Montreal, QC–On August 10, I posted a photo on my Facebook page of a delicate red square with the caption “[the] fragility & sweetness of social struggle.” Little could I have guessed, however, just how fragile the Quebec student strike movement would prove to be only three days later. On August 13, in hugely attended general assemblies, students at three cégeps (pre-university/vocational schools, part of the legacy of free and accessible education won in the 1960s’ Quiet Revolution) voted away their own collective social power and political bargaining chip: the strike. Within hours, the students went from having the offensive and creating a crisis for the government to letting the government’s scare tactics of provincial elections/repressive law work their magic and gain the upper hand again. It’s been the same story every day this week.
Two courageous cégep general assemblies, against all the odds and intensity, held firm to the strike. After that vote, a small group of “anti-strike” students who lost used a procedural mechanism versus the good faith within the assembly structure to petition for re-votes at both those cégeps tomorrow morning: Vieux-Montreal and Saint-Laurent. The school administrations then heaped on additional pressure to not only support the re-vote but overturn the strike (word is that the admin at Vieux-Montreal has even threatened students with failing them completely if the strike goes forward).
There are moments, I’m discovering more than ever, of profound crossroads in social movements, when momentum swings in one direction or the other, and moreover, when it’s important for people to stand up in solidarity with those who feel scared or pressured to back down. How people view what’s happening at such a critical juncture matters in terms of sustaining a social movement . There are still tens of thousands — upward of a hundred thousand or more even — students still under strike votes at various schools, including the colleges and universities that start later this month and into September. There is still a huge social movement, and still many students who support the strike but voted, often out of fear, to end or supposedly delay it for a bit (by and large, the state’s psychological warfare worked). Many people (including many students) are now calling the cégeps’ votes to end the strike “a truce,” hoping that students will pick up the strike again after this short “extra” semester — added because of the strike and lost class time. But a truce implies two camps both equally making ceasefire concessions; in this case, the provincial government has bludgeoned the student strike to near death. And it’s not so easy to simply restart a widespread strike, much less a social movement.
All to say, what happens now matters a great deal in terms of this strike and social movement, not only here, but also as inspiration and hard-learned lessons for other struggles globally. It matters a great deal what those many tens and hundreds of thousands who are part of this social movement do at this point — students, teachers, staff, neighbors, workers, and so many others — after six long months of resisting in all sorts of imaginative, strong, and bold ways.
Those many students still holding collectively to the strike tactic — not just for themselves but also for notions like free education for everyone and forms of self-organization, and so intimately tied into a larger austerity struggle — need our solidarity, strength, and love right now. In particular, Vieux-Montreal students favoring the strike are asking for a large show of folks and support outside their school tomorrow morning, Friday, August 17, at 8:00 a.m. (Ontario and Sanguinet in Montreal), standing with them in whatever way they ask of us. Here’s the Facebook page for the assembly itself: http://www.facebook.com/events/142331402574320/. It’s unclear whether Saint-Laurent wants supporters there or not — out of a concern that nonstudents there might be seen as meddling in a difficult moment for the Saint-Laurent students — but there is one Facebook event asking for a demonstration at 9:00 a.m. (http://www.facebook.com/events/258521384265430/).
I’ve been in numerous conversations this week about what the votes this week mean, what happened, and what next, among so many other discussions, speculations, and critiques, but also what solidarity looks like right now. At the same time, I and thousands of others have also been experiencing tumultuous waves of emotions, ranging from denial to anger to depression — all summed up, for me, as “heartbreak.” I’ve tried writing something about all of the above and more this week, ever since Monday, but every time I start, I end up staring at my computer screen, immobilized by a heavy sorrow that won’t let words flow easily. That’s a strange feeling for me. Usually words are what help me process difficult times and hard emotions. I’m not alone; nearly ever time I run into someone engaged in this student and social movement, there’s this bleak look in their eyes. It’s been a long, long, long and hard week here in Montreal.
Yet again I’m back to what feels like “lost in translation” even trying to explain it. The power — the social power — of this movement was the greatest I and many of my friends and acquaintances here have ever experienced. You come so damned close to what might just start tipping the scales toward a better world, closer than you ever dreamed possible, and in a matter of a few hours on a Monday earlier this week, it suddenly seems as if it all vanished into thin air. So many of us walked together on that illegal night demo on Monday evening, processing ad nauseam, until I think we all managed to convince ourselves again of spit and fire and hope. That we shouldn’t give up so easily. That now, more than ever, the social side of this movement had to step up, both in terms of what it is doing organizationally and to make its solidarity clear, so those still-striking students would know they have allies. Because if they vote to remain on strike, the state and police will certainly exert renewed and likely harsher force.
