Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elsewhere in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.
Montreal, QC–It is probably to be expected, if one can “expect” anything in relation to novel social movements, that after some two and a half months of gathering at the same spot, at the same time nightly to take the streets without permission, thanks to and precisely in contestation of Quebec’s special law 78 criminalizing a variety of dissent, these nocturnal strolls would slow down. While the actual pace hasn’t mellowed much, the number of participants has certainly diminished. But even if there are just barely over the “magic” illegal number of forty-nine people on hand, and when there are even fewer, these marches go on, like clockwork. That fact alone makes them rather remarkable. There’s this notion that even if a lot of students are resting up after nearly five months of strike for the flash point of striking schools “starting” or likely not in August, and even if many other folks need breaks from night-after-night marches, the illegal demos are seen as a must — until victory. Still, of late it can be a dispiriting and often-annoying experience, given how few show up, and often who those few are.
So I’d (almost) forgotten how revolutionarily romantic it is to walk for five hours non-stop through a summertime Montreal evening with hundreds or thousands of fellow disobedients. Because as I realized last weekend, there’s nothing like a special occasion — consecutive illegal night 75 — to encourage the rebellious spirit & a big, festive, feisty evening demo, complete with enormous red flags (and lots of little ones too).
Some of the highlights of this particular night were careening through the last evening of the crowded, corporate-sponsored outdoor Jazz Festival, with us as clearly the larger spectacle that caused people to actually listen, whether with lots of thumbs up or more than the usual number of thumbs down; watching the cops “protect” people coming off a bridge from seeing fireworks, so we wouldn’t walk on the bridge; and coincidentally (?) meandering past UQAM’s college complex just as a circus-dance troupe dressed in red performed on four levels of a main building, including spinning red umbrellas from the rooftop and creating giant red squares out of red lights in windows on two floors.
But why these big, hours-long outlaw outings feel so particularly romantic is, as night 75 reminded me, the connection(s) we end up feeling toward each other and our temporary autonomous community. It’s like a great big special evening out, a great big wink between us all — reclaiming not just the streets but also that old spark, or a notion of what’s special among and about us, “the people,” as CLASSE’s manifesto brilliantly reminds us (printed in Le Devoir on July 12, as strategic brilliance and counter-move in the chess game of the government hinting strongly at setting elections for August in an effort to distract from and destroy the student strike and social crisis):
“For we, students, are also renters and employees; we are international students, pushed aside by discriminating public services. We come from many backgrounds, and, until the colour of our skin goes as unnoticed as our eye colour, we will keep on facing everyday racism, contempt and ignorance. We are women, and if we are feminists it is because we face daily sexism and roadblocks set for us by the patriarchal system; we constantly fight deep-rooted prejudice. We are gay, straight, bisexual, and proud to be. We have never been a separate level of society. Our strike is not directed against the people.
We are the people.”
(For the English translation, see http://www.stopthehike.ca/2012/07/share-our-future-the-classe-manifesto/#more-1230; for a PDF of the likely much more brilliant French original, see http://www.bloquonslahausse.com/).
The law that catalyzed these illegal demos is not special at all; that’s the countermove of our special, revolutionary dates — to reveal the contrast, publicly, on the romantic streets of Montreal. Such laws are, unfortunately, increasingly ordinary, or what governments around the world are doing more and more — criminalizing everything and everyone that gets in their way, which is pretty much everything and everyone. More and more, people around the globe are not putting up with it. CLASSE’s manifesto briefly and beautifully lays out the great contest at hand: direct democracy, the commons, the people, the public good, and wholesale egalitarianism on the people’s side, and “representative” democracy, the commodity, the elites, private gain, and wholesale inequality, on their side.
As an acquaintance here in Montreal just noted, if you read nothing else from or on the student strike — and I’d add, if you read nothing else right now for a good long while — read this manifesto. And weep. It’s that poignant. It’s that revolutionarily romantic. But it’s also just the common sense that we know and feel when these consecutive nights are jammed packed with hundreds and even thousands of us, expressing a love for humanity and social goodness that seems to radiate between us. Because here in Montreal at least, so vastly different from that place called the United States a mere hour or so south, people still hold to a notion of a common good — which likely, sadly, makes a copycat of this movement near impossible.
Yes, I’d almost forgotten that feeling, which comes through so much clearer when you’re on hour two, still with hundreds and maybe thousands of people on the streets, always illegally, and an anarchist you just met offers to teach you their favorite chant in French (“no gods, no masters, no borders, no bosses…”). Or we’re all on hour three, and another person I don’t know good-naturedly makes fun of my US English accent on the French chants, thinking I’m trying to make fun of “Americans” saying those chants at solidarity demos in the United States, but then we end up talking and it turns out we were both in Quebec City in 2001 for the Carnival against Capitalism during the Summit of the Americas. Or a new Montreal friend dashes up to me with handfuls of bright-red felt squares, their safety pins shining under the street lights. We both then dash around together, handing them out to cab drivers stuck in our illegal street marches, people sitting in outdoor cafes who cheer when our demo walks by, parents out for the Jazz Fest with their kids, or groups of teenagers hanging out, just ’cause it’s Saturday night. Our red felt squares makes person after person smile, and my new friend and I laugh and smile at each other, as my hand is refilled for our two-person gift economy spree.
