When I walked into Quebec City on the morning of April 20 to cover the protests at the Summit of the Americas, it didn’t look like the postcards. The old-world charm was marred by boarded up windows and a shiny new fence, three metres high and four-kilometres long.
Six thousand of Canada’s finest were behind the fence, to keep people angered by lack of representation from attacking their leaders. 4,500 soldiers stood by and nearby Orsainville Prison was emptied to accommodate arrested protestors.
A giant banner on a skyscraper within the perimeter proclaimed “Welcome!” in all four official languages of the hemisphere. It looked silly with the big fence in front of it. Outside, chants of resistance and solidarity rang out in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
People did their best to creatively ex-press themselves in spite of the wall. Thousands of balloons were attached to the fence in peaceful pro-test. Religious groups opposing the FTAA decorated the wall with crepe paper flowers. An international women’s group sewed together bras that were woven into the wall.
Street theatre was in full swing by early afternoon. Protestors marched around the perimeter with black Xs painted over their mouths to symbolize their stolen voices. A mad scientist and genetically modified monster fruit protested transgenic food.
Drum circles formed spontaneously on grassy patches to protest musically. A myriad of non-governmental organizations handed out pamphlets drawing attention to their specific complaints against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.
The day was sunny and the atmosphere outside the perimeter was more carnival than protest. Small marches and improptu parades with banners and people in costume moved through the streets.
A different mood prevailed at one of the main perimeter gates, the intersection of Rene Levesque Street and the fence. A large group of people gathered in the plaza in front of the gate, called the Parc de l’Amerique Francaise.
Many of these individuals were sitting in circles, getting an early start on their International 4/20 Marijuana Smoking Day festivities. Enterprising Quebecers did a brisk business in ten dollar grams and made new friends as people who crossed borders to get here were hooked-up.
I wasn’t surprised to see a big group of herb smokers here, as connoisseurs are especially sensitive to the everyday limits placed on our freedom by the police. One irony of the many gas masks sported by protestors was that cops couldn’t tell if a joint or cigarette was burning inside.
Not that it would have made much difference ? police didn’t even notice offences that would normally get you arrested in a minute. People smoked hash and glass pipes in the middle of major city intersections, right in front of police. People were protected by their numbers. There weren’t enough cops to bust everybody.
Taking the fence
Many protestors were peacefully singing, holding banners and chanting when militants rushed the fence and started tossing rocks and bottles over the wall at police. Just before 4:20, protestors climbed on the fence, and it fell down after just a few minutes of shaking. It was very anti-climactic.
Police started shooting tear gas as protestors ripped more fence. School buses full of riot police stopped near the breach. The cops used their bodies to replace the fence.
Long-range canisters landed next to people still sitting down, uninvolved in the agitation. The wisps of dank smoke were quickly dispelled by much thicker, whiter tear gas, which smells like fireworks until you get a big whiff.
The tear gas even reached US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who got a whiff while waiting outside for an official dinner. “An old infantry man always remembers what tear gas and pot smell like,” Powell told reporters, before darting inside.
Groups of cops with German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers wearing tiny bullet proof vests fanned out into the side streets to mop up any remaining opposition. People were banging on street signs, dogs were barking, the police helicopter was whupping overhead. Cell phones were ringing constantly as media or affinity groups kept track of each other. Someone in one of the houses started blasting Another Brick in the Wall at maximum volume. The riot was even more surreal with a soundtrack.
A few minutes later the cops got the order to clear the street. They started gassing, walking forward and banging batons on shields. The last few militants on the street rushed the police, and a small melee was visible through the smoke.
The militants seemed to be gone but there were some peaceful protesters with signs. Legal observers wearing bright orange vests and helmets took notes from the side of the street. A guy sang One Love and strummed a banjo on the other side of the street. People near the line of cops started sitting down in the street and flashing peace signs.
A school bus pulled up behind the cops, and the reinforcements started taking off their gear. This riot was over for the day.
The People’s March
On Saturday I worried that I was going to miss the big march; city buses headed downtown were filled to capacity with protestors and a few regular riders. This was the protestor high water mark.
Thousands of people were in town just for the day to participate in the largest peaceful demonstration all weekend, the People’s March of the Americas. The old port was filled with people as a sea of activists assembled for the march.
The human river took over two hours to clear the starting point. March organizers reported a crowd of about 60,000.
During the parade, marchers were forced to hold bandanas and clothing to their faces as tear gas wafted in from elsewhere. Although no battle was in sight there was still enough gas to make people cough.
Canadian Marijuana Party leader Marc-Boris St-Maurice and candidate Pierre-Etienne Paradis were carrying a big pot leaf flag and a banner that proclaimed “The war on drugs is a fraud.”
“We certainly are on the demonstrators’ side, because they are the ones that are suffering. The victims of the drug war are not inside the fence,” said St-Maurice.
A Colombian woman who marched in the parade agreed to an interview on the condition that her name not be used. She traveled all the way to Quebec City to show her opposition to the FTAA and a recent $1.3 billion “Plan Colombia” drug war donation from the US to Colombia.