Which brings me around to tomorrow morning, soon. I don’t know if this is the right decision or not. I don’t quite know the right answer about what solidarity should look like in relation to the students — who started their own movement, and in turn birthed a substantive and far-reaching social movement that is now both dependent on the students and larger then them. Those in the social movement who aren’t students are definitely feeling the weight of that position this week. Many argue that we should thank the students for all they’ve done, understand their tricky situation, and not “take sides” tomorrow when we stand outside those one or two general assemblies, and perhaps that is the right view. After all, the autonomy and self-governance of each school (and often departments within each school) has been a touchstone principle and key to the organizational strength/growth of the strike as well as movement.
Still, I keep coming back to decisive moments, those quick and fragile instances when all is won or lost. Not crisis; rather, crossroads. And I keep asking myself, “Where do I stand?” Two days ago, a friend in Europe asked me to write 120 words about why I’m an anarchist for a German newspaper that’s doing a feature on anarchism and wants several of these anarcho-blurbs as sidebars. I joked that rather than sending him what amounted to a tweet or fortune-cookie insert, maybe I should just contribute one word: “freedom.” This evening, after the first-ever stressful autonomous popular assembly meeting in my summertime neighborhood (due, in large part, to the collective stress and heartache everyone is feeling), I think that I have my own answer to where I stand — always, always, on the side of freedom, even if that isn’t exactly solidarity or the popular thing to do come 8:00 a.m.
I’ll be at Vieux-Montreal tomorrow morning, not to disrupt the general assembly or scream at students I don’t agree with, but also not to neutrally be there merely to offer a general thanks. I’ll stand by the side of those students who want to continue to stand for the strike and all it’s come to symbolize, against all the psychological and physical warfare that’s been thrown at them to get them to back down.
And when my heart is feeling a tiny bit better, soon, likely after seeing these brave students tomorrow try to do what’s right, I’ll be ready to share a lot more about this bittersweet week.
* * *
Dedicated, in solidarity and with admiration, to those students at cégeps Vieux-Montreal and Saint-Laurent who vote to hold firm to their strike during the re-vote at their general assemblies tomorrow morning.
Photos by Cindy Milstein, from the walls of Montreal, summer 2012.
Long story short, by my own calculation I owed the government well over $75,000 in unpaid taxes and penalties. Over the next decade, I attempted to co-operate with them by getting up-to-date with tax filings. I even sent them a few thousand dollars here and there when I could afford it, but the situation was far from getting resolved. Plus I kept falling behind filing my tax returns.
This put me in a category known as “habitual non-filer,” and Revenue Canada doesn’t take kindly to us folk. Eventually they were successful at getting a judgement against me and garnisheeing my wages at 50 percent of net (after tax, I was forced to send 80 percent of my income directly to Revenue Canada). By this point the debt plus penalties had climbed to over $200,000.
This was one year ago, and my financial life went into a death spiral. Although my present income is good, I was supporting my husband through school and it was simply impossible to make ends meet. Plus I had probably about $30,000 in credit card debt, the payments on which I had to default on.
I pleaded with Revenue Canada to reduce the garnishment to a manageable level. They refused.
According to a trustee I spoke to, I should go bankrupt immediately. The hitch was, I would need to get completely up to date with my tax filings to do so. Since I could not afford to hire somebody to do this, I spent a good chunk of last summer filing 5 years’ worth of tax returns on my own behalf in a kind of desperate race to stop the garnishment and restore my paycheque.
Obviously I was never any good at filing tax returns. Especially the complicated self-employed ones. This was how I got into trouble in the first place! So it was not easy to face this challenge, but somehow I managed to do it. In that process, I discovered a lot about myself, which probably sounds strange, but it’s true.
For years I had been living beyond my means. Not in extravagant ways, but in small and persistent ways over years and years. Being self-employed meant I would go through periods of unemployment. But instead of seeking to broaden my opportunities for work, I lived off the money I should have paid in taxes. And when that ran out, credit cards. I don’t see this as particularly immoral, but it is definitely boneheaded. And this easy availability of cash through those years made it easy to sweep the problem under the rug while continuing to exacerbate it. “Those are nice shoes, why don’t I just buy them,” et cetera.
