/Giap/digest/#10 - Comments on the Quebec City Riots - 28 April 2001
COMMENTS ON THE QUEBEC CITY RIOTS
Keeping An Eye on Genoa.
Talking to the Americans so that the Europeans Understand,
and probably the other way around.
by Beppe Caccia and Wu Ming Yi
(Delegation of Ya Basta!-Italy in Quebec)
1. The three days of Quebec City proved that the global movement is not suffering any 'demographical crisis', which people were afraid of after Nice and Davos. There is no risk of a crisis when the movement successfully appeals to local, peculiar characteristics. In plain words, the activists made the most of Quebec's anti-imperial and anti-centralist feelings, making the reasons of the protest intelligible by the French-speaking population of Canada.
From saturday early afternoon to the dawn of monday, 10,000 rioters besieged the forbidden citadel then attacked and tore down the Wall of Shame. They could do it by swimming in the sea of the 50,000 demonstrators gathered by the unions and the Summit of the Peoples of the Americas. In their turn, all these people swam in the ocean of general solidarity, in a sympathetic town and region which didn't lock out, indeed, rejected corporate psychological terrorism and reacted to the state of emergency in manifold ways. A few dozen yards from the riots, bars were open and their windows showed such stickers as "Fuck Le Sommet". The inhabitants of the St.Jean Baptiste borough delivered water, baking soda and slices of lemon to attenuate the effects of tear gas. Cab drivers advised demonstrators on the safest routes to take.
By relying on a process of reterritorialization, the praxis can supercede all media stereotypes, as well as the risk of becoming a "professional army", kind of "protest globetrotters", barbarians invading alien cities.
2. There was neither any distinction nor mutual interference between street action and the work of more institutional "interfaces", i.e. the unionists, NGO delegates, "alternative" "experts" that organized the "counter-summit". While in Seattle some people were still deluded about "dialogue" ( sending "observers" to the WTO meetings, setting up allegedly "joint" committees, writing "amendments" to treaties which couldn't be amended etc.), in Quebec City such dreams evaporated even before tear gas filled the streets. The multifarious galaxy of NGOs, environmentalists, trade unions and intellectuals refused mediations and described the FTAA as "neo-liberal, environment-destroying, racist and sexist project."
3. While differences are far from being wiped out, if there's no division upstream, then there's no division *downstream* either. While Europe is still entrapped in the useless, lazy, annoying controversy on violence vs. non-violence, in Quebec City the Wall of Shame was recognized as the common target, and minds were open about the ways to hit it. Quebec City was a giant step beyond Prague: during the three days of action, nobody blamed anybody else or tried to teach other people what was *the* way. It's the end of pre-established roles (the Blue/Black Bloc throws molotov cocktails and smashes windows, the Yellow Bloc practises civil disobedience "the Italian way" and everyone else marches as far away as possible), the old "identitarian" logic appearead as inadequate when thousands of people left the big union demo and gathered in ready-made affinity groups. They were not the "usual extremists infiltrating a peaceful march", indeed, many of them were labor activists that had helped organizing the march. Many others were ordinary citizens, high school students etc. Everybody had their way: some groups would hook long ropes to the bars of the Wall and tugged till it went down. Other groups would cover for them, throw rocks, hurl the gas bombs back to the cops. In the meanwhile, a large multitude surrounded, encouraged and helped the rioters. This interaction made possible the demolition of the Wall and the siege of the FTAA summit.
People didn't play parts from a script authored by the enemy. The best example of this is the notorious Black Block. Since Seattle this informal network had got harsh criticisms for their careless window-smashing attitude. The BB is constantly criminalized in the media, and yet they managed to question their own tactics. In Quebec City, they adopted/adapted elements from the European White Overalls, such as paddings, plastic shields and helmets. They evidently gave up the usual bite-and-run logic, held their position, counterattacked and conquered ground inch by inch. They were no longer "splinter crazies", rather, they were synapses in a collective brain. In fact, on the Esplanades des Ameriques Françaises, the Black Bloc was applauded, not criticized. Quite appropriately, the first row in one of the friday afternoon demos had white jumpsuits and black outfits shoulder by shoulder.
4. Everybody witnessed the consequence of these cross-fertilizations: the Wall went down and several breaches were to be defended by the cops until the end of the summit. Unlike the Italian cops in Naples last March, the Canadian police and the government couldn't get away with mass shambles and everlasting comb-outs, thus they chose remote-controlled "low intensity" conflict, shooting thousands of gas bombs almost 24 hours a day for the whole week-end. While most besiegers -helped by the wind, the gas masks and some good Samaritans - could protect themselves in some way, the besieged suffered some side effects: there was so much gas that their food was contaminated and the kitchen of their hotel had to be shut down.
