'Free Trade' Means Tear Gas and Fences


"Street battles rock start of summit!" "Melee surrounds trade talk!" trumpeted the headlines, as roughly 50,000 people poured into Quebec City for the Summit of the Americas last month to oppose the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Seven of us from Massachusetts North Bridge Alliance for Democracy, plus two more from a sister organization, headed for Quebec, too. We started out in two carloads and one plane, not knowing how many of us would be allowed through the border.

We'd been told that Canada would try to keep as many of us out as possible. The Canadian government had spent $30 million to organize the largest police and security operation in its history, including 6,000 police and the now infamous 10-foot high 2.5 mile long chain link fence for keeping protesters away from the meetings. Residents referred to the fence as their "Berlin wall" and the "wall of shame."

After exhaustive searches of each car and, by contrast, smooth sailing through airport customs, the nine of us convened at a summer camp for children, about a half hour outside of Quebec City. A large, imposing sign had greeted us at the airport, "Democracy. Prosperity. Human Potential the Summit of the Americas."

Friday morning, April 20, we made our way to the big white tent by the waterfront that had been set up for the People's Summit. This was to be the site of the "alternate" summit for peaceful protesters -- funded by the Canadian government -- at the bottom of an extraordinarily long and steep hill. Up at the top of the hill was Old Quebec City, the official Summit of the Americas, and the heavily-defended fence.

These divergent locations presented a continuous, built-in division for protesters throughout the weekend. Where best to go? To the government-allotted spot at the bottom of the hill, or to the top where the fence made it clear who the included and the excluded were? We headed for the top.

We passed large media vans from CBC Radio Canada and Global TV, and a few boarded-up, small stores along the quiet, narrow streets of Vieux-Quebec. At the Hotel de Ville, City Hall, we saw a crowd of about 100 people listening to José Bové, the French farmer who drove his tractor through a MacDonald's restaurant in France last year to protest the effects of globalization on family farms. Later, on our return flight, we had the good fortune to sit and talk with Bové about the weekend's events and plans for the future.

At 12:30 pm -- in the midst of the calm -- we got our first faint whiff of tear gas, standing in front of a pharmacy on Rue de St. Jean. A group of about five or so steelworkers in the middle of the street told us that protesters had just torn down the gate. We sprinted towards the fence. About 75 feet of the wire fence was down at the intersection of Burton and Scott. Police in green riot gear lined the perimeter shoulder-to-shoulder, and tear gas filled the air. Word was that President Bush had been detained an hour in his car, and had to be taken away by helicopter.

As the day wore on the streets swelled with thousands of people, people of all ages, but especially young people -- in comical hats, with painted faces, with gas masks, dressed in costume, dressed in plain clothes, playing on drums, dancing, blowing on trumpets, carrying signs, "Public education is not for sale," "Resistance," "Revolution," "I am a trade barrier." The mood was at once festive and solemn. There was palpable camaraderie in the streets, no matter what the age or the dress. We were all there for the same purpose: to stop the FTAA.

How to do this was a contentious issue among protesters. Through polite means via teach-ins, rallies, marches? Through civil disobedience via sit-ins and blockades? By damaging property? All week long leaders from organizing groups worked to hammer out a unified approach at the 11th hour, not yet arrived at after months of planning, that would satisfy all parties. Ultimately, they came up with the "green, yellow, and red" approach, which would operate simultaneously and independently of each other. Friday's activities had been determined to be red and yellow actions (direct action), while Saturday would include all varieties, including a large portion of green (no risk of arrest).

By early afternoon, Parc d'Amerique, near the torn-down section of the wall, was gorged with thousands of people. The police volleyed tear gas at the crowds almost continuously. A cat-and-mouse game developed between police and protesters with gas masks who'd throw canisters of tear gas aimed at us back at the police. The gesture was largely symbolic, since all the police wore gas masks under their helmets. Even so, the crowds cheered at each returned canister.

As the day progressed the police changed their tactics, and their choice of gas. They began to roam the streets in shoulder-to-shoulder formation, shooting narrower canisters, now of a stronger pepper gas, at peaceful groups of people several roads below the perimeter. Why? If the goal was to keep the meeting area secure, why harass those in the streets many blocks away from the perimeter? A sign on a wall asked, "Since when is protesting a crime?"

The pepper spray was much more effective than the tear gas. It burned the face, blinded the eyes, scorched the throat. As people ran from it, others shouted "Slow down!" to avoid a stampede. Still others appeared with plastic bottles, ready to pour a water and lemon-juice mixture onto burning faces to lessen the pain.

After dark there was no letting up. The roar of helicopters continued on into the night. The helicopters acted as ushers hovering over where the conflict was most intense. The proceedings took on a surreal effect. Eating dinner in a gorgeous Tunisian restaurant, sitting on pillows, with the splendor of Quebec City flowing far down below us, we could see refugees from the latest blast of pepper spray stumbling past our window, coughing and gagging, trying to shield themselves with bandanas and bits of cloth.

