Student demonstrations go viral in Québec
It’s 8 o’ clock on a weeknight and the clamour has begun. Neighbours appear on their balconies, pots and pans in hand. You can hear the clanging of spoons on kitchenware all down the block in Villeray, my northern Montréal neighbourhood.
Just under a week ago, I stood on the corner of St Denis and Jean-Talon while thunderclouds boiled overhead, police lights flashed red against neighbourhood buildings and a crowd of thousands advanced through the streets fronted by a banner reading ‘Villeray Désobéit’ ('Villeray Disobeys').
Spontaneous manifs des casseroles (pots and pans demos) have erupted simultaneously all over the city. They ballooned out of a February general student strike against tuition hikes in Québec. Students began the largest – and longest – strike in Canadian history after Jean Charest’s Liberal Party sought to raise tuition fees by 75 per cent over the next seven years; The movement has employed a variety of tactics, from blockading bridges and ports to picketing classes and organizing massive street demonstrations of up to half-a-million people.
The students are now enjoying an unprecedented surge in popular support since the government passed emergency legislation ‘Law 78’. The bill outlaws demonstrations unless police are furnished with a planned route 8 hours in advance of any protest.
Described by Amnesty International’s Javier Zúñiga as ‘an affront to basic freedoms’, Law 78 has provoked public outrage and galvanized a city into action. In the first week of the new law’s implementation over 1,000 people were arrested for participating in ‘illegal assembly’. Protesters also continue to face extreme police brutality. Two people have lost eyes and several others have been hospitalized with serious injuries after being attacked by police. Pepper spray and tear gas are regularly deployed at nightly demos, as are sound grenades, rubber bullets and crushing police ‘kettles’.
The casserole demonstrations come as a relief in this tense climate. The act of pounding a pot while shouting with my neighbours is cathartic, as is this show of solidarity in the face of unyielding state violence. The protests with pots and pans also lend visible – and audible – popular support to those who face lines of riot cops downtown on a nightly basis.
Last week I crossed paths with them when, as I moved down through the city in the ranks of a casserole of several thousand on St. Laurent, we encountered a massive downtown demonstration headed north. The atmosphere in the street was electric: cars and buses stood at a standstill while thousands of protesters, some in masks, some with pots in hand, swarmed through the traffic, greeting each other with cries of ‘la loi special, on s’en callise!’ (we don’t care about the special law!).
Demonstrations are no longer primarily made up of students or even of young people. The strike – like this recent video of a Villeray casserole – has gone viral.
As the movement has grown, it has developed a remarkable diversity of tactics. People of all ages and abilities take part in nightly casserole demonstrations. But it also has a militant wing, with many participants who see economic disruption – which includes blockading bridges, bank entrances and ports – as a necessary and useful tactic.
The casserole demos have also pushed the movement towards a decentralized organizing structure which helps undermine the government strategy of targeting community and union organizers. Last week as I banged pots and pans, the Montréal Police tweeted that although numerous demonstrations were taking place in the city, they only had the capacity to post updates about two.
The proliferation of these demos all over Montréal and Québec, are helping to make the new law impossible to enforce, and defiance difficult to track. The decentralized neighbourhood protests draw police away from more militant downtown marches, stretching the repressive capacities of the state to its limits.
The people who make up this movement occupy a wide range of political positions. But a sense of solidarity is growing, in part through the visceral sense of empowerment that comes from being in the streets, night after night, with our neighbours. None of us can be sure where this movement is headed, but the sense of possibility and collective power that we’ve felt, together, will stay with us for a long time.
Photo by alexsnaps (flikr) under a CC licence.