All the little interactions that mean nothing and yet everything, happening in multiple microscopic ways, night after night, student assembly after popular assembly, the picket lines last winter and those to come in August, here in illegal Montreal. Because as the CLASSE manifesto notes, “Direct democracy should be experienced, every moment of every day. Our own voices ought to be heard in assemblies in schools, at work, in our neighbourhoods. . . . Our democracy banishes cynicism, instead of fuelling it. As we have shown many times over, our democracy brings people together. Each time we take to the streets and set up picket lines, it is this kind of democracy that at last breathes free.”
Earlier in the day (of night 75) at a directly democratic consulta, some striking students were worried about whether there was enough support to hold the line come mid-August when school is supposed to begin, which given special law 78 in particular, means students need a whole lot more tangible solidarity against the government/police trying to crush Maple Spring. That same night 75, it seemed to me that when there’s the need to rally, to get lots and lots of people out and activated, there’s a popular social movement ready to strike. The same was true three nights later, night 78 contra law 78, when again people came out to the streets in relatively large numbers, especially for a Tuesday evening, for yet another special night. And that same day, two Facebook event invites showed up in my messages: one for July 22, the monthly “grand demonstration” day, which has gathered hundreds of thousands on other twenty-seconds the past several months; and the other for August 1, illegal consecutive-night-demonstration 100.
In previous blog posts, I’ve talked about revolutionary time, when in rebellions past, radicals have shot out the clocks in the public towers so as to make their own time, or victorious revolutionaries started their own calendars, for the new times ahead. Or how time within social movements like Occupy and Maple Spring feels luxuriously ours, foreshadowing what it would feel like to have all time clocks, alarm clocks, or the constant smartphone clocks banished as our measures of us as “productive” members of society.
Night 75, night 78, July 22, and soon night 100 all point toward another time — the kind of time I experience on these evening strolls with hundreds and often thousands of others: revolutionary dates. Those times that Maple Spring movement has and does set aside, intentionally, as special nights to be together, voluntarily and with delight, even if the evening falls flat or is downright hard. Because sometimes that means facing off with riot cops and awful new laws and heartless governments and administrators, and not necessarily to people’s advantage in terms of personal safety and longer-term ramifications. For instance, the upcoming dates of August 13 to 17 are also intentionally being set aside, since thirteen of the key striking schools are supposed to go back to class during those five days, and pretty much everyone agrees that it’s going to be tense and intense — and difficult — and most or all of the striking schools will resist. At other times it means savoring the joy of our social power alongside the pleasure of simply, intentionally being together on a perfect summer evening — with the police playing pitiful chaperone.
I realized on night 75 and again on night 78 how many of these revolutionary dates there have been, and there are in the near future, and how people seem to only want to create more and more of them. At the Popular Assembly of the Mile-End Quarter, for instance, folks eagerly agreed this evening — at what someone pointed out was a slow first few dates, but that was OK, because it was important to get to know each other — that we will now always hold the assembly on Thursday nights and always hold the new casserole + orchestra, or “orchestrole,” on Wednesday evenings, which at the second one last night, offered not only the romance of “a little night music” but also a red-hued sunset behind our red-square-tinged gathering.
There’s something of a sensual pleasure in not only deciding for ourselves — a la direct democracy, like as the sun set this evening, but this time over the triangular neighborhood park during the Mile-End popular assembly, just as we were all marveling at the pleasure of this new form of gathering, discussing, and deciding. There is also pleasure in deciding for ourselves to make dates together where we both commit to each other and this movement, at least for the time being — which so far, has been a long time in this longest-running student strike in North American history; where you can always count on someone being there for you, with you, in innumerable special ways, even and sometimes especially because the dates can turn ugly (like on night 78, when the police kept insisting on crashing our date and then arrested about a half-dozen); and where people share intimacy with many, many people and a collectivity too over the course of one date.
Looming ahead, as I mentioned above, are some dates that this student strike is setting aside — that concentrated period when a baker’s dozen of striking schools are by law supposed to open — for their participatory student organizations and striking students to make their own tough choices. They will intentionally, autonomously figure out what they want to do — consensually. Do I stick by these people I’ve been going out with for many months now? Are we getting serious? If I decide to stay in this relationship, will my family — teachers, support staff, workers of all types, the popular assemblies, the wider populace — support me in a social strike?
But CLASSE’s manifesto offers the real love letter:
“For months now, all over Quebec, the streets have vibrated to the rhythm of hundreds of thousands of marching feet. What started out as a movement underground, still stiff with the winter consensus, gathered new strength in the spring and flowed freely, energizing students, parents, grandparents, children, and people with and without jobs. The initial student strike grew into a people’s struggle. . . . Now, at a time when new democratic spaces are springing up all around us, we must make use of these to create a new world.”
– Cindy Milstein –