Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Je t’adore Montreal (day 105 of student strike & day 34 of nighttime demos)

Revolutionary times are so hard for getting any “real-world” work done, but Montreal is making that extra difficult, because increasingly the real-world social power is in the hands of the people–quite literally, hands now holding & banging on pots, pans, & anything that will make noise. It’s not that pot banging started this uprising. Months of dogged, determined blockades, pickets, organizing, propaganda, and other actions by students created such a social force that the government made a huge miscalculation, passing law 78 to try to compell students back into school  and quell dissent. As the friend I’m staying with commented this morning, the government believed its own lies (basically, made-up polls) that there wasn’t popular support for the student strike. But instead of applauding the government’s heavy hand both with law 78 and heavy-baton-handed policing tactics, the populace stood shoulder to shoulder with the students on day 100 of the strike, May 22, and some half-a-million people filled the streets while bringing much of business as usual to a standstill (that generalized strike we’ve been dreaming of in the United States), transforming this into a social strike, which has been further transformed by a small idea by one person: voice your solidarity with your pots & pans, or casseroles demonstrations each night at 8, as complement to the 8:30 pm nocturnal demonstrations.

And here’s why I’m having an especially hard time focusing, whether to do my paid work or concentrate on an essay about this exceptional moment that’s far outstripped the government’s emergency law: the city is both “ungovernable,” to repeat Mostafa Henaway’s tweet last night, and also spontaneously self-governing with its feet, bodies, voices, and casseroles. It was difficult to fully take in what was happening last night, as some 50,000 or more (or who can tell, given the multiple demos, big and small, merging and converging, as well as the thousands and perhaps tens of thousands perched all over the city on their balconies, front steps, rooftops, and so on, banging pots or flicking on/off their porch lights or waving red flags. Well, not difficult. Simply beautiful. Overwhelming in the best of ways. I wish I could have taken a photo of nearly each and every one of the tens of thousands, since nearly each and every one was “self-determining” how they wanted to add to the noise. I noticed many posts this morning of proud photos of dented metal objects, made into impromptu street instruments. Last night was this manifestation of imagination–bringing alive the “all power to the imagination” phrase in a new way for me. People appreciated each other’s imaginative ways of making noise–a “simple” pot & ladle wasn’t enough for most! At the same time, that very imagination, that it’s possible to change the world, is bringing people into the streets, and in the streets, people really have the power in a way I’ve never experienced. This happens elsewhere, in my revolutionary imagination, but not in North America. In Greece, say, anarchists have forged a police no-go neighborhood.

I knew last night that the police were lurking in the distance and that they also probably were both too tired and too confused/overpowered to really be able to do anything. This morning, my generous-of-spirit anarchist host told me about a French-language interview in the Le Journal de Montreal newspaper where a cop not only noted how much he and other cops adore attacking demonstrators, he also commented on how it’s too late for police to control the situation. That really sunk in this morning. Last night, tens of thousands of us doggedly, determinedly escalated the strike far beyond students–there were so many babies, toddlers, young kids, teens, young people, and all the way up to people of many decades, or every type, in everything from strollers to wheelchairs, naked and dressed as a panda, a gigantic unstoppable “red sea” of red squares. We used our feet to bring neighborhood after neighborhood to standstills for hours, stopping traffic and commerce, closing bridges and confounding the police. Charest has “disappeared” into silence; Montreal’s mayor asked people to limit their casseroles to balconies; the police want a law passed that says people can’t say mean things to them. No matter the powers-that-be response, the people are only listening to themselves, to their pots & pans, to student strike spokespeople and anarchopanda, to the truly leaderless but shared responsibility of us all spontaneously moving through the city at night in all directions, and perhaps soon to neighborhood assemblies alongside the already-existence student assemblies.

The people are in power now, but a dispersed, joyous, neighborly power, an imaginatively beautiful display of horizontal solidarity. It’s a display that affirms people can reclaim their lives, their cities, in a way I never dreamed possible–through yes, reclaiming their streets and taking their productive labor away from commodified study, say, and into “educating ourselves for freedom” (thank you, yet again, Malatesta). I wish I could translate how “diversity of tactics” is working not as something on paper or that allows for someone people to do allegedly more militant things at the potential expense of others. No, there’s a lived practice of having each other’s backs here, and making it feel safer and safer (versus the illusion that any space can be safe per say) for everyone to disobey in ways festive and fierce, but self-controlled, together, if that makes sense. And that more individuated creativity and social solidarity function, voluntarily, together on the streets and in organizing here, the more additional people seem to join in–like it’s opened the door to what’s possible, because what’s possible, astonishingly, is that people can create a social power that is far beyond a slogan, that is at this moment unstoppable. There are too many people disobeying, collectively, for anything to stop it. And increasingly, it feels like people could “demand the impossible” and, due to their social power, perhaps “realize the impossible” too, or some of it at least.

