Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

Sometimes Less Is More, Montreal, Night 43

This evening, I returned to Montreal for another taste of maple spring, stepping out of the Metro at 7:45 p.m., just in time for a chilly rain to start falling in the Plateau, and then made it to where I’m staying by 7:55 p.m. After some 2.5 weeks of almost no sleep, exhaustion finally caught up with me. I had this notion that I’d be sensible and take it easy–on the 43rd night in a row of illegal street demonstrations in this city. But about 8 minutes later, in the distance, slowly growing louder: pots & pans.

Three days ago, while I was far away in Baltimore at the Mobilizing and Organizing from Below conference (where I heard a Quebec student striker, also at this conference, say that the key to this Canadian uprising was and is the assemblies), there was a daytime demonstration here in Montreal. It was raining then too, but several thousand people marched through the streets anyway–yet again–with their resolve seemingly only strengthened–yet again–by the government breaking off of negotiations with the students last Thursday. A banner at the front of this march read: “This isn’t a student strike, it’s a society waking up.”

So despite my weariness, I grabbed my now-trusty pot and what’s left of my metal spoon (sans the spoon, which decapitated itself after three nights of beating last week, and thus is now a metal stick), and headed out into the dark drizzle. I was glad to see a bright red fabric square hanging off the balcony of the apartment where I’ll be staying–added after I left last Thursday. At the same time, I felt sad not to have the apartment’s resident and my new friend by my side tonight. We met through an old friend, on much more riotous streets a couple weeks ago, before the casseroles began yet right after the “special law 78” had passed, and she’s kindly been my host ever since. During my previous visit, we went out every evening together to the disobedient demonstrations, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of people, as well as on the enormous day-100 march, which saw something upward of 500,000 clogging the streets. Now, she’s away for a couple weeks, and is doing me the incredible “mutual aid” of loaning me her home; it felt funny to head to the casseroles without her.

The bustling intersection a couple blocks from her apartment had been a hot spot for pot and pan banging before, so I expected the same this evening. At 8:15 p.m., though, when I rounded the corner, there were only three women, hooded up in their rain jackets, banging away. They cheered as they saw me coming with my pot, raising their pots in unison and greeting me warmly–in French. I somehow explained that I don’t speak French, and they somehow explained that they don’t speak English, but that only increased all our smiles, as we all raised our pots and the volume together. Some other kind of language was happening in the intimacy of our tiny casseroles. And so perhaps 10 minutes later, after 1 more person joined us–again to happy cheers and raised pots–a police car also pulled up, and one of the women turned to me, laughing defiantly, and said in bad yet discernible English, “Cops!” She grinned widely, then banged her pot all that much more loudly, this time in the direction of the police car.

Still, not so disobediently, we walked back and forth across the intersection, in the crosswalk, when the red light stopped traffic for us. As the rain kept lightly falling, I felt the dampening of the magnificant and massive social strike I’d experienced on my prior recent visit. I kept glancing up the busy street in one direction and then the other, hoping that a large group of people would come marching down the street–in the street, illegally–to meet us, as had happened before, but no, not tonight. My 4 companions, strangers all but likely neighbors, chatted away happily with each other, in French, and kept smiling happily at me, and all the while kept banging away at their cookware. They didn’t seem to notice in the least that we were so few. I recognized half of them from earlier casseroles, and it was clear that they were glad for the chance to converse and glad, too, for the opportunity to keep up the momentum of these nocturnal manifestations of people power. I was just about to leave, because it felt so dispiriting, when in the distant we at last heard other pots, and then saw a loud and rebellious crew–of 4. They swiftly marched up to us, yelling happily at the tops of their voices, and that in turn dramatically increased our collective noise.

The 9 of us created metallic, grating music of solidarity, and I decided to stay. We weren’t exactly breaking the law–a small group of us on the sidewalk. But when our miniscule numbers converged, everyone’s spirits seemed to soar, as if there were indeed thousands of us, as if we were indeed holding down what’s almost become a tradition of nightly resistance, as if it mattered that we were offering ourselves along with our lungs and our arms and our legs to this uprising. Despite the language barrier, for now a few others spoke English-only, we all gestured that we needed to march, and I had the feeling that all of us suddenly thought that yes, of course, there must be many more people in other parts of the city doing the same as us. Perhaps we’d find them and become a large demonstration?

What we found instead were lone or small batches of wanderers, who afforded us an unending maze of individual acts of solidarity and rebellion as they crossed spontaneous paths with us.

Over the next couple hours or so that I marched, cars stopped to join us for a minute or two, repetitively honking their horns, or people pulled their car over to temporarily park so they could jump out with a pot and bang as we walked past. A passenger in one car waved an open umbrella out their window at us, with a red square hand-colored on its cloth. People walking by clapped in tune to our pots, or jangled keys, or used their umbrella against a lamppost to make noise; one person pulled a whistle out of their pocket and blew hard as their momentary contribution. Solitary folks leaned out windows as they heard us coming, ran back into their apartment, and then reappeared with kitchenware in hand. People sitting in restaurants tapped on their glasses with utensils as we raised our pots and pans to acknowledge their support. Workers ran out of stores and cafes to make whatever sound they could as we passed, and many who couldn’t come outside instead held up raised fists and offered us enormous smiles. Bicycles careened joyously toward us, so they could ring a bell or simply wave. And on and on.

