Quebec City Diary: Struggling Against a Global Takeover
“Politics is a subsidiary function of economics, and democracy an agreeable by-product of capitalism.”
The day we were supposed to meet was finally here. I was taking a bus up to Quebec with a group of unknown people bound by the same intention: to protest globalization. I had heard about the busses from someone in the Internationalist Socialist Organization, and I was able to get a seat due to one of those beautiful chance meetings with people who know people who know people.
Walking east on 14th street towards Toys R Us (the meeting points), I noted all the grocery workers from Latin America with hopes and dreams in their faces; I saw people from different parts of the world buying their goods at the many discount stores on 14th street that are being replaced by luxury condominiums and expensive gyms. As I entered Union Square I remembered that it was once an open plaza of “Campo” where people used to meet and rally for workers. But the political spirit is long gone, replaced by trimmed grass that you can’t sit on, and by a loud open restaurant that caters only to a certain type of people, those with laptops drinking a “macaccino grande.”
There were 45 of us there ready to take a 14-hour bus ride to Quebec City, where we would protest the FTAA (Free Trade Agreement of the Americas). Leaders from 34 of the 35 countries of the Western Hemisphere were gathered to solidify their commitment to “free and open trade” across the continents that hold 800 million people and economies worth a collective $11 trillion. But for whose benefit were these agreements? They would be hammered out behind closed doors, in rooms full of representatives of major industries and neo-liberal policy makers. Who would be kept in the dark? Everyone who does not own a major industry or help form their policy. More specifically, this meant all the environmental groups, unions, local governments, indigenous peoples —or everyone, including you and me. Cuba’s exclusion was justified on the basis that only democracies need apply. The protestors’ exclusion was guaranteed by the $40 million security effort launched in Quebec City, which included a three-mile fence around the center of the city where the meetings would occur. The Summit of the Americas was thus a portrait of “capitalist democracy” in action: the United States, whose policies have toppled democratic governments across the Americas, along with representatives from “free and open” countries like Peru, Colombia, and Chile, took every step possible to meet without interference from the raucous rabble. We, as peaceful demonstrators against such violent defense, faced a daunting task.
The drive was long but full of engaging conversation with new people. At moments it reminded me of the times we took buses in Chile to protest the dictatorship of Pinochet and his Chicago Boys —the economic group who brought us neo-liberalism, a.k.a “Economiá Libre de Mercado.” We all had a story to tell and after a few hours we begin to discover all the interests, people, and places we have in common. Soon the bus was no longer full of strangers, but instead complete with friends of friends, as well as potential future friends. We were all there in one space at one time, knitting a new story.
After a few stops along the highway in the middle of the night, we finally got to the border. We heard about people who were not allowed to enter Canada, even after they tried two or three times to get in. We were thus advised to say exactly we were going, and not to be afraid of revealing the intent of our trip. After an hour or so at the border, we were all back in the bus talking our way north to Quebec. I only wished that we had a guitar to sing the words of Chile’s great folksinger, Victor Jara.
Quebec City: So-So-Solidarite!
The myths of the anti-globalization movement: a “rag-tag,” “every-issue-and-the-kitchen-sink” army of “disorganized youth” who have “no clear understanding of that they’re fighting against” and “no clear understanding of what they’re fighting for.”
We got to Quebec City bleary-eyed and ready for coffee. The People’s Summit of the Americas, our counter-FTAA meeting, had set up massive reception facilities along the city’s riverfront. Armed with steaming cups of java and sweet buns we met some unionized journalists who’d caught a ride with their union brothers and sisters. Everyone we talked to spoke eloquently of their reasons for coming. Workers in Canada, as in the US, are already an international bunch: Albanian, Jamaican, Russian, Irish, and Indian by birth, they directly knew the effects of “globalization” on ordinary people across the world. And for Canadian citizens-by-birth, the standard of living that workers and other had fought for over the century was falling rapidly. The polarization of wealth that has been increasing between countries is growing within their borders as well. Canada is ranked #1 in living standards according to UN reports. But since NAFTA, it has experienced the most rapid increase in child poverty of all industrialized nations, and its Prime Minister is making noises about privatizing much of the nation’s health and education systems. Eight million more Mexicans entered poverty since NAFTA’s signing. Meanwhile, the bottom two-fifths of US households have lost income and wealth during the past decade (during the “longest boom in history”), and across the world, millions of people continue to fall into poverty, see their jobs and environmental security erode, face cutbacks in services, and encounter increasing political repression. It seemed logical to everyone we met that morning that such global phenomena demanded global response.
