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Everyone likes to claim that, on whatever stupid day that something interesting might have happened, a movement was born. It’s a cliché that ignores everything that happened leading up to it, all of the years of hard work and small struggles that don’t capture the imagination like broken glass and tear gas, and so I’m a little embarrassed that the way I feel right now, as I’m writing this and barely back to my normal frame of mind, is that Friday, April 20, might have been the beginning of an actual anti-capitalist social movement in Montréal, such that I haven’t seen before in all the time I’ve lived here.
Questions of semantics should be clarified now. What is a social movement? It’s not something that needs to be defined too precisely, but a movement is a force, which is to say that it has an impact. It does not need any ideological unity, and it’s safe to say that the key difference between a movement and other things is its absence of unity, which may or may not be replaced with communication. It’s a word that I would sometimes replace with the word struggle, too, probably for no reason other than aesthetics. And so when I think of Montréal, I can think of the student movement (or struggle), the often promising struggle against police, the movements in solidarity with Palestinians or indigenous people or Wikileaks, the movement for social housing, and others. None of these, even when they are full of anti-capitalists (as several of them are) and when their rhetoric is anti-capitalist, meets the criteria of an anti-capitalist movement – and this is even true of the nascent movement against austerity and cutbacks. For its part, the student movement in strike mode has become something of a platform for other fights, but all of this has been a sideshow to the big issue. Up till now, every demo and every action is about something. On April 20, it was about everything.
Two of the three demonstrations that started just before noon were about Plan Nord, the government’s program to turn the largely pristine land that the British stole from indigenous people and Canada later gave to Québec into an industrial gigaproject on the scale of Alberta’s tar sands development. Plan Nord, along with the development of shale gas in the Saint Lawrence river valley, is the plan to save Québec’s capitalist economy and avert a crisis in capitalism – at least for a few decades longer. It represents a continuation and intensification of industrial capitalism. It is the precise kind of future we need to fight. The fact that this issue is so totalizing, affecting every aspect of our society, is not the reason that things went the way that they did – but it does mean that this was one of the better fights for us to choose to step things up.
The demo endorsed by CLASSE, the more combative student federation, was the first to reach the Palais des congrès, the large conference centre between the Chinese Quarter and Old Montréal that was host to the Salon Plan Nord – a job fair organized to better sell to better sell the economic benefits of Plan Nord to the public, featuring a speech by the premier himself. There was some disruption inside and lots of disruption outside, i.e. one of the longer pitched battles that has happened between street fighters and the police in a very long time. The western side of the Palais, particularly at the intersection of avenue Viger and rue de Bleury, was the perfect location for demonstrators to seize and hold the streets while causing the police a headache. Going west along Viger from the intersection, the street is flanked on either side by an empty concrete park with a fountain on the south and a carpark on a bit of a hill to the north. Whenever the police made the attempt to clear the street, people would run backwards along avenue Viger, but also into the park and especially the carpark where the cars provided good cover from plastic bullets. There were two few riot cops and too many people and too much space for any attempt at kettling to be successful. All in all, it lasted for at least two hours.
At one point, in fact, the riot cops sallied forth to clear the streets for what was probably the third time, and very soon they found themselves kettled and pelted with whatever materials were available. This one moment, where the police were surrounded on all sides and clearly expressing fear, boosted morale greatly, even if we weren’t numerous or armoured enough to actually hold them when they made a desperate run back to the safety of the Palais. Later on, after the battle at this intersection was over, a line of unarmoured cops ran for their lives away from a swarm of angry people who had, by this point, already been peppersprayed and gassed and shot and hit with batons. They took safety behind a line of riot cops that was running to meet them and push back against the crowd. Later on still, the demo found itself finally much further away from the conference centre and much closer to the police headquarters for Montréal. Not much time was wasted before groups of people ran from the demo into the parking lot and broke the windows of the police cruisers. All of this in broad daylight.
It is actually impossible to speak of everything that happened at this juncture, but Le Journal de Montréal is reporting that at least one Molotov cocktail was thrown at police forces, that there were multiple instance of commercial windows broken around the city, that there was graffiti, and that at least eight cops were injured in the course of the day’s events. At least some of the vandalism occurred a few blocks away from the Palais de congrès before the battle got really intense there, at the demonstration endorsed by No One is Illegal against federal immigration minister Jason Kenney’s appearance in town and the further intensification of border controls proposed by the Conservatives in Ottawa.
There are at least two very important strategic lessons to be learned from this.
#1. Hiding amongst the cars in a parking lot can be a very good idea.
#2. It is frequently not a good idea to go to these sorts of things on the second day. Although there was no property destruction, the police were much more heavy-handed in their response to demonstrators on the second day of the job fair. The shitty weather, as the well as the sheer and almost universally surprising intensity of the day before, meant that not many people came, and it’s clear that the police wanted to show what they were capable of doing this time. This seems to follow a pattern: after Saturday of the G20 summit in Toronto, or going back a little further after “N30” during 1999’s Battle in Seattle, the repression was stepped up. Worth keeping in mind.