I hope to write soon, in a more coherent and less typo-filled manner, about the relation (or not) of this maple spring-into-summer to and for occupy, and its relation (or not) to anarchism. Quickly, for now, a few random thoughts:

As an anarchist who usually cringes when I see people waving big red flags at demonstrations, it’s been a surprise to see how relatively quickly this student movement and its red square image have seemingly banished the horrible associations of authoritarianism and murderous regimes with that red flag. I’m typing way too fast in a cafe here in Montreal, looking out on a busy street, as people of all shapes, sizes, and ages stroll by with their red squares–often also imaginatively placed, decorated, handmade, etc. It functions as a sort of secret and not-so-secret sign of solidarity and shared disobedience with a thoroughly anarchistic movement, binding people in a thoroughly qualitative way (i.e., pushing past capitalist “value”), unlike the quantitative sense of the somewhat-similar 99% image (i.e., affirming the meaningless measurement of people as all somehow equivalent, and thus masking meaningful distinctions between, say, a young man of color or person without papers and, for instance, cop).

Like occupy, this movement wasn’t anarchist initiated or driven, even if there were and are anarchists involved, but it has created many thousands of anarchists (probably far more here than occupy has in the United States; for instance, at the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair this past weekend, happily, booksellers French and English-language said they sold out of “intro to anarchism” books quickly!). It’s also anarchistic, whether people become anarchists or not. But far beyond occupy, it’s not “simply” the anarchistic forms of self-organization that are intriguing; it’s the widespread, mass defiance of authority that’s so anarchistic too. And best of all, in my mind, this movement–far, far beyond occupy–is seemingly making anarchism “warm and fuzzy,” literally in the figure of anarchopanda!

The diversity, and increasingly so, of who is joining into the maple spring-turned-hot-summer also far outstrips occupy, but so too does the inventiveness of the personal creativity of how people are implementing its symbols–whether the red square or the casseroles–as I’ve already mentioned. It might be in tiny ways, but people seem to be taking such pride in how they’ve made their particular red square: from a tiny glittery red fabric square, to a big red square sewn on the back of someone’s pants, to slogans penned on red-felt squares, to square-red earrings…. And again, that translates into this marvelous diversity of tactics where although there’s continuity between marches, day and night, each one I’ve been to so far feels distinct, and impromptu innovation seems to be widely applauded. It’s not just the marches; that same drive for imaginatively diverse tactics and strategies is, and has been, playing itself out in how the strike has been implemented and maintained, and now this growing social strike is unfolding. The only people, tactics, and strategies–and increasingly aspirations–that seem tired are the police (and likely the governmental officials, but it’s clear how tired the police are because you see them nightly on the streets).

As a last random comment: CUTV. CUTV. CUTV. I’m in love with Montreal, with the maple spring, with how lovely it is to be alive at this moment and fortunate enough to participate in it, but I’m also in love with CUTV. Watch it. Or rather, watch them. Like anarchopanda, the rabbit crew and the naked lady (figures on the street that I haven’t written about yet), and Classe spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois (a phenomenon in his own right, and based on some Facebook posts, becoming a meme: http://fuckyeahgabrielnadeaudubois.tumblr.com/), the sweet personalization that also defies cult of personality, or leaders with power-over, of this movement is striking. More than that, though, the charming personalities of the main CUTV “reporters” night after night livestreaming is part of the very story of this social movement. Their commentary, from enthusiasm to “fuck you fuck you fuck you” screaming at the cops, during hours of livestreaming shows the very human face of the movement as well as how we might begin to create a people’s media that shapes the story and is shaped by it in a smart way. For instance, they’ve lost two cameras to police batons and one cameraperson now has two broken ribs; they’ve reported while walking and also running, talking into the livestream with panting breath; they’ve kept livestreaming through rain and teargas, including pepper spray on their camera lens. The only critique, besides wishing they were on air longer, is that they talk their way out of arrest situations with “we’re media”–but even their fear, anger, anxiety, and media privilege are part of this human face. Je t’adore CUTV.

I need to turn to my livelihood, not Facebook or this blogging. I keep meaning to also turn to writing something more focused about this remarkable maple spring. But before I put my nose to the compulsory grindstone–which I wish would be washed out in the sea of red, for me and millions of others, by this implicitly and perhaps explicitly anticapitalist moment–I want to offer a caveat to my exuberant commentary: unbelievable as this student strike-social strike-red square-casseroles revolution is, it’s hard to understand what it could or should ask for, or more precisely, how it could or should translate the fact that this city is ungovernable into a city that’s livable, sans hierarchical government, police, and capitalism, in ways that also account for legacies of colonization, for one. At best, though, if this movement manages to oust a provincial government (in North America!), establish completely free education (still public, since that’s starting to disappear in the U.S., and perhaps increasingly “free, not as in free beer, but as in freedom”), and serve as a beacon (not one to be simply copied, because the context is quite specific) for what’s possible if people doggedly, determined strike, occupy, struggle day after day after day after night after night after night, that is more than enough. It’s already been enough; if “occupy” pushed the envelope, the maple spring completely shreds it into thousands of bits of bright red paper squares to be tossed into air. People are not just winning here; they’ve already won. And for now, the city is theirs.

* * *

Reposts my Facebook post from day 33 of the nocturnal demonstrations in Montreal (May 26). I returned to Montreal last night, having been here for five days (May 18-23) already–something I hope to write more about soon. Too much to say!

May 26: At 5 am this morning–now yesterday morning–I thought it was both foolish of me to have left Montreal two days ago, and now extra foolish to go right back up via a long Amtrak trip. At 7:15 pm this evening–now yesterday night–I stepped off the train into Montreal’s central station and instantly started seeing red squares everywhere. I hopped on the Metro, where I saw the handles of pots and things to bang them with sticking out of people’s bags, and at 7:55 pm I walked down what seemed a quiet street off Mont-Royal to drop my backpack at a new friend’s house. She instantly handed me a saucepan & metal spoon, grabbed her already-dented pan, and we walked back down her street at 8 pm to the faint beginnings of the noise of metal on metal.

A block later, on the busy Mont-Royal, we found a few dozen others, then many dozens joined us, and then more and more, crossing back and forth through the intersection, obeying the traffic signals, banging everything from baking sheets, colanders, muffin pans, pie tins, metal bowls, breadloaf pans filled with utensils for extra noise, and on and on. When our numbers grew–perhaps in 10 minutes or so–we suddenly kept the intersection and just as suddenly started walking, past people waving red flags from rooftops, beating anything that would make noise from their balconies, with the din now so loud, and the amount of people suddenly so large, I wondered how it could only be something like 8:20.

Maybe an hour later, after converging with others casseroles bands from other neighborhoods, we were shutting down major downtown streets, blocking traffic in every direction, and thus for all intents and purposes shutting down one of Montreal’s major bridges, and all you could hear was the raucous noise of metal on metal on metal on metal, and all you could see were red squares of all sizes on people, stickered on walls, hanging as square sheets of cloth from balconies, and all you could see were us, people, everywhere. Someone came up to us and said “50,000.” Judging by the other four nights and one afternoon of my previous visit, that seemed a good approximate, though there were other marches besides us, and small groups of people cheering us on from everywhere–windows, cars stuck in our flow, doorways, rooftops, cafes, balconies.

Earlier today, “No One Is Illegal” held a march, which I missed; clearly tonight, everything and everyone of us was illegal, gladly and boisterously so, and the police (what few we saw) could do nothing stop us, nothing to control us or slow down this social strike, which has and is already costing the city and businesses millions, and threatens the usually lucrative festival season that starts soon. As Mostafa Henaway wrote on twitter tonight, and it’s no exaggeration (and thus I don’t feel foolish in the least for returning for another four days): “Montreal, the most beautiful and ungovernable city in the world.”

One last post before needed sleep: There’s so much that’s inventive, powerful, and smart about maple spring, and I plan to write about it soon, especially in relation to occupy in the country south of here. There’s also so much that’s just plain DIY adorable and playful, such as the professor who put on an animal suit to become the now-beloved Anarchopanda, shown here tonight on the streets with me and tens of thousands of others in Montreal, stopping to let folks take their picture next to him. (Related update for my anarchist friends in the States, the “Anti-Capitalist Convergence” or CLAC folks here are trying to raise money for an animal suit of their own. Stay tuned for anarcho-raccoon–red & black, of course.)

* * *

May 24 or 25: Often, in U.S. milieus/movements and occupy, the images are part wishful thinking about what isn’t (but should be) happening and part imaginative driver of what then does (or at least attempts to) happen long after the visuals are wheatpasted & posted. Over the course of my five recent mind-boggling days in Montreal, where I watched & participated in what quickly turned from the maple spring of an already-huge student strike into the maple summer of a widespread social strike–in no small part due to the government’s blunder of enacting neomartial law 78–the images being created are part companion to what’s really going on in the streets, schools & neighborhoods, and part playing catch up to the popular counterpower being spontaneously & feverishly, angrily & humorously, enacted across the island and province. I think this mischievous video does a bit of both!


If you stumbled across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, please excuse the typos/grammatical errors (it’s a blog, after all), and note that you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at my Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/


8 comments on “Je t’adore Montreal (day 105 of student strike & day 34 of nighttime demos)

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This entry was posted on May 27, 2012 by in Dispatches from Quebec Spring.
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