The Enclosed Summit
Resistance / QUEBEC
Amid an explosion of tear gas and the zing of rubber bullets they signed a ‘democracy clause’ in Quebec City. The irony of doing so behind a four-kilometre-long perimeter fence – known as the ‘wall of shame’ – probably went over the heads of the Heads of State. All but one – Cuba – of the governments of the Americas gathered in the city last April to sign up to a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Their intention was to replicate across the rest of the two continents the neoliberal, free-trade agenda already established by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Canada, and Mexico.
Again and again the more militant protesters tried to storm the fence. They breached it and tore it down on several occasions. In a week of heavy symbolism, this was a symbolic defeat for the forces of order. They turned predictably ugly. Protesters, aggressive and passive alike, were meet with clouds of teargas, water cannon, pepper spray, rubber bullets and solid phalanxes of armoured anonymous robo-cop police. Many hundreds were injured, some seriously. Hundreds more were rounded up and whisked in heavily-guarded convoys to a special prison outside of town.
Scott Weinstein, a street medic, describes the ‘dance’ between demonstrators and police: ‘Despite the tear gas, rubber and plastic bullets, and police charges, people were partying in the streets all over the city... Occasionally, [the police] would charge behind a barrage of tear gas and the crowd would flow away to avoid capture. As the police returned to their positions, so the people would return to re-occupy the streets.’
One young demonstrator who had turned and stared into the darkened visor of an advancing robocop yelled out, ‘Don’t shoot, dad!’ A couple of eleven-year-olds of friends demanded gas masks as gifts next Christmas.
Imagination was not in short supply. A contingent dressed in black-and-white cow uniforms marched as ‘Mad Cows Against Globalization’. A huge Ronald Macdonald swayed over the crowd with large bags of money in either hand. One group dressed as business executives holding hands over their ears to block out dissent and chanting satirical slogans like ‘defend the three-martini lunch’. There were Haitian contingents, Asian-Canadian groups, local Mobilization for Global Justice coalitions (MOBforGlob) from New Jersey to Ottawa, people from all over Latin America, the World March of Women and LOLA (Little Old Lady Activists).
Quebec trade unionists – autoworkers, steelworkers, public employees, nurses and teachers – made up a significant portion of the big march. Contingent after contingent passed for over three hours holding union banners and waving union flags and chanting ‘sol..sol..solidarity.’
On the Saturday some activists tried to divert the trade-union organized march up into the old city where the conference was being held and away from a parade route that led off in the opposite direction. And over the course of a teargas-soaked afternoon and evening, thousands from the trade union rally did make their way back to the stand-off at the fence. In solidarity the main public organizers of the movement refused to condemn the variety of tactics used.
At the Peoples’ Summit, the voices of dissent against the modern day ‘enclosures’ of free trade were clear and articulate. Steve Lawson of the First Nation’s Environmental Network, fresh from an arrest for blocking lumber trucks on Vancouver Island, spoke of the increased pressure on old-growth forests. A Colombian journalist who can no longer speak out in his own country denounced the US-sponsored Plan Colombia. Yvonne Ramos of Acción Ecologica talked of the oil companies’ destruction of the lives of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples. John Maxwell described his native Jamaica as ‘neoliberal ground zero’. After 25 years of structural adjustment, he said, ‘we end up with a pauperized government and a national debt of $5,000 per person’.
But the inspiration and ideas abroad were summed up by the People’s Summit’s final communiqué – ‘Other Americas are possible’.
Few people in Canada even knew what the FTAA was before the ‘Quebec intifada’, but now it is common knowledge – and controversial.
The residents of Quebec City resented being excluded from the centre of their own city. Groups of middle-aged women from local neighbourhoods, protected only by vinegar-soaked cloths, joined the demonstrations around the perimeter fence.
They are unlikely to welcome any more globalization-fests any time soon. In the light of the carnage at the Genoa G8 summit, and Canada’s plan to host the next G8 meeting in the summer of 2002, these summits cannot simply go ahead under an ever-more-militarized state of siege. Sooner or later, those who run the global economy need to wake up to the fact that the fences between them and the people have got to come down.
Richard Swift is Co-Editor of the New Internationalist.