“Plan Colombia is affecting campesinos, but for us it’s not a real solution,” said Consuela.
She said most of the American money goes right back into the US, used to buy Blackhawk helicopters and other weapons.
“This is not helping after 50 years of violence,” said Consuela, “Military aid is contributing a lot to civil war. We don’t want another Vietnam.”
At the end of the parade route the river of people split; those favoring direct action turned left and marched to the perimeter. The more pacific crowd walked right for a band.
Capture the flag
The influx of protestors from the parade combined with animosity from the day before meant that police and demonstrators were soon fighting all along the perimeter.
A group of about fifteen peaceful protestors sat directly in front of one of the perimeter gates. They wore rain coats and pants, and sat in a circle singing songs.
These peaceful activists got water cannoned as much as violent protestors. They started playing ring around the rosie, but they all fell down pretty quickly when police trained the water cannon on them. Once police decided to attack they ceased to discriminate between violent and peaceful protestors. When cops got really pissed off they started using tear gas canisters as projectile weapons, aiming them at peoples’ heads.
At dusk police decided it was time to clear the entire perimeter. A helicopter hovering overhead directed squads of riot cops in pushing demonstrators away from the perimeter, into residential neighborhoods. First came volleys of tear gas, then officers with truncheons marched in and arrested anyone resisting. Hundreds of people without face protection ran in any direction away from cops and gas.
I was in the middle of this crowd, running away from the giant acrid cloud, when I looked up and saw a giant ganja leaf come swirling out of the tear gas. I walked toward the familiar symbol.
At the next street St-Maurice and Paradis were holding the Marijuana Party banner high on one side of the intersection, facing a line of riot cops on the other side. The cops were piled two deep, sealing off the road going in the direction of the perimeter. Pacifists often sit in front of cops to halt them and calm them down, but this was a new form of peaceful pot protest.
After carrying the flag all day long, Paradis needed to get some food and go to the bathroom, so I volunteered to take over his duties with the left pole. For almost two hours the Marijuana Party flag, St-Maurice and I kept 50 or so cops occupied. Most of the time it was just the two of us, but toward the end of the standoff a small crowd gathered.
The streets were deserted, and the few people out wandering were stopping to appreciate the banner and the ever-increasing number of cops guarding it. People would walk by, laugh, take a picture, bum cigarettes and talk.
Eventually the cops got tired of looking at the giant leaf and were annoyed that it was drawing a crowd.
With no provocation, officers in full body armor approached St-Maurice and myself. A cop put his hand on the pole I was holding and told me I could give it to him or be arrested. When I asked if we could just move it he shook his head.
By this time it was dark. The small crowd jeered the police for their heavy-handed repression of our peaceful expression, telling them, “You should be ashamed of yourselves,” and “Nazis use gas.” People talked openly and loudly about what “fascists” these cops were being.
Dave Hainey witnessed the confiscation of the Marijuana Party banner, and said it was the same as the tactics used inside the perimeter, “out of sight, out of mind.”
His friend Pete Hamm conjectured, “I think they were more annoyed by the discussion than the flag, since it made them question what they’re doing.”
Shot in the back
St-Maurice was pursuing his case with the officer who took the flag, asking why he couldn’t keep it rolled up. Suddenly I noticed tiny red dots on St-Maurice’s back. I was puzzled until I followed them back to the barrels of police guns.
The rubber bullet guns had a targeting system that worked in the dark. A little red laser dot projected from the barrel of the gun appeared on anyone about to be shot.
Refusing to accept the illegal seizure of his flag, St-Maurice sat down on the corner a few feet from the police line and kept his mouth running. The cops stopped aiming at him since he was close to other officers, but they started targeting random members of the small crowd that had assembled, as if the threat of violence wasn’t explicit enough. Officers played their lasers over peoples’ legs and chests, as if to say “Here’s where you get shot if I feel like pulling the trigger.”
I thought this was just a scare tactic until they started shooting. Several guns went off at once with no provocation. Tear gas was shot close above St-Maurice’s head to clear the intersection, and Hainey was shot in the leg.
“Rubber bullets were discharged two feet from my head, and they flew over me into the small crowd that was about to sit in with me,” said St-Maurice. Hainey was ok, a little stunned, but the cops’ biggest weapon ? fear ? had worked. The intersection cleared out, except for St-Maurice, who kept on demanding his flag. He sat in alone though police threatened to arrest him. When he asked what the charges would be, they responded “We don’t need a reason.” But St-Maurice kept it up until a friend of his happened by.
“After they pushed me to the other side of the street, they opened fire again, on me and a friend who had just arrived. Just as we started to chat, for no reason, they shot us,” said St-Maurice, “My friend was hit twice in the back and I was hit once on the knee, giving me a grapefruit-sized bruise.”
Over 200 people had been arrested by the time birds started singing on Sunday morning. Some multinational corporate offices and banks had lost their windows, but independent businesses were left alone in rioting that went into the small hours of the morning.