All of which finally led me finally to the collapse of last year. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Revenue Canada did me a favour driving me into bankruptcy. I never would have done it on my own. I think I felt it was somehow shameful or way too extreme. I certainly couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live without credit, and hadn’t wanted to find out.
But now that I’m bankrupt I see only good things. Not only am I finally up to date on tax filings, I will neverfall behind again—nor will I allow myself to go into unmanageable debt ever again. It’s just too traumatic an experience. Plus, upon discharge, I will be free of debt! Eventually I will want credit again, but me and credit need some time off for now.
Today I am exactly one year into a bankruptcy period that is set for discharge next March or so. Under the terms, I will have paid by that time a portion of my income back to creditors amounting to about 20% of what was owed. This period has imposed on me considerable austerity requirements, but it is a far cry from the financial chaos I had brought on myself before. Most importantly, the austerity has taught me how to live within, or even below, my means, which has been the most valuable lesson of all.
I know the above makes me sound like some kind of neo-liberal drinker of austerity Kool-Aid, but I do think a little austerity can be a good thing—it has certainly taught me a lot. The tragedy in the Eurozone periphery is that the austerity is ideological, draconian and feeds into feelings of hopelessness because there is no end in sight.
For me, there is an end in sight—next March! I look forward to what I know will be a much better played second act.
Montral, QC–Despite a weather forecast calling for rain all day, the drops held off until just as the last section of the Mile-End neighborhood’s Dans la rue pour la grève sociale / In the street for social strike was being cleaned up and taken away. The folding tables from a nearby collective house/space were being wheeled away on a handcart along with the Outremont Popular Autonomous Assembly’s banner, which our next-door neighborhood friends had accidentally left behind. The disassembled pieces from the outdoor station for silk screening (sérigraphies) were on their way home too, and someone had probably already recycled the sign for it, as part of meticulously collecting any garbage in the trash bags we’d brought along. It was about 4:00 p.m.
At 9:30 a.m. earlier on this same Friday, August 10, a bunch of us from the Assemblée populaire autonome de Quartier (APAQ) met at “our” pocket park (private property, as a sign on the building next to it notes) at the intersection of Waverly and the main Mile-End commercial drag, St-Viateur. It’s where our orchestrole convenes every Wednesday — every Wednesday as of five weeks ago, that is — and where the casserole met before that earlier in the summer. The people living in the apartments above this “park” are clearly sympathetic to the Quebec student strike, since there are large red squares and anti-law-78 banners hanging from several balconies plus some cookware, in homage to the casseroles, dangling from a string. The French-language bookstore on the ground level, inside the building on the other side of a powerful political mural that abuts the park outside, is sympathetic too; someone mentioned that this small business is struggling to survive, as Mile-End gentrifies and moves increasingly toward English-language speakers.
When we decided about three weeks ago to do this street takeover, inspired by a “call” from the St-Henri APAQ for all APAQs to do some sort of festive and unpermitted “day of action” in their own neighborhoods on August 10 in solidarity with the student strike as it nears the crucial August 13 onward “forced reentry” couple of weeks, numerous good ideas and much enthusiasm filled our weekly three-hour mobilization working group meetings and additional three hours of weekly assembly, not to mention discussions on the street corner after the weekly orchestrole and the daily barrage of emails. We had a growing list of things we wanted to offer for free (teach-ins, music, food, hands-on art, performance, literature, and more), things we thought were crucial as infrastructure (bilingual posters, flyers, and other promotion and thus translation work, press release and getting CUTV to livestream, safety logistics and supplies, water, electricity, tables, chairs, and a laundry list of other materials), and things we had to discuss as dilemmas (whether and when to inform the businesses on the street, say, and what to do when the city bus wanted to come through our “social strike” area). We figured all the other APAQs would follow suit, and that we had plenty of time and people for all the details. But only two other neighborhoods signed on, both doing something later in the day. And thus we also agreed at the last minute to coordinate and host an all-APAQ press conference in addition to our block appropriation — during it — so that the assemblies could all voice their support for the student strikers even if they weren’t doing anything on August 10.
As of about a week ago, many of our ideas still seemed just that: concepts, filling up an ever-expanding bilingual Google Doc and filling out a bilingual Facebook events announcement, of what we aspired to do, publicly and illegally:
“On August 10th, the Mile End Popular Assembly (APAQ Mile End) is blocking a street in order to raise awareness about the strike, the effects of neoliberalism in Quebec, and the importance of collective action. A block party with food, music, art, workshops/teach-ins, performances, screen printing, and lots and lots of talking — all in the form of a mobilization around a social strike — disrupting society’s business as usual by taking over the street for an afternoon to start the mobilization toward real autonomous change! Come fill the street with us, and add your voice and your body to the movement!”
Yet when push came to shove, it all congealed, thanks to a remarkable — as in noteworthy but also extraordinary — feature of the Mile-End APAQ. All of its regulars in this approximately two-month-old directly democratic body and even many of the occasional participants are go-getters, full of energy and imagination and follow-through. Folks are self-motivated, and possess great ingenuity in making something from nothing. Everyone pitched in wholeheartedly, concentrating on what they were particularly passionate about doing, but also willingly pitching in when others needed assistance. It became a nonstop whirlwind of activity, but something that clearly all of us were loving. At somewhere between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. on the early, early morning of August 10, for instance, several of us were busily “liking” each other’s Facebook posts promoting our Dans la rue pour la grève sociale, and just as glad to see each other in person a few hours later.
The one thing we didn’t plan for, because none of us wanted to admit it was possible, was rain. At 7:00 a.m. when I heard a torrential downpour outside my window, I pulled the covers over my head to dampen the noise and tried to sleep.
Back to 9:30 a.m. at our park. I and other Mile-End APAQs trotted a line of orange chairs over from one of our assembly folk’s nearby homes; others had brought the chairs two blocks from the collective house/space the day before, to store in her backyard, taking care not to crush her plants. The plastic seats were wet from the rain earlier, and someone joked when we had them all stacked up in our pocket park that it looked like we were going to put on a Québec solidaire (QS) event, since orange is the color of this social democratic and sovereigntist political party, an underdog in the current provincial elections.
We scurried to grab additional red, the color of the Quebec student strike, as a counterbalance, such as balloons and fabric, even though many folks in the APAQ favor QS in the elections over Jean Charest’s neoliberal Parti libéral du Québec and the xenophobic sovereigntists of Parti Québécois. And even though a good chunk of the APAQers are Left-leaning or anarchist, it seems most are planning to vote, especially given the weight of this election in relation to the student strike. If nothing else, there’s the strong feeling that Charest has to go, symbolically, after all the outrage directed toward him by the movement (“fuck Charest” is always popular as chant and graffiti). Already there’s speculation about what will happen if he does get reelected on September 4 — riots that night? — or doesn’t — huge street parties? This isn’t just among my friends or people I know. Everyone seems to be talking politics since the elections were announced. At a farmers’ market today, for example, I was buying tomatoes, and the guy working the stand said something about my carre rouge (“red square”). I thought he was comparing the red of felt safety pinned to my shirt to the red of the tomatoes, but when I explained that I didn’t understand French well, he said in English this time, “I was thanking you for wearing the red square and supporting the strike. Me,” he continued, “I’m too scared to be around police so I stay in the background.” He looked to be traditional college age, but told me that he wasn’t in school, so anyway, it wasn’t really his issue, and besides, he really wanted Charest’s party to win again and was going to celebrate in the streets when that happened.
Our preparations for the street takeover continued. A couch appeared, with pillows labeled appropriately for our event, and tubs of vegan wraps and cake, along with red cardboard to mark our teach-in classroom space on the city street and a whiteboard to list the course schedule on, a bunch of red-felt squares and literature to give away, the folding tables, and so much more. Suddenly a couple dozen of us were scrambling to get everything set up in the park and on the sidewalk, hovering in wait for when we were going to pull it all into the street and grab one block of roadway between Waverly and St-Urbain, another corner often used as public space since the private church there has big steps to loiter on. We hung banners from various APAQs off the front of the church, as backdrop for the press conference, and set up a portable sound system there too.
Because of the looming gray clouds, it was clear that a tarp needed to be hung over what was going to be the on-site silk-screening station, so one APAQ person raced up into the apartment building next to our park, knocked on the door of the second-floor apartment, and told the person who answered that she needed to cut through to their balcony. Whether because they were still just waking up or too surprised to object, this stranger instantly let her walk through their home, and she and several other folks rigged up a tarp with ropes off the balcony. Electricity was run from the bookstore, even though apparently our new second-floor apartment comrades offered up their electricity too. Water was brought in as well; clotheslines for drying prints were hung; and sérigraphy screens and materials, such as ink and big sheets of paper and cardboard to print on, were all put into place.
