I feel like I probably saw and was in the middle of only a fraction of all the tides of popular protests against the Grand Prix tonight. But to likely understate it, the police (SPVM to SQ) totally lost control and the people totally held the streets. And as one person said to us on the streets as riot cops swarmed by us for the umpteenth time–after about the umpteenth time that nearly everyone (and by nearly everyone, I mean an eclectic mix of thousands and thousands of people, many dressed in fancy Saturday night party clothes, far from “the usual suspects” and not a black bloc in sight) pushed the police back or for all intents and purposes kettled the cops, and after the many umpteenth times that nearly everyone booed at and many threw plastic bottles (or a beach ball) at the police–there’s a universal language on the streets this evening, and it’s “fuck the police.”
Of course, there was plenty of good reason to speak this global language on Montreal’s streets this evening: tear gas, batons, the incessant beating on shields, pushing, harassment, pepper spray, injuries, arrests. But none of those tactics worked. Nor did the tactic of attempting to divide the thousands of people “marching” or simply filling the streets. Each time the police managed to split enormous amounts of people into two, three, or four groups, or seemed to have dispersed people altogether, seconds or minutes later, there was a new massive group, or several, or another hot spot, with no rhyme or reason, and definitely no coordination. The sheer beauty of a mysterious spontaneity birthed of some sort of popular will and determination. Whether tourist or local, student or person in their seventies, a kid a stroller or an adult in a wheelchair, white or black, out for a drink or out for a protest, and on and on, people just kept coming at the cops again and again and again, with little fear and lots of animosity. This constant onslaught, from nearly all people and definitely in all directions, was relentless, bold, and tough, but never felt out of our control–even though the “our” was thoroughly unclear, or maybe a better word would be “expansive.”
The “our” was the populace. And no one was in charge. Somehow, though, there was a common understanding of what our tactics were: holding ground, screaming at the police, throwing objects at the cops that couldn’t really hurt them, but under no circumstances would we give the streets or intersections over to them, or especially, under no conditions would we let our disruption be disrupted by the cops. These tactics of ours didn’t include breaking store windows, or what seemed a far more likely target, smashing the windows or otherwise damaging the many extremely fancy and extremely expensive cars that we encircled time and again. Instead, we basically compelled the police to clearly “protect” the luxury cars from a nonthreat–other than the threat that we were walking the wrong way against traffic and making the car’s drivers/passengers come to a halt for hours. This only underscored the absurdity of this display of wealth in the midst of a governmental crisis over not meeting people’s basic needs.
When we started out at 8:30 p.m.m from the park next to the Berri-UQAM Metro, it felt that the couple thousand or so of us were modern-day peasants foolishly thinking we could breech the castle with our modern-day pitchforks: pots & pans, flags, drums, horns, and a lot of chanting and hand clapping. We passed by the big, free French-language music festival, and hundreds of concertgoers cheered us on, as did numerous passersby, who also often joined us. Our demonstration tried a couple times to “assault” the Grand Prix party area, but to no avail, and it seemed like things had come to a standstill and that everyone was dispersing.
My affinity group of two (myself and Ryan Harvey, on our night two together), kind of figured it was over and started to aimlessly meander toward the F1 party area, and then just as quickly as the march had disappeared, hundreds of police cars, vans, and cops swarmed by us, lights and sirens blaring. So we walked a block over from where the cops seemed to be heading, landing ourselves on the completely packed Ste.-Catherine street, a few blocks from the heart of F1 entertainment excess. Within two blocks more, our peasant crew of a couple thousand was backed up by many thousands more–the rabble, who likely didn’t plan on being rabble that night–and it was instantly clear that like last night, protesters and the populace (or rather, the populace in protest) had again managed to outwit the cops and disrupt the Grand Prix’s evening bash.
Even more so than last night, however, the cops were completely outnumbered, seemed completely at a loss as to what to do, and often yelled orders that they couldn’t possibly fulfill. Each time they tried to push the crowds away, people stood their ground until the last minute, moved back a bit against walls or doorways, and then as the cops retreated, simply moved back into the streets again–with pretty much everyone on the street participating (and there were thousands and thousands of people out tonight in this busy area). Frequently, we ended up chasing the cops away, or basically pushing them back instead of them pushing us, by the thousands of us simply walking briskly toward them, shouting at them in at least two languages.