5. The US-Canada border (the longest land border of the Western hemisphere) turned into a heavily guarded Iron Curtain. Hundreds of US activists were turned back (or even detained) by any pretext. Sometimes the possession of a political leaflet was enough to be labelled as a dangerous person. For example, a caravan of 500 activists organized by the Direct Action Network and the NYC-based Ya Basta! collective tried to cross the border at Cornwall, with the assistance of natives from the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation (which is cut in half by the borderline). They were turned back. Only a few of them managed to cross at another location, several others ended up in administrational detention for the whole weekend. Unlike the European movement, the North-American had no factual experience of border problems. US West Coast activists didn't even try to cross and organized huge demonstrations on the border between Washington and British Columbia, as well as between Mexico and Southern California. There is a clear, direct relationship between the policies on illegal migrants and the "emergency" restriction of the freedom of circulation and rally. Perhaps one of the main deficiencies in the whole Quebec City thing was the border problem was entirely burdened on foreigners, an error not to repeat.
6. Let's wash the white overall in the St. Lawrence river. Streetwise, effective forms of action are possible only if they are results of ever-widening consent and participation, and political maturation. None of the Quebec City events exclusively belonged to the "military" aspect. This also concerns so-called "Italian Style of Civil Disobedience". The latter is not a mere strategy of position-holding, rather, it is a political proposal, a flexible methodology to produce radical conflict and make it "natural" to big communities by relying on local specificities *and* conquering new ground. If it were a fixed scheme, it would easily be decodified and neutralized by the enemy. The target must be chosen and aimed at open-mindedly by all and sundry, not only by some "current" of the movement. In Quebec City, a multitude acknowledged as legitimate any practice aimed at besieging the FTAA summit, tearing down the Wall, defending the rioters. The birds of ill omen wishing to fill the Genoa sky till it clouds over would've had a tough time flying over Quebec City.
Upper East Side, Manhattan, April 23d, 2001, h.1.00 am
Footnotes by Wu Ming Yi alone:
1. Anarchists don't have any sense of *limits* though. It appears they don't understand when it's time to withdraw, for you've made the fucking point and got no further use for putting yourself on the line. This is precisely the statement of the White Overalls: "Ya Basta!" means "It's enough!", you've got to be aware when it's enough, and back off. In Quebec City people kept rioting well into sunday, a few of them even till monday. Quite obviously, they couldn't escape the round-ups.
2. Reminiscences from Friday night at the Quebec City campus. I'd never seen a North-American "spokescouncil" and, although people told me meetings aren't always that boring, I felt disappointed. I don't mean to offend anyone, but those few dozen activists looked like crippled hamsters high on smack running in their wheels. Tons of slow, lazy talk. All efficiency sacrificed on the altar of political correctness which requires translation from/into French for each and every word, while the actual collective praxis is out-of-the-way multilingual with no translation required and, what's more, it is warping away, beyond the bounds of procedures and democratic fetishism. The Black Bloc is still rioting uptown, it's on the News *now*, and you've got all these people trying to decide with a majority of 70% what to do *tomorrow*, where and when they're going to splinter off and attack the Wall and so on. Tomorrow everything will seem natural, all the while bearing very little resemblance to the scenario depicted here.
Some North-American activists who witnessed meetings in Italy told me how baffled they were that activists keep chatting and making decisions out of the formal, official context, i.e. when the meeting is over. Moreover, there is no voting at Italian spokescouncils! Isn't there a risk of a holigarchic leadership imposing their point of view? Of course there is. However, the danger'd be there even if people voted and stopped talking after the vote. What happens is Italian spokescouncils last nearly 24 hrs. a day, in numberless informal contexts such as bars, squats, streets, on the phone, the Net and all. As long as trust is perceived as more important than procedures, this "informality" constructs a *diffuse* decision process, shared also by people who don't feel like speaking in formal contexts but have an opinion all the same. It happens that all decisions and actions spring out as a creative synthesis of all points of view. Who produces the synthesis? Not necessarily people who are considered "leaders". If no synthesis is possible, and trust is not enough, then we may as well go back to voting and procedures. But I've never seen such a boring meeting when the movement has just reached new heights and made a powerful point.
Info on the G8 summit in Genoa, July 2001: