The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.

Fighting the FTAA: Quebec City, 2001

Several MIT students ventured north into Quebec in April to protest against the secret negotiation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. These are two of their stories.

By Payal Parekh

Friday, 20 April 2001-It was a glorious day! More than 15,000 people congregated at Laval University in Quebec City to participate in the Carnival Against Capitalism and to show resistance to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Many carried brightly colored flags, banners, and placards with cogent slogans that summed up their reasons for opposing the FTAA. Participants represented communities throughout the Americas. While most of the Anti-Capitalist marchers were students and radicals, individual concerned citizens and members of labor, mothers’, and environmental organizations also marched.

We marched the 3 miles to the “perimeter” fence that the Canadian government erected to exclude protesters. The atmosphere was festive with beating drums and chanted slogans such as “So, So, So, Solidarite.” About a half mile from the wall, most of the marchers entered the green (no-arrest) zone while the rest of us continued toward the perimeter. My affinity group, “Integrate This-Theory in Action,” made it to the Grand Theatre on Rene Le Vec Boulevard, about 60 yards from the perimeter, where we began our action. Since we are all academics, we read political theory with the aid of a megaphone to remind ourselves and our audience of our reasons for being there. While we were reading Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, the atmosphere suddenly became very quiet and tense. Apparently, the first groups to reach the perimeter had torn the fence down in some places! The news began circulating that the riot cops were converging from all directions to surround us. Then something occurred that was to happen many more times during the weekend. The police threw tear gas canisters. Protesters ran from the clouds of gas. Fear from the inability to breathe or see hit suddenly. Instantly though, street medics, those who decided that their action would be to provide first aid to people on the streets, made their way methodically through the crowd, flushing out eyes with water and providing inhalers to those who were having trouble breathing. Legal observers went around documenting human rights violations. Others drummed and sang to raise our spirits, or passed out bandanas soaked in vinegar, so that the next time we got gassed, we could breathe more easily.

The corporate media portrayed us as unfocused, often implying that we do not understand the issues and have no alternatives to suggest. Yet, our disciplined commitment over the many months it takes to organize a mass mobilization demonstrates our ability to focus our energies. Our alternatives to the inhumaneness of corporate-led globalization were manifested by the principles that guided our organizing-non-hierarchy, autonomy, direct democracy, anti-sexism, and anti-racism. We want a world based on these principles. We have different views of what we want the future to be like, but because we share the values of autonomy and true democracy, we can march together unified in opposition to corporate-centered globalization.

During the months of preparation that made the action in Quebec City possible, many groups throughout Canada and the United States taught many individuals about the FTAA’s structure and how such an institution is likely to affect the people of the Americas. They also taught people about the history, philosophy, and nuts-and-bolts practice of direct action. Two caravans of activists visited Boston while traveling tirelessly throughout the northeast. Discussions, lectures, and teach-ins were organized in many communities. Direct action training sessions were held to prepare those who planned to go to Quebec City. We wanted to make sure that participants knew how to handle the situation on the street as well as understand the issues. These challenging and complex tasks were accomplished with a high measure of success.

In order to ensure broad participation in planning the street demonstration, spokes council meetings were held in Quebec City every month prior to the protest. Each group sent a representative to these meetings to discuss issues and to coordinate actions. A voting member of each group was appointed and decisions required a 75 percent majority. Though there were times when the going was slow and making decisions was frustrating, the process showed that it is possible to remain autonomous while working together collectively. We committed ourselves to this non-hierarchical mode of decision making because we believe that the process by which decisions are made is very important.

In addition to training people in the practice of direct action, we trained street medics because we expected that it would be difficult for paramedics to get to the protest zone to treat wounded protesters. Not only were hundreds of people trained to cope with tear gas and pepper spray, but funds were allocated to rent clinic space near the protest zone. Street medics, recognizable by red-cross or blue-angel patches, worked in pairs and collectively (members of the pairs?) decided which areas of the protest zone they were willing to work in.

Recognizing that people needed a place to sleep in Quebec City, some protesters adopted the task of arranging free or low-cost housing as their action. A junior college and a university offered gymnasium space for this purpose. The logistics of finding space for everyone who needed it was taken care of by volunteers. Yet others committed themselves to providing free meals for protesters for the whole weekend. Their action involved soliciting donations of food, finding kitchens in which to cook it, and cooking and serving the meals, which were hearty and scrumptious.

Many groups spent the days leading up to the action researching Canadian laws. They then held informational sessions to make sure that protesters were aware of their legal rights. They also trained hundreds of people as legal observers qualified to document police abuses. A support team of lawyers and legal helpers was put together to assist protestors who were arrested. When 200 protesters were arrested en masse on Saturday night, the legal team worked all night. They raised money for those who needed bail and continue to help with court cases.