A few weeks ago, CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois commented that education could be funded with the revenues from Plan Nord. This was, understandably, rejected by most anarchists, and some of us were quick to dismiss CLASSE activists as lacking a good analysis of the situation, even those far from the leadership positions. Today’s events may lead us to change our minds, but we shouldn’t do so too quickly. This is, for many people, a fight against the government of Jean Charest and the plan to exploit the resources of the North to reinvigorate a neoliberal capitalist economy, but it is perhaps a fight for a different government that would use those same resources to save the Québécois welfare state and prolong the existence of capitalism that way. The fact that people are using tactics typically associated with us troublemaking anarchists doesn’t mean that they are adopting our essential ideas; it does mean, however, that we (whether us in Montréal, or us everywhere) have been influential.
On the side of tactics, there are a lot of ideas that still need to be spread. Generally speaking, people need to understand that they need to be prepared to do certain things, whether that means wearing a mask while vandalizing a police car or making sure to only throw shit from the front so it doesn’t hurt bystanders or comrades. At many points today in particular, shields would have been useful, and this is a shame because shields have been making a regular appearance at demos throughout the strike. It also needs to become better understood that, when bystanders in business suits who fancy themselves heroes attack demonstrators, it is perfectly appropriate that people should do what is necessary to make them let go of their target. The notion that we don’t always have to run from police is also something that needs to spread, but it could certainly be helped if people started to carry things heavier than bamboo rods and plywood. Anarchists often count among the more experienced street fighters in a given population, for obvious reasons, but the question is how can we socialize this information and see these tactics taken up by everyone?
We also need to figure out a way to create a strategy in the midst of hectic moments like these. This battle lasted long enough, and it included enough people, that it would have made sense to call for a spokescouncil and take a little bit of time to hash out some ideas. At no point was the intersection of rues de la Gauchetière and Saint-Alexandre, for example, threatened by the police. It was, in some ways, a gathering location for demonstrators pushed back by police offensives and needing to find friends. Given how long the fight was, it may have made sense for some people to call a meeting and determine what people could do to intelligently disrupt the conference, rather than doing their best to follow the mood and proclivities of what was still a very fickle crowd. This would have been the sensible place, for example, to determine that we should lure the riot cops out from their hiding place once again and then have a large crowd burst out from the carpark and break through the windows of the Palais. Or we could have assessed if there were supplies that we needed from elsewhere, if we thought that we could hold our ground long enough for those supplies to be obtained, and whatever else. For example, after a few hours of fighting, it was clear that many people were hungry and dehydrated, and so this kind of spokescouncil would have been the place to actually see to it that these needs could be addressed. Looking back on it, we had all the time in the world – we evidently had all of the SPVM’s available riot cops tied up, and it was hours before they were able to call in the Sûreté du Québec to back them up – and a spokescouncil, which is basically another way to say a general assembly, could have been more useful than any single other one of the general assemblies that have taken place in the course of the strike thus far.
When it comes to ideas, the most important thing for us to remember is that what people do, what people desire, and what people think are often very contradictory. If an insurrection ever happens in this city, it will not include only people who think more or less like us, but also the people who comprise the vast majority of society, i.e. people who are in many different ways fucked up or misguided. Many of the people who were throwing rocks yesterday might say that what they want is an independent and social-democratic Québec, or perhaps they are hardcore Marxist-Leninists who believe in authoritarian revolution, and it’s all too likely that some think that 9/11 was an inside job. None of these discourses are desirable, but it is unrealistic to think that a genuine insurrection – the flower that, if well-tended and kept safe from the pestilence of the state, our seed of an anti-capitalist movement will turn into – will ever happen in this city without the participation of people who harbour the previously discussed ideas.
Insurrections can be good or bad. As but one example, when the insurrection against Muammar Gaddafi led to pogroms against sub-Saharan African (i.e. black) people in Libya with a large participation, that was very bad. It was bad in a different way that the revolutions in North Africa could be cast as revolutions for the implementation of democracy. To make sure that the flower that blooms here is a good one, it is key that we continue to spread anarchist ideas and not let them be silenced. As much as it seems that we already produce a lot of propaganda, we need to step it up. This is more important than pretending for half a moment that we can shut down all the boring, distracting, and strategically/historically bankrupt discourses that pollute the anti-capitalist movement at this time. We should be confident that our ideas – which emphasize the importance of freedom, of standing up to oppression and fighting back, and maybe even a chance at adventure and happiness in an increasingly miserable world – are more seductive than those we are sometimes going to rub shoulders with on the streets and elsewhere.
(Of course, there are some ideas for us to try and silence. Fascists, many of whom call themselves anti-capitalist these days and have taken up some of the causes of which we are fond, are trying to become a part of this movement too. We should fuck them up at every opportunity.)
There’s no point in trying to be conclusive, because this ain’t over, not even hardly. It should be noted that, closer to 4:00 pm, people started marching towards parc Jeanne-Mance on the eastern slope of the mountain. A day like that deserves a few victory joints to top it off, after all.
– one more anarchist, April 21, 2012