This is not so much one story as a number of small stories. This is the tale from which two how-tos you may have read were fashioned. I offer no such advice, just fragments.
Friday, April 20, 2001: (as Senso's daylog attests) the Summit of the Americas meeting in Quebec City, Quebec, to further the passage of the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. FTAA for short, or ZLEA in French. What is that? Essentially it's NAFTA extended to every country in the Western Hemisphere. It's neoliberalism; American corporate globalization extorting and dominating every culture it has the power to. It's something your leaders do that makes you so mad you want to yell at them really loud, even if you have to travel hundreds of miles. On this, over 50,000 people from rainforest protectors to unions agreed, and I won't waste any more time justifying the journey when the argument's been made here many times over.
I'd never done a demo before, and I believe there wasn't a weekend in February or March without teach-ins and meetings and discussions where I learned how to take care of myself, how to stay smart under pressure. A lot of them were through NYU, which I'd just graduated; others, the NYC People's Law Collective or the Direct Action Network. I talked to people living in Central America, people from Quebec, and people who'd done a recon tour of the city. I was terrifically grateful for the knowledge disease, this need to tirelessly spread info just for piece of mind. And when I got in the rental car on the morning of the 17th, I did feel a little safer.
Driving with me were Jack and Keith, friends for years, and Jack's girlfriend Jess. Keith had bussed down to DC for the inauguration protest back in January, but I think the rest of us were all green. We trusted each other. I can't say we expected to have fun but it almost ended up happening anyway.
Irrelevant Interjection Designed Solely to Appeal to Noders.
Readers Looking for Violence Please Skip Ahead.
About a week earlier, Keith and Jack, who were roommates at the time, had turned me on to E2. I did what I think everybody does, which is to become immediately infatuated with the interface, crapflood a ton of GTKY rants, and get them righteously nuked by dannye with no shortage of harsh words. If you're reading this, Dan, I thank you for it. You made me a better writer and impressed upon me how dear this place is to its users. And when I came back, I did it months later under a new account (this one), with a commitment to quality factuals. What I'm getting at is that during this car ride, when I should have been focusing on the unknown danger ahead, I was feeling honest-to-Satan guilt about having dumped shit all over this site, and I was planning my redemption.
At around 1 am on the 18th, I was at the wheel, headed north through the dark forests of Vermont. Tired. When you don't know what's ahead of you you live a little longer in each moment. Everyone else was dozing. I remember New York music to keep home with us. Keith stirred. He pointed at the horizon.
"What's that weird glow? Is that the northern lights?"
"Uh, I don't know. I didn't mention it because I thought I was hallucinating."
We pulled over near a hunched barn and all got out. Yep, sure enough, twinklies. There's a song we knew, written right around there, about that very thing. "I never ever saw the northern lights...never ever saw the stars so bright." Bet your sweet bippy we sang it.
In the morning we arrived in Burlington and it took me all of ten minutes to fall in love with it. Having grown up in New Hampshire (State Motto: LIVE FREE OR DIE), I was stunned how different the sister states felt beneath the surface, and a little ashamed I'd never visited. After you pass the UVM campus you hit the town's main drag of bars and shops, all on a hill overlooking a gorgeous lake. On the other side of the lake are mountains, a little fort where the sun hides every dusk. We checked out the old haunts of that same band and ate great food with friendly college kids. I wasn't ready to leave after a day. I wanted this to be my vacation.
But at 6 we gathered in the campus Bell Tower for the Convergence. This is where and when the contingents from Boston, New York, and Points West meet up and get redistributed on busses. We sat up in the round balcony and among the hundred and fifty or so below me I kept spotting folks I'd met in the past few months. It felt like the closing number of a hippie/punk musical. But nobody sang. Instead they began to discuss and debate the matter of The Border.
It was common knowledge the security lockdown would be heavy. "The man" (for lack of a more accurate and less fun term) didn't want Quebec City to be turn out like the massive WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Hence the whole idea of the Canadian venue: getting a big armed fence in between us and our target.
The bus organizers were convinced they could safely cross the border by entering and exiting a Native American reservation sitting right on it -- technically belonging to neither nation! We all stayed silent as a DAN rep talked on a cell phone to one of the reservation's officials, and as he relayed the speech coming through piece by piece. Yes, they would be happy to allow us passage, to help us against the governments that had fucked them over so many times.
But did the poetic justice outweigh the extra risks? It was possible the same border guards would just set up on the Canada side of the reservation. Some people wanted to stage a separate action on the reservation's behalf. Others were concerned we were only using them for their land, essentially the way white oppressors always had (which I thought was quite clear). Eventually the four of us got tired of the back and forth and we tiptoed and nudged our way out. It was irrelevant.