Our plan to take and hold the street was this first step of meeting at 9:30 a.m. to pile a good percentage of our materials for that day in this private-property park, right on the edge of the city street. We also wanted to take over parking spot after parking spot as cars left when their meters ran out, before our 12:00 noon start, so that we would really have the whole of street. Someone at an earlier assembly had also said that if worse came to worse, and the cops kicked us off the street proper, we legally could occupy the parking spots — that is, if we fed the meters. That was Plan B. Plan A was the whole street. So each time we saw a car pull away, we ran over with orange chairs, threaded string between them, and taped a hand-written sign reading “occupé” on the string. We managed to clear most of the spots, as someone else went to each business to inform them that we’d be using the street for three hours (the plan we settled on after much discussion about when or whether to tell businesses). Most were fine with it, or already knew, since we’d heavily wheatpasted/taped up posters around the neighborhood earlier in the week; one grumbled, “Do I have a choice?” Unfortunately, that grumbler was from one of the cornerstone businesses of Mile-End, Café Olimpico, right across from our staging area, and a favorite for Italian coffee and schmoozing outside on a patio. I noticed that a big SUV had pushed aside some of our chairs, and it turned out to be related to this cafe. Someone managed to talk them into moving, but as noon neared, the cafe owner-grouch brazenly pulled another SUV (this time a BMW) into the spot right next to our park, removing our orange chairs again, with a flourish of attitude. I’m not sure how someone else got him to move his SUV, but he did it slowly, and was yelling about hitting us with his car (and, I seem to recall, how crazy we were) as he careened away. He was yelling a lot, and for a while. Fortunately, he was our one problem of the day. And so our orange chairs ultimately managed to save all the parking spots for us, so we could then move them once we’d secured the whole area — or rather, let them be what they were: chairs for sitting on in our reclaimed street.
Other neighbors, passersby, and delivery people were chill during the lead up to our social strike. Most were just curious, asking what was happening, and many said they were excited to return later, which many did. One woman came up to me with a pot and spoon in her hand at about 11:30 a.m. “When it is going to start? I’m so glad to see you people back. Everything quieted down so much, but we can’t let the students down,” she remarked, even though she then had to wait a half hour or so to join the orchestrole/casserole that kicked off our street takeover. We obligingly moved several orange chairs at one point to make way for a big truck to do deliveries, and delayed our bloc(k) party by five minutes, so they could finish their drop-off. Meanwhile, the lead person on our safety team unveiled reflective yellow suspenders for volunteers to wear as they took turns, later, staffing the two ends of the street, both to welcome folks and ensure we kept the block to ourselves. Originally, we’d planned on running red rope fully across both ends of the street to block it off, and then hang big red squares, literature, and posters from it as further barricade and educational component, but some APAQers had concerns about the ability to quickly get an emergency vehicle such as an ambulance in, so we settled on utilizing bright-orange chairs and bright-yellow caution tape, but leaving gaps to walk through, since the chairs could easily be pushed aside. Our safety crew also put up signs on the surrounding streets, redirecting traffic — signs made on the backsides of Charest’s political posters, which somehow had been torn down by someone and somehow had then found their way into the garbage, and so could be repurposed as traffic signs.
At noon, everything stood ready — ready to be dashed into the street once we’d made it ours. But there clearly weren’t enough people. A few of us tried to rally everyone to one spot, so we’d at least have a solid crew, and some coordination. We realized, suddenly, that we didn’t have a plan for this moment. We decided, quickly, to wait for the delivery truck to leave and also wait a few minutes until we had more of a critical mass (which did indeed happen, filled in by folks who’d come to teach the workshops, sing songs, do performance-art dance, set up a knitting and see-through “make-your-own” red square art area, play their instruments or bang their cookware, be part of press conference and lend solidarity from other APAQs, hand out literature, and offer up food, and just a whole lot of neighbors of all types). Those of us getting it going thought that the orchestrole was going to start playing on the St-Viateur and Waverly side, but saw they’d begun at the other end for some reason, and that the orange chairs and caution tape popped out to block the street there. So several of us ran to the other end, and more orange chairs popped out, followed by a table covered in red cloth, then other tables, and then the classroom signs taped on the ground. Viola! In the street for social strike!