That same morning, thousands of people sat in a tent outside the conference walls —where protestors had been gassed a day earlier —listening to translated speeches from activists across North and South America. So-so-solidarite! was the rallying cry of the weekend, and Jose Bove, the French farmer known for taking on agribusiness and McDonalds, led the crowd in the chant at our people’s summit. And in her powerful defense of the youth whose “willful destruction of private property” was the near-exclusive focus of the media’s attention. Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians asked, “Where is the real violence?” Well, I sat that it’s behind that wall,” she continued, where “the thirty-four political leaders and their spin doctors and their corporate friends who bought their way in, sleeping in five-star hotels and eating in five-star restaurants and thinking they can run the world by themselves.”
Though U.S. reporters kept the numbers to 20,000, Canadian journalists reported that the crowds who gathered outside the FTAA meeting that day numbered between 40-60,000. Like Seattle, trade unionists comprised a majority of those protesting on Saturday, and the official labor march that day left the downtown area to rally nearby. Thousands of environmentalists, feminist groups, anarchists, and socialists marched with —and as a part of —labor. Meantime, the area around the fence was like a war-zone. An acrid mist saturated the entire hill; explosions and four-story plumes of gas erupted every few blocks, every few minutes. Watching the footage I’d seen from Seattle and elsewhere I had tried to imagine what it would be like to be gassed. It turned out that like so many things, you gather your courage from the strength of the people you’re with. All weekend, the active solidarity amongst the protestors and residents was incredible. We saw piles of personal belongings, protest gear, radio equipment, banners, and masks around the outskirts of the perimeter, with signs that read, “Please don’t take away. Thank you!” —and no one did. We walked down winding alleys where community residents had opened their houses to the protestors, lowering hoses out of windows with slow water trickling through for us to fill our water bottles and rinse our eyes. Signs welcomed us to the streets: “Jean-Baptiste is a neighborhood with a long history of resistance. Welcome to our city! Have a great demonstration!” When we were gassed, we advised each other in all the languages of the hemisphere, saying “restez calme” and “don’t run,” while organized groups of medics took us from the area, using their first aid kids to restore our sight and help us breathe again.
For hours and hours different protests reigned across the city. The streets were a carnival. All the police in the city were inside their cordoned castle, behind their barbed wire moat. On the outside, the mobs ruled, often in ecstatic sway. Drumming, dancing, talking, linking arms, sitting, standing, marching —for much of the day it felt like we owned the streets, even when we were clearly being held back from the conference itself. Finally, sitting in a square a few blocks down from the man fence, I heard clapping as well as excited exclamations ripple from group to group. A woman came over to our band of new friends and comrades, telling us the meetings had been called off early. The delegates had received a taste of their own medicine: the tear gas they had rained down on us all day had finally permeated the area so much that it had seeped into their hotel; the negotiators were having trouble breathing. We laughed and clapped and hugged each other in celebration.
Paolo, a man I spent the day with, had continually peppered out conversation with the same eager outburst: “This is what we’re fighting for! This is why we’re here!” It took me awhile to understand what he meant. The tear gas and rubber bullets were “symbolic victories”? While we may have stopped the meetings, the FTAA is still on the table, meaning that we have a long, long way to go before achieving our goals. But as the day went on, I figured out what he was talking about. The protests showed in microcosm what many of us know in theory to be true: that united, we can change the world. Collective power. Celebration. Solidarity. Openness. Freedom. My friend Anton, hanging out all night near a large bonfire under the highways, which were often under siege from the QC police, said that the contradictory mixture of violence and fellow-feeling was unlike anything he’d ever felt. “I’ve never felt so safe with so many other people before.” Against the cynical proponents of TINA (There is no alternative), Quebec City showed, via the placards carried by the steel-workers and the slogans leaping from the headlines of our alternative newspapers, that Another World is Possible.
When we came back to New York it was a pleasant, sunny afternoon. A group of us decided to get a coffee and sit at Union Square Park to exchange our experiences of the trip. The city and the park seemed completely undisturbed by the events that we had just lived. The water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and hundreds of police and helicopters seemingly never existed in the minds of the city dwellers. With Quebec newspapers in hand, their first 15 pages devoted exclusively to Saturday’s events, I examined the Sunday New York Times 4×5 picture of Bush, Fox and Chretien on page A1, and found on the third page a small article with another 4×5 of a faceless crowd marching. Yet that Sunday night I met with a few friends who were eager and curious to know what had happened. After some time, 4 or 5 of them were already telling me that they would also like to participate in the future, and by Monday I received more phone calls of this sort. I told all of them that the next stop is Washington D.C. in September, to protest the meeting of the IMF and World Bank. The next time the coalitions will need 10 buses for the 450 more people who will join the crusade to preserve the human spirit and integrity of democracy, which is not for sale, and neither are we.
Vásquez is founder and director of La Salsa de Hoy Dance Studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.Pennelope Lewis