Hundreds upon hundreds of separate people lent solidarity for short bursts. With each interaction there was a distinct acknowledgment of us as a tiny but hardy casseroles crew, and we in turn gave our impromptu collaborators a distinct recognition for pitching in, if only for a second or minute. Most of the time, we were able to make eye contact with those joining us, and then we all made eye contact with each other, and I don’t think there was a minute in all our marching when we stopped smiling and laughing–the language that was binding us this evening.

Over the course of our 2-plus hours of marching and sometimes skipping, always at a brisk pace, we’d subdivided a couple times, and added a person here or there–but always remained at 5 or 8 of us. One person who joined us was a woman who ran up with her backpack, indicating that she had a pot inside and was it OK to become part of our group, to which–yet again–everyone cheered and raised their pots in unison while banging them loud as hell. The women I’d started with went home after about 45 minutes of walking, and I then mostly spent time with the 4 people who’d originally joined us, which included a teenager who couldn’t get enough of shouting and laughing and banging as loud as she could whenever anyone acknowledged us–which was pretty much constantly–so I started shouting and laughing and banging as loud as I could too. We both spoke English, but for some reason, the shouting and laughing were far better and more accurate communication much of the time. Still, at one point she turned to me after we’d seen a man behind the plate-glass window of his gyro fast-food place raise his fist to us and grin, and she tossed back her head, wrapped in a red bandana, and laughed until I thought she’d burst: “You love this so much too!”

About halfway through our casseroles, one of our crew got the idea to start banging his pot against metal street-sign poles, and then it seemed as if there really were well over 49 of us, the legal limit under the new law for groups of people. So we began to stop and do this often, and my new-found comrades particularly took pleasure in doing this outside fancy restaurants in which the patrons weren’t paying us heed. Two of my posse started to scream chants as well, including the French version of “fascist” and some other insults in relation to Charest, and my comrades this evening began to take special delight in hollering at police cars when they passed by us. At one point, we came upon an intersection with a big street post that featured a handmade sign I’d seen last week: “FUCK C78 CHARESt.” The intensity of our participatory show of force for this sentiment grew to new heights, and silently (since at this point we could hardly hear each other anyway), we stood our ground by this sign and made a racket, gathering many onlookers.

Two new people had recently joined our tiny group, both quite mild-mannered looking, and each with two pans lids that they could bang together. They awkwardly hesitated for a minute, and I was convinced they were going to leave, because it was getting wildly loud. The 4 folks who had merged into my original group were now all banging their pots against the same metal post with the “FUCK” sign on it, and the noise was deafening. Their laughter also seemed to increase, if that were possible. Our 2 new companions were suddenly overcome with the exuberance of the moment, and it was like we were some big brassy band that couldn’t be contained or controlled, mostly because many of the onlookers were also just as eager to spontaneous add their nods or smiles or claps or cheers.

I did see more people this evening than before we ignored us or seemed displeased. Two or 3 folks took the time to complain about what we were doing–in French, but from their faces, the general content was plain enough. And we never did find any other casseroles, much less a large demonstration. We walked past groups of 2 to 3 with pots and pans, such as two punks, one with a Crass T-shirt, who asked me where the big march was, and when I invited them to join us, they ran off in search of bigger and better prospects, but again, our numbers never rose above 9 all night.

Perhaps this is the beginning of the end. Or the tiredness and routine that starts to set in when an uprising stretches past its initial upsurge and innovation. Perhaps people are becoming more polarized, drawing different lines in the sand, or maybe many are sick of the nightly noise (one man clearly yelled at us about being woken up evening after evening). Maybe it’s becoming difficult for students strikers and other social strikers to figure out a strategy to win something, or perhaps folks are resting up to contest the Grand Prix starting this Thursday (with its excess of wealth and power in contrast to the excess of social good that this strike is increasingly demanding).

I should have felt disappointed tonight. And I should be sleeping. But again, I’m awakened by what’s going on here, for in all the little interactions this evening, there was something that was thoroughly qualitative, thoroughly defiant, as our casseroles uncovered the many, many, many varied instances of shared solidarity–shared enthusiasm and a shared sense of injustice–made possible precisely because we were so few, yet nonetheless still so determined way beyond our numbers, as if we were many. For everywhere we went, individual by individual, there were many.

As we marched by the street where I’m staying, I waved goodnight with my pots to these strangers that now didn’t feel strange at all, thinking 2.5 hours was good for tonight. I also thought how odd it was that we felt comfortable, rather than odd, in creating a loud demonstration up and down busy streets; how odd that it didn’t feel weird to simply bang pots together with 4 or 5 people when no one else around you was doing the same thing. The teenager ran over to me, hugged me tight, and whispered in my ear, “What’s your name?” We both smiled, whispered our names in each other’s ear, and she leaned back to grin and then yelp, “It was so great to meet you!” then ran after the rude metallic orchestra continuing on, noisier–somehow!–than ever. Once home, I could still hear them, 4 blocks away, for another 5 minutes or so, as I perched on the balcony outside where I’m staying, on a quiet residential street in this yet-disquieted city.

* * *

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/

One comment on “Sometimes Less Is More, Montreal, Night 43

  1. Pingback: Montreal, Night 43: Sometimes Less Is More | Occupy Oakland World News

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This entry was posted on June 6, 2012 by in Dispatches from Quebec Spring.
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