A few police cars had appeared at noon sharp, but had stayed in the background. They then parked on either end of the street — but only after we’d already closed it off completely. A cop asked one of our APAQ crew, “What is this?” And when he told her that it was “a social strike,” she asked, “What’s a social strike?” He explained, and she responded with something like “oh, that sounds cool,” and mentioned that the police had asked the twice-hourly bus to reroute from the street until we were ready for it to resume again, and then the police left us alone. Our plan for the bus was to escort it down our street, opening and closing our orange-chair barricade, but we originally thought it only came once an hour, and were worried when we discovered that morning that it came through twice an hour. One APAQ person later said that they were glad the police took care of the one thing that would have made a mess of our day: get the buses to steer clear of us. Whether related or not, one of the first chalkings on our street was this (almost-done) piece:
Then, with a whole block of city street as ours, we turned the pavement into a temporary social strike for three hours. Or rather, I should say not “we” but all those who meandered into this autonomous zone of redesigned civic space. I’ve just spent a lot of time — well, my words, and your time — portraying how we grabbed this space. I often think we forget to document our own histories of how we remake the world, even in little ways, or maybe especially in all these micro-experimental ways (a picket line at one school; professors coming to stand by their striking stands at another; parents forming a baby bloc at a demo; and on and on for these many months until there’s a full-fledged social movement). But I also lingered on the preparation because it illustrates that fine, magical line between what seems a given — that parking spots are for cars — and what is possible — that an official-looking orange chair can reclaim space for something far more enlivening.
It’s not always possible, of course. It helped that we only had one irate business owner bothering us, although his threats of hitting us with his car were somewhat triggering, since a bunch of us had been next to or directly part of the hit-and-run during a casserole a couple weeks ago (for my report of it, see http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/popular-power-fuck-the-elections-montreal-night-101/), along with several likely bored and near-invisible cops. It also helped that it was taking place in Mile-End, an increasingly upscaling space that’s also been home for a while to artists and musicians, radicals and progressives, queers, intellectuals, bohemians, and other hip and increasingly hipster types, many of whom have flexible and/or comfortable livelihoods, such as freelancers or professors. Then too, it helped even more that this whole thing was taking place in the context of a long-lasting and relatively popular social movement, at a time when everyone knows that this movement is heading into the August drama of provincial elections and multiple striking schools being forced to decide whether to keep striking or not. Indeed, day by day of late, there’s a mind-boggling calculus of student assemblies deciding to stay on strike, to stop striking, to remain on strike if twenty thousand other students stay on strike, and so on, with Monday, August 13 looming as the onset of blockade battle zones. People are thus aware of the “why” for our street event, often are in support of the student strike, and frequently want to show solidarity in various ways, and I think, right now, are in extra need of sociality, community, and enjoyment before the intensity of next week. And alongside this context, which is key to making other things possible, it helped that our APAQ has been determined to do tangible things for the striking students as well as the neighborhood in particular and society in general, even when we disagree with each other (we don’t use consensus, nor really ever vote, but rely on dialogue, the autonomy of working groups, and trust, built largely because APAQers really take the time to listen to and understand each other, truly taking concerns in account).
Possibility, however, is always there in different ways; it’s more a matter of recognizing those “it helps” parts that are specific to different experiential undertakings of resistance and reconstruction. Because as I highlighted in my previous blog piece, “Social Goodness & Austerity,” the Quebec student strike has cleverly blended the “against” and “for” into nearly every moment, breaking down an easy binary. So part of the reason I wanted to lay out some of the preparation time of our day was to show how we were trying to deal with bringing something festive to life that was, at once, illegal and potentially confrontational, even as it probably reveals the almost-mundane quality of just bringing people, ideas, and stuff into a space and doing something different, something that’s not the usual — for (a) change.
My second reason for focusing on the time before our social strike was to somewhat demystify the idea of a social strike, which is at once so powerful as a concept unto itself, so ubiquitous here in Montreal as a notion of the “what’s next?” and so simple in terms of what it might be — sort of. I’ve sat through many a consulta, assembly, or informal discussion about what the hell a social strike is, or engaged in conversations about it on the streets while in all the many types of illegal demos, and there’s both an incredible lack of agreement or clarity on its definition, on the one hand, and an incredible abundance of agreement that it should happen. In my Mile-End APAQ, for example, it’s been tossed around from the beginning with little contestation or even much dialogue about it, and when the notion of our “In the street for social strike” came up, everyone almost instantly thought it was a good idea.
When I say that a social strike is simple, I mean that it gets at the simple but hard fact of the contemporary social reality that capitalism shapes everyone’s lives, not just the worker’s life, or