Street sweeping trucks were already cleaning up the trash can that Quebec City had become. A layer of garbage coated the city, except where water cannons pushed it into piles. Signs, buildings and bus stops were covered with anti-FTAA graffiti.
There were powder burns on the pavement from burning gas canisters. So many chemical weapons had exploded the smell still hung in the air. Most doorways and alcoves on the street smelled like urine from their use as impromptu bathrooms. Happy Earth Day.
One of the hopeful signs of the weekend was the proliferation of independent media. There were as many people making their own documentaries and filing reports to news web sites as there were corporate media. Independents were the only ones monitoring the mass-arrests late Sunday night that occurred after the papers went to bed.
All weekend long I witnessed the images that were on the front pages of all the papers; I saw the police use their tear gas, attack dogs, pepper spray, batons, water cannons and rubber bullets against violent protestors who wanted to break the perimeter.
But I saw more than that. I also saw these tactics deployed against the majority of unarmed, peaceful people trying to express themselves. The brutal police overreaction to a few violent demonstrators prevented anyone from expressing themselves constructively.
The cops didn’t seem to care as long as they weren’t killing anybody. It’s thanks only to the medics on foot that no one died. Scott Weinstein, one of the medic coordinators, said that the independent medical center treated “hundreds” of people over the weekend, contradicting the police report of 82 injured protestors.
In spite of it all the FTAA was signed behind closed doors and the leaders flew back to their home countries.
Though they didn’t stop the FTAA this time, demonstrators proved they aren’t just a bunch of hooligans who show up for a fight. The biggest victory for FTAA opponents came before the summit even started. Tens of thousands of protestors were transported to Quebec City, fed and housed by groups with no central organization and no budget to speak of.
Activists were working together not because they were paid, like the cops, but because they believed in what they were doing. Many who went to Quebec City to protest had new friends by the time they left. People will use the skills they learned coordinating the FTAA protest to further the cause of freedom, the Marijuana Party, and other movements to come.
Meanwhile, St-Maurice hasn’t given up trying to recover the Marijuana Party banner.
“I’m still trying to get it back,” said St-Maurice. “It’s party property.”
Free trade and the drug war
By Reverend Damuzi
The protests in Quebec weren?t just about “free trade.” They were also about the drug war. “We were there in support of Colombia and Mexico, who wanted to discuss legalization,” said Canadian Marijuana Party Leader Boris St-Maurice. “And we were there to protest the fact that the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and drug war are largely US interests. The US refused to hear anything to do with harm reduction or legalization at the meeting.”
FTAA drug war
After the failure of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in 1998 due to public pressure from around the world, the nut was quietly rolled to the Organization of American States (OAS), which began promoting the FTAA in earnest at its next meeting in Chile that same year. The drug war has been a prominent topic during FTAA conferences right from the start. After the 1998 meeting, Prime Minister Jean Chretien made a revealing remark:
“We want to work in very close collaboration to make sure that the production and the consumption of drugs goes down in all parts of the Americas because it is a disease that is hurting a lot of people,” Chretien claimed.
The FTAA and drug war promoting OAS ? whose meeting Chretien had just attended ? was founded in 1881. Every country in North, Central and South America (except Cuba) is a member of the FTAA and OAS. In 1986, the OAS opened its own drug war department, called the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (called CICAD), where all the nations? drug czars meet to discuss how to further oppress people everywhere.
In 1998, as the FTAA got its legs, CICAD began talking about making the drug war into an international enterprise, through a “multilateral drug initiative.” CICAD, FTAA and OAS literature is filled with exhortations by the leaders and drug czars of countries in North, Central and South America to cooperate more fully in the drug war.
Since FTAA negotiations began, CICAD has had as much potential to influence national drug policy as international agreements like those at the UN. For example, the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which Canadian politicians regularly cite as the excuse for upholding marijuana prohibition. In a 1998 press release, the OAS boasted that CICAD has “developed model anti-drug regulations that have become the basis for laws in OAS member countries.” In fact, the OAS works in strong cooperation with the UN, which also closely associates free-trade agreements with the development of a multinational drug war.
In Quebec, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, US President George Bush, and the heads of states of other countries of the Americas signed the “Declaration of Quebec City,” which reaffirms those country?s commitment to the FTAA process, to the FTAA draft, and to the development of a multinational drug war. “We reiterate our commitment to combat new, multi-dimensional threats to the security of our societies,” reads the declaration. “Foremost amongst these threats are the global drug problem and related crimes?”
The concept of “multinational” or “multilateral” means essentially that what works in one country should work in all countries. For the drug war, the ultimate expression of this concept is multinational drug squads, unanswerable to our heads of state, who can break down doors and enforce multilateral treaties and agreements, like that signed in Quebec.
If we are to avoid worse drug war oppression, the public must speak as loudly against the FTAA as it did against the MAI. Make your voice heard by writing letters to the media and heads of state, by attending protests and rallies, and by educating others.
? For more on free trade and the drug war: www.cannabisculture.com/news/freetrade