My experience in Quebec City is the sum total of much more than two days in the streets. Impressive cooperation by varied autonomous groups was the consequence of months of hard work. We showed that it is possible to create a complex and successful demonstration by working according to the principles of non-hierarchy, autonomy, and true democracy, as well as through a commitment to being non-sexist and non-racist. Needless to say, we still have work to do. We must continue organizing in a way that respects diverse viewpoints within the process of arriving at consensus. Only by working in accordance with these principles can we successfully broaden the movement against corporate-centered globalization. I am confident that these values can bring about a beautiful future that each one of us can feel proud to have made a contribution to.

By Michael Borucke

This April, Quebec City was host to the Summit of the Americas. There, heads of state from every country in the hemisphere (except for Castro) met to discuss the Federal Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Most likely, the meeting would have taken place with only passing mention in the media had it not been for the 50,000 people who traveled to Quebec to voice their opposition to the agreement. Instead, the media went crazy trying to paint the protesters as morons, as a group of people who simply like to cause trouble, or worse, people who were doing harm to their cause by protesting. Little, however was said about the agreement itself. Other than the usual appeal to phrases such as “free trade”, few in the media cared to explore what is exactly meant by free trade, who are its beneficiaries and who are its victims.

The march started at the University of Quebec. There was an anarchist band, plenty of anti-capitalist banners, it was obviously a protest. We didn’t know it would be another six miles till we reached downtown, but the weather was nice so we didn’t mind the walk. Before we left the campus, the protesters split into two groups; one high-risk, the other low risk. As we got into the city, the (high-risk) march again broke into two factions. The “green” march was to be a non-confrontational protest. The idea was a festival of dance and art. They weren’t going to be near the police. The yellow/red march was to be a confrontational protest. While the red march was to directly confront the police (and try to take down the fence), the yellow march would support the red, but would hang back somewhat. After discussion, our group decided to go with the yellow march. None of us were too excited to get arrested, but we wanted to see the action for ourselves.

We got to the square around midday. The fence we had heard so much about wasn’t as imposing as we expected. Rather, it was the riot cops behind the fence that we had to worry about. The red march began to shout/jeer/taunt the cops. They even through rocks. Police responded with an onslaught of tear gas that lasted the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. The first day, we had a favorable wind and the gas blew straight back at the police. We laughed. The next day, the wind changed direction and the protesters in the square (around 10,000 by this time) had to deal with the aggression. Can after can was lofted at protesters, people ran down wind, and came back after the gas had dissipated. Most protesters had only handkerchiefs to protect them from the gas. Some un suspecting residents of Quebec also got gassed. I inhaled some gas myself, and that in itself was quite an experience. For about two minutes, you can’t open your eyes, and every breath you take in that time is like fire. Luckily, medics were on hand to wash the gas from the protesters’ eyes. There seemed to be a concerted effort on the part of the police to target the medics station, and thus take out the protesters’ support. But I’m sure that was only coincidence. There was also a rumor that police had mixed pepper spray in with the tear gas to make it all the more potent.

Police did not confine themselves to tear gas, however. For those who were too close to the fence (i.e. doing nothing illegal) police turned on the fire hoses a la Selma Alabama 1965. Plastic bullets were also in force. One person got hit in the neck and had to have surgery to save his life. Fortunately, no one died.

Police in Quebec also practiced infiltration and outright terror. Three undercover cops posing as protesters arrested demonstration organizer, Jaggi Singh. He was held on trumped up charges for days after the protest, but he has since been released. In a similar incident, police kidnapped an anarchist outside of a Subway restaurant after the second day of protesting. A man dressed in black, carrying an anarchist flag walked out the doors of the restaurant, and a few seconds later, his friends walked inside saying that police in an unmarked white van had pulled up, taken the anarchist into the van and sped off without any apparent reason. Though quite shocking to those that had witnessed it, apparently the event wasn’t as isolated as one might expect. I do not know what became of that anarchist.

So it went for the rest of the weekend. I left before the environmental march on Sunday (Earth Day) so I don’t know the extent of damage caused by police and protesters. Total property damage wasn’t terribly significant. Most stores in Quebec were boarded up in preparation for the protest. One bank did have their windows smashed by protesters. On the second night, protesters brought down a large wooden sign indicating a future construction site. They then burned the sign along with other refuse. I left when they started burning a plastic advertisement, perhaps they hadn’t heard of dioxins.

Some will say that the protesters were there to force their agenda in a very undemocratic manner. This is a fair assessment - for anyone who didn’t go to Quebec. Most likely, there were those law-abiding citizens in the fifties who saw the marches for integration as coercive. But like Alabama, what actually happened in Quebec was far from coercion. One had to be in the square but a few minutes to see which side had the physical power and which side was being coercive. The protesters were exercising their right to assembly. It’s true that some became angry with the establishment. Some threw rocks, tore down parts of the fence and smashed store windows. But just as New England patriots destroyed all the British tea and slaves destroyed the tools they worked with, so too history will forgive the property damage done by protesters.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.