Two hours later we left the restaurant for the walk back to our rooms on Rue de St. Gabriel, just two blocks away. Half-way there, with eyes and throat searing with pepper spray, we couldn't see, we couldn't breathe, we simply could go no further. We stumbled back to our Tunisian restaurant, which by now had closed up, and beat on the windows, asking to be let back in. They opened the door with puzzled faces. We called a taxi to make the trip home.

Saturday morning began with more helicopters, more pepper spray, and two new pieces of equipment: huge white, square tanker trucks marked "POLICE," with proboscis-like nozzles for shooting water at people by the fence.

Our day started out with an impromptu interview through the fence by a reporter who turned out to be Daniel Altman from The Economist. Were we in favor of tariffs, he asked from inside the perimeter. We're more concerned about the FTAA targeting non-tariff trade barriers, we said -- laws that protect the environment and labor and consumers, which multinational corporations view as obstacles to maximizing their profits.

We added that we opposed the proposed FTAA rule whereby a corporation could challenge these national laws for impeding its potential future profits. The offending law would have to be weakened or repealed, or the challenged nation would be forced to pay severe penalties to the complainant corporation. And we objected to the treaty's "national treatment" rules, which would require countries to treat foreign companies the same as they would their own, opening their domestic companies to killing competition from much larger, more powerful foreign multinationals.

We also questioned the democratic nature of the FTAA, despite Summit leaders' rhetoric. How so? asked Mr. Altman. After all, the leaders at the table had been democratically elected -- they represent the people, don't they? We told him that we wondered how he could say such a thing, given our own hijacked election this past November, and given how Massachusetts' state legislators have relentlessly tried to subvert our Clean Elections Law.

This was possibly the last time a reporter was allowed to interview people close to the fence. The police soon herded the media people back about 20 feet, blocking them from speaking through the wire.

Away from the perimeter there was a carnival atmosphere in the streets. The throngs began to assemble down by the University of Quebec for the red, yellow, and green marches. Looking down from the staircase above Rue de Couronne, it was awesome to see so many people filling up the intersecting roads. Most of the marchers headed for the white tents of the People's Summit where Labor was convening. A few headed up towards the summit and the perimeter.

The marches ended, but not the pepper gassing near the perimeter. We were told that people had thrown rocks through several windows of the CIBC Bank at the corner of Levesques Est and Turnbull streets. At 7:50 p.m. about 150 police completely filled the narrow street of St. Genevieve, facing off with student-aged kids engaged in a sit-down. A little later they gassed their way onto St. Jean, where they continued their face-off for hours.

At 11:30 p.m. an agitated young man ran towards us and stopped, breathless. We asked him what had happened. He said, "The police were pointing a laser at me! They hit my friend with it yesterday and it made a huge swelling bruise on his arm." He reached in his pocket and pulled out the laser-sighted plastic bullet that had hit his friend -- solid white plastic, about 3 inches long by more than an inch around. (One man remains in critical condition having been hit in the throat by one of these.)

We asked a resident what he thought about all these protesters overtaking his city. He said he didn't mind the protesters. He minded the police. "It's the police that are pointing things at us, not the protesters." He added with a note of irony that he thought he was against the FTAA, but he wished he knew more about it -- which was a hard thing to do, since to this day the text has not yet been released to the public, though 500 corporations have had access to it.

By the end of the official meetings on Sunday morning the helicopters had stopped. Residents began patiently sweeping up the debris around their dwellings -- the smell of gas still in the air -- while police and protesters still skirmished at the perimeter. A nearby car had been torched by the police. A note taped to the car said, "The police torched my car. The police destroyed my car. Will the police pay for my car?"

Heading home, we read in the papers that Summit leaders had proclaimed the Summit a success, and that they had been unaware of the protest activities the night before as they ate dinner and watched Cirque du Soleil. Contrary to those reports, we learned from two Spanish TV reporters who'd worked on the inside that delegates in dinner jackets had been pressed against their windows, watching the protests in the street. Tear gas had gotten into the ventilation system and forced a pause in the schedule. At our Montreal stopover, we overheard a top South American oil minister's reporting events at the Summit on his cell phone "It was a disaster. No one can agree. Nothing went well. The President needs our help. Some very strange things are happening. I can't talk to you now; I'll explain later."

Just as these stories don't add up, the official line about the FTAA doesn't add up either.

Kati Winchell of Lincoln, Mass., is chapter development coordinator for the Alliance for Democracy. Garret Whitney of Concord is co-vice-chair of the Alliance. A version of this was published in Alliance Alerts, a publication of the Alliance (see www.thealliancefordemocracy.org).

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