We had a better plan. We were incognito as rock-climbing Montreal tourists.
(And as it turned out, we were right. Setting up a cordon on the Canada side of the reservation was exactly what the cops did. We later met up with that DAN rep - no advance contact, just happened to be walking next to him at the march - to discover that only a small fraction of the total number of busses had made it through.)
Long before we hit the road, we had dug out the map and pinpointed the smallest border crossing we could find. Less guards to have to lie to. This part made me nauseatedly nervous. I was the last of the four to get out of the car, walk into the guard station alone, and give the alibi to this woman, who didn't want to be in that place any more than me. I wondered from her face what they'd been telling her on the radio. Molotov cocktails?
I have no poker face, but she had no polygraph. And we passed. They didn't even look in the trunk. ("No, those motorcycle helmets are for rock climbing. They are definitley not protection against tear gas grenades and rubber bullets.")
Our host was a gentleman named Pierre who had offered space on an email listserve. He didn't feel safe being part of the demo himself (he was early 50s, his kids had grown and moved out) but he was angry at the coward and liar who'd militarized his beautiful city and he was eager to help. He insisted on taking us all out to dinner (where, just like at home, we could not agree on a restaurant) and we stayed up late making shields out of plastic wastebaskets and duct tape, and a sign stating we'd come all the way from Brooklyn.
Got up early to trek to the university some three miles away for the Anti-Capitalist Convergence. Here, we'd rally, then march. It was a lot of "hurry up and wait", but I got so excited looking at how our numbers had grown just from the students who attended there. These kids want to learn, they want to be right, they want The Real World to be a just place before they get there. Why couldn't I have gotten sucked into activism back in school, instead of playing 84 hours of Nintendo a day?
I can't say quite how many were in the march. Thousands. I couldn't see the front or the back. The neighborhoods we went through were mostly residential at the start; one-story houses with big lawns just like American suburbia. Moms and kids and grandpas stood in their doorways or sat on porches wondering where the hell all of us came from, and I think hoping we weren't going to hurt anything. No ma'am, not me. When this happens in your neighborhood, you realize there's a lot going on in the world you know fuck-all about. And that's still true for me.
The day was unquestionably gorgeous. April in Canada, we thought, it'll be FREEZING! No. We were wearing far too many layers, and mine were saturated with moisture. For my windproof (gasproof) layer I'd chosen black. My helmet, likewise. Not wise. This is where I learned Very Important Lesson #1:
Do not dress Black Bloc unless you're prepared to do Black Bloc shit.
A kerchief-masked kid poked me and offered a hockey puck. I stared at it like a child who's never played the sport. What the hell was I supposed to want that for? Is this some bizarre Canadian drug ritual? "No thanks, man, I'm good." He shrugged and faded into the rest of the black-clad crew. A few minutes later we passed an old man bleeding from the head as a cop tried to console him. One of us did that. One of me.
We passed a Shell gas station and they swarmed. Not just because it was Big Oil, but because back in the 80s Shell used American troops to quell an African uprising or two. And so they spray painted As with circles around them and smashed all the glass they could. I could see a worker inside, terrified. And as the weekend wore on every bank in the area had broken windows. I don't know what this accomplishes besides fueling negative media portrayals.
So anyway: The Color Code. This was a method developed to align strategies, which we'd known about for months. Keep in mind it's a thought scheme, no one is wearing these stoplight colors. Green is no risk, fully peaceful. Red is "diversity of tactics", which basically means break stuff and get arrested. Yellow is in between. Yellow also offers support to red. That was us. And most of the crowd as well. And as we came into the more urban parts of hte city, we passed a van, and standing on top was a girl with a megaphone: "GREEN, go that way. YELLOW and RED, the fence is right in front of you!" *cheer*
The fence, yes, we all knew about the fence. See, the reason why Quebec City in particular was chosen was because it's the only city in North America that still has a massive stone wall built to keep out invaders. Much of the rest of the Old City, as the residents refer to it, is surrounded by hundred-foot cliffs going down to the sea. And what little left is connected by modern roads and such had been walled off two weeks previous by a 14 foot high chainlink fence. With countless cops in riot gear, pulled from duties all over Canada, standing right behind it.
Could we get through, and into the hotels where Bush and the others were meeting? Could we make enough noise to break it up? Absolutely no one was betting on it. We would have considered it a terrific blow for our side if, at any point during the weekend, we could have made the smallest breach.
The fence came down in about ten minutes.
Just the section in front of us, you understand, but it felt like a miracle. Some maniac, some hero, climbed up to the top and wedged himself in where two sections overlapped. He kicked it apart with his whole body, rocking back and forth and egging us on as ropes emerged and helped to pull. Were we going through? Yes. We thought we were. And we had moved far enough forward to actually be standing on the fence, when the grenades started to fly.
PHOONT is the sound you hear, just like in Terminator 2, and the canister arcs up, explodes in midair (which is usually when you spot it), then descends toward you. There's a temptation to shout "INCOMING!!!" like you're diving in a foxhole, but all this will do is sow panic and you need calm. If you are very brave, once it lands, you can pick it up and hurl it back at the cops. This is not a violent action, as the cops all have gas masks. (Someone is always very brave. Keith did two, contaminating his glove.) I think it was the third grenade that landed five feet away from where we'd been standing. This is when I learned Very Important Lesson #2:
Prepare for tear gas BEFORE it happens.
Preparation in this case being goggles and bandanas doused in apple cider vinegar over the mouth and nose. Both of which do help a good deal. But we'd said, "Oh, we'll put all that stuff on when the shit starts." Please do yourself a favor and examine the flaw in that logic. When the shit starts it is the shit that hurts. Everything will be crazy and you will have no time. Stupid, stupid kids. Arg.
So I got a lungful and so did the other three. We turned around and walked as quickly as we could toward the grass, coughing. I really didn't find my tear ducts stimulated, which is why you'll hear me call it "CS gas" in person, but I think an even better name would be "lung sand". Really what it does is burn your throat and sinuses to where you can't think. If you're lucky enough not to breathe it, all it will do is irritate your exposed skin and stick to your clothes.
And now we were faced with two lines of advancing riot cops, one from out of the fence, one from across the park square to the left. They beat on their shields with their batons as they approach: THRDRDRDUMP THDDRDRDUMP THRRDDRRUMP. We were not going to get detained (or beaten). Nothing to do but retreat.
We went back about three or four blocks to the same row of restaurants we'd been at last night. (Pierre's flat was only another two blocks away.) Almost all of these cafes had outdoor seating, upscale diners laughing, oblivious to what was going on half a mile away. Well, at least we're safe here, I thought. Those people we just passed who sat on their own stoops, red-faced, sucking up the gas, incredulous to this attack from their supposed protectors outside their front doors, well, they were different. This was a business situation, commerce. And there could be no point in driving us back this far.
But no. Soon enough there was gas in the street, and all the cluelessly innocent diners in a coughing storm. As we rounded the corner away from it, one older man pointed at Jack and I and yelled raspily. It was all our fault.
"You stupid Americans! The Canadian police are gonna kick your fucking ass!"
"Hey man, I'm from New York City. Canadian police couldn't scare me if they were ten feet tall." I didn't say.
All of the encounters with gas led us to conclude something we agreed upon in the car on the way home, which shall henceforth be dubbed Very Important Lesson #3:
Just buy a gas mask, otherwise you're tactically useless.
And useless was how we began to feel as we wandered in a cluster for the rest of the afternoon. The crowd by the breach was in a holding pattern. Once every hour or so, move up to the wall, get gassed back and flushed out. It was a victory for no one. When dusk came, they rebuilt the fence there, stronger. By that time, we'd walked the whole perimeter. We shouted angry things at the cops playing statue. If you're being paid to fight, and I travelled from another country on my own dollar, who has the moral high ground? Surely the mere fact that no one shows up in the streets to help you should prove that. We shouted because we were angry. We felt ineffective.
We retired to Pierre's to sleep, the noises of grenade launchers and police helicopters still loud in the night. Another young man he was hosting, a reporter for indymedia, showed us a rubber bullet he'd picked up. They're much larger than the metal variety, about the size of a jar in a spice rack, and mostly made of plastic. One could easily break your arm.
Saturday went much the same way as Friday. Bus to the uni, march, and this time the fence did not go down. We had the gas situation down better. By Saturday evening, the air around the section of Rene Leveque (the large road we marched down) was less than breatheable for blocks, long after the shelling had stopped. It stung. It was saturated, poisoned. We patrolled the rest of the wall instead. We got some rope and flirted with a fantasy of bringing it down, but we had no way to organize significant numbers. The push and pull continued. No one got inside, but we didn't see any arrests either. Sunday morning we drove away.
I felt like my week had lasted a month. Because every moment was something I'd never done before. Not to mention an all new level of personal danger. All this brain input. It took a great deal of digestion. It was a pretty quiet drive back. There was also the factor that we couldn't help feeling like failures.
But would I go again? Hell yes, I'm marching for peace tomorrow. We don't fight because we know we'll win. It doesn't even matter if we don't have a chance. We do it because there are things worth fighting for, because if we didn't we couldn't sleep. I'm sure Shakespeare or MacArthur or someone said that more eloquently. We don't have much time. The assholes are taking over. Vernacular will have to do.
This was written in a great hurry. I may have neglected important details and I may have included inessential ones. Suggestions and comments welcome.