It’s hard to describe, or rather hard to translate, how this all felt, especially since it felt like nothing that I or Ryan have ever experienced. Ryan kept remarking how on incredible this past year-plus has been–from Tunisia and Egypt, to Indignados and Madison and occupy. We both marveled at this wave of revolt that sweeps this way and that, washing away prediction after prediction that it with disappear–in the same way that tonight, people were seemed washed away by the police, only to more turbulently sweep back into the streets that they so obviously understood as theirs, in their own maple uprising. They turned the normal life of a busy Saturday night street into a normalized yet extraordinary battleground of contestation and popular control, the 47th evening on top of something like 115 or so days of a massive student strike. People were clearly in complete, confident, calm (relative to the situation) collective self-command, and yet it was utterly rebellious, utterly disobedient to authority and cognizant of its own social power, and utterly populist.
I don’t want to minimize the fact that some people were arrested (CUTV reported that tonight marked the 9th attack by the SPVM on their crew in these last 3 days!), others were hurt, and many may only have been expressing anger at cops. Yet there’s also obvious widespread discontent at things like the evisceration of the promise of free education (a palpable memory of a promise some 30-40 years ago, mind you!) and increasingly harsh austerity cuts. There’s an obvious widespread disillusionment with the government and its police, with the word “fascist” being the most frequently used word to describe what people feel it happening to Canadian and especially Quebec society in light of special law 78.
It’s like the student strike–some two years in the making/planning, and building on the history of other student strikes and the not-so-quiet Quiet Revolution of the 1960s to 1970s–was the first strike in a wake-up call that has now startled people into not falling asleep again. As one longtime anarchist on the streets tonight mentioned to us, basically: we anarchists (or more broadly, anticapitalists) have a lot to learn from this. There’s no way radicals could have brought about the social upheaval that is winning. That has already won many hearts and minds and actively engaged bodies in a way that’s way beyond any “mere” social movement. There’s a lot to learn about what it took to organize the student strike, what it took to build and sustain it, what it’s taking now to keep it going, and how the hell so much of the population here sympathesizes with and brazenly leaps into this struggle. And there’s the perplexing question of where it will all go. This particular anarchist friend said he thought June 22 was crucial; that it needed to be big. A second later he added, “But who knows? Maybe June 22 isn’t key.”
On Thursday night, a mere 3 days ago, with a couple hundred mostly anticapitalist folks (since that was the call for this demo) quickly kettled and thinking we were going to spend the night in jail, I thought the Grand Prix would go merrily on its way, untouched by this monumental and historic student strike. Now, in the early hours of Sunday morning, with the start of the Grand Prix’s noxious engines just a few hours away, I’m astonished that I’ve spent two nights smack in the center of the F1 party, as a society-at-large (rather than a handful of radicals or protesters) chooses that it’s worth the disruption in order to make the student strike and now widening social strike plain as day. Making it the story.
As usual, I walked the hour or so back to where I’m staying after the hours of near-riot tonight, passing late-night partiers and people walking their dogs, realizing it was nearly 2 a.m. as I turned on to Mont-Royal, which has been closed to traffic now for 2-3 days for a street fair, or mix of entertainment, food, and lots of sale items from the surrounding stores. There were still a fair amount of folks mingling around on the closed-off Mont-Royal, but most of them were all looking down at the road.
In the middle of the street, for some 6-8 blocks or more ahead of me, were gigantic street art pieces, composed of paint and chalk, each with the yellow line of the road vaguely appearing in the center. Some of the artists were still around, adding to their work, and I asked a young artist about his piece, after I noticed that the first 8 or 10 of these massive street drawings had red squares in them, not to mention casseroles or the number “78.”
“What is this? Were you supposed to include the red square in your work?” I asked him, noticing a red square pinned to his shirt.
“This happens every year, but we can create whatever we want to. A lot of people want to use the red square in their art. They say that us students are violent. Sometimes a window might get broken, but that’s not violence. It’s the police who are violent. They just get more violent. All we want is a better world. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
I saw him notice my red square too, and he added, “Thank you for wearing the square. It gives us students strength to see the square everywhere.”
And so 2 a.m. turned into 3 a.m. as I slowly walked down the line of giant paintings. I walked the line of thousands and thousands of red squares, alongside other people, without disruption. In the quiet of the late night/early morning, we whispered our appreciation and pointed at particularly delightful renditions of red squares. I kept thinking, this is a magical time to be alive, when anything is possible and everything is surprising: from a downtown with the streets held by people in rebellion to a neighborhood with the streets filled with the color of resistance.
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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/