe that the rally point will be only a few short blocks away, giving them the opportunity of joining the protests at the fence. However the bureaucrats are trying to dilute the message as much as possible. The meeting point is a 90 minute walk away, in the middle of nowhere. Once there, marchers are fed a diet of music with a few speeches about how wonderful everything is and how fantastic “Solidarity” is. (This is obviously the definition of solidarity, that includes running away and deserting your comrades). Not all workers are duped: many Steelworkers, CUPE and Autoworkers turn back, angry at the trick, many vowing to raise hell about this betrayal. They play an exemplary role in that day’s struggle, despite only having a few hours until their buses depart.
Back on the hill the movement has developed a strategy and an infrastructure. Behind the fence at one gateway, storm troopers flank a water cannon tank as it sprays the immediate area. A line of riot police block a street on the left of the wall. On the protesters’ side a few thousand people stand out of range of the tank, both on the approach roads and on an overpass below the gate. Below the overpass is the Mad Max-esque “anarchist” camp, where there is free food, info, and a place to relax from the struggle. About 100 metres down one of the approach roads lies the medical centre, where anybody can be treated and de-contaminated. Nearby lies the independent media centre, co-ordinating activists with camcorders and webcams, disseminating information and ensuring that police brutality is recorded and published on-line. In the no-man’s-land within range of the water cannon lie two groups: ineffectual stone-throwing youths and gasmask wearing protestors sitting on the ground. Mother Nature was clearly not on the side of Capitalism this weekend. Consistently the weather was pleasant and the wind into the face of the police. When they let off tear gas, it came back to them. So the riot cops developed a strategy of firing the gas up high, to land behind the protesters. The gas then blows back onto the mass of people.
I did not witness a single occasion where the cops gave warning of any action they were about to carry out. To those concerned with legality, this is a clear breach of our right to free assembly. Thousands of people protesting well away from the fence were repeatedly gassed. If anything can be said about human nature, it is that we can adapt to any situation. You would think that the pain and blindness induced by tear gas would cause everybody to run away (this is the initial reaction). But you get used to it. You walk away, cry, never touch your face, and wash your eyes with clean water. A few minutes later you are back in the action. A vinegar-soaked scarf protects your lungs. In this situation bandannas and gas masks cease to be pretentious r-r-revolutionary chic and become an absolute necessity if you are going to continue the struggle.
We were not to be beaten that easily. A network of glove- and gas-mask-wearing activists first catch the tear gas canister (it is very hot) and throw it into the no-man’s-land. Then the sitting protesters throw the canister into the police lines, completely obscuring their vision, before peacefully sitting down to accompanying cheers. This is not without its classically Canadian moments: protesters frequently use ice hockey sticks to hit the gas canisters into the stormtrooper “goal”.
We gradually lose our fear of the State. Normal police cars look amusingly colourful and “Mickey Mouse” once you have been confronting riot troops. Even the stormtroopers, (with gas masks, helmets, smoked visors, and no numbers), fail to intimidate when the crowd hums the Darth Vader intro tune from Star Wars (“Dum-dum-dum,” etc.). Drums and music also play a fantastic role in rallying the crowd. On the overpass, hundreds of people bash stones and sticks against the railings to create an awesome cacophony, which ends up sounding like a heartbeat rhythm. It is no wonder that CNN never includes audio with its pictures.
The police are irritated with our defiance. They start firing canisters directly at the sitting protesters. I witnessed a single cop run out and hit a man who was at the front waving a red flag bearing a hammer and sickle (there are just as many red flags as black flags). They escalate to plastic bullets with laser sights on the guns. At this point I decide to go to a different side of the fence, around to St-Jean street. It is about 7pm.
St Jean is packed with protesters. In total I estimate there to be about 25,000 people scattered around the hill. Combine that with the labour march and you have 100,000 protestors, twice the size of Seattle and 4 times the predicted turnout. If you take into account that Quebec City is not very easy to get to then you have a good idea of the depth of discontent that was expressed here. As I walk down the street, I unexpectedly walk into a line of riot cops. Previously the fence in this area was cut open so the cops have blocked off access to that section of the street. St Jean is very narrow with few places to move. If tear gas is let off there, it will not disperse. They are preparing for an escalation with nightfall.
At 8.00 the police move to surround the protesters on St Jean, and advance at the other locations. At St Jean a crowd peacefully sits and sings in front of the riot cops. Apparently, left wing New Democratic Party MP Svend Robinson is present at this demo. As it escalates he is gassed and is grazed by a champagne-cork-shaped plastic bullet. Throughout the day, police kidnap squads target those deemed to be leaders. They drive up fast in a van, 3 plain clothes cops jump out and grab the demonstrator, and before anybody can do anything they throw them in the back of the van and drive off very fast.
One of the weaknesses and strengths of the movement is a lack of leadership. The police can move and we can only react when they are on top of us, but conversely it makes it difficult for the State to decapitate the movement. Future protests will need better leadership, organization, and above all communication. Important individuals and centres will need to be guarded.
The police have decided to illegally clear the hill of all protestors. They increase the concentration of the gas, or mix it with pepper spray, and use snow-blowing fans until nobody can move without a full gas mask. This is also a major residential area – thousands live on the hill and in the surrounding area. There have been reports of people’s pets dying from gas seeping into houses. The locals are very supportive, leaving out water or putting anti-FTAA signs in their windows. The cops attack the medical station, taking away their masks. The medics have to retreat down a long flight of steps with their hands over their heads. One man shot in the kidney with a plastic bullet has to be evacuated while lapsing in and out of consciousness. I have a confirmed report of a girl being struck in the neck, and unconfirmed reports of a 16 year old boy struck in the head with the possibility of brain damage, and one person falling off the overpass. All parts of the protest infrastructure are now legitimate targets.
As night falls, all but the most militant have fled or have been arrested. The right-wing make a lot of noise about the destruction of property, and there is a repeatedly-used picture of a couple of youths smashing the windows of a Starbucks coffee house. (A bank was also hit.) This was a direct result of the police forcing the protestors off the hill and down into the main commercial district. Bonfires are lit to act as barricades and there are running battles until 4am. About 400 people are arrested, and 57 protesters and 45 police are injured, giving the media the justification to brand the protesters “violent thugs”.
Sunday, April 22nd. In the morning people are tired and in no mood for further protest. It is raining. Where previously we had owned the streets, now the occasional car drives down them. Tourists come to take photos and trophy hunters pick up pieces of spent ordinance. (The careless also get a face full of tear gas in the process). The cops have taken off their helmets and patrol outside the fence with smiles, obviously trying to diffuse any further build up. Despite the rain, there is still gas in the dust that can unexpectedly get you in an air pocket – you cry with no idea of which direction to move away. Down at the Indy-media centre people swap stories to piece together what happened the night before. I am amazed at how little property damage there is downtown. A jail solidarity protest is organized with a shuttle to take people out there. No more gas is released today, but there are reports of the snatch-squads picking up anybody with a gas mask. I start wishing I had booked my flight home sooner as it looks like nothing will happen today.
Yet back up at St-Jean the mood is picking up. Someone has set up a small speaker and microphone and people volunteer to speak from the crowd. We own the street again, but the people want analysis, not protest. Most of the speeches are in French, but English and Spanish are also used. This is an elemental and spontaneous democracy. I pick up the microphone: “Never let anybody tell you we were defeated here this weekend. There were 100,000 people here in opposition to capitalism and its institutions. We should open up the history books to France 1968. There the students protested and were struck down by the police. The workers demonstrated in solidarity and were also beaten. Then the workers came out on strike and occupied the factories – 50 in the first day, and by the end of the week, the entire country was at a standstill in the largest general strike in history. We will never win by direct confrontation with the police. They will always be better equipped, better prepared. We need to strike at the heart of capitalist exploitation – strike, occupy, and take away their profits. They can tear-gas us away from the fence but they can’t tear-gas us back to work!” I talk about the need for unity between youth and workers. I talk about the betrayal by the union bureaucrats, turning right to nowhere instead of left to the barricades. Afterwards I am liberated from the remaining leaflets and magazines I had brought with me (over 1000 at the start of the weekend), and continue private discussions with individuals late into the evening.
So where now? They have included a so-called “democracy” clause in the FTAA draft – it would be more accurate to call this a capitalism clause. It allows them to put sanctions on any regime that dares to work against the big powers. The FTAA is in effect free trade in the service of protectionism (against Europe and Japan). Bush is quoted as saying, “We have a choice we can make: we can combine a common market so we can compete with the Far East and Europe or we can go it alone. I submit that going on our own is not the right way”. This agreement is in the interests of US Imperialism through-and-through.
The movement is building up; the movement is strong. They will heap slander on us to try and erase the memory. We must not let this happen. It is not an accident that Canada is currently in the middle of a small strike wave. 19,000 Newfoundland Public sector workers defeated the government after 5 days on strike (with 70% popular support). The prison guards in Quebec settled an illegal dispute a week before the summit. The schools in Toronto have just closed after a month long strike by 13,000 support workers. Calgary bus drivers struck for 40 days. Vancouver bus drivers have been striking since April 1st with a 99% strike vote. British Columbia nurses also have an unprecedented 95% strike vote. And all at the height of the capitalist boom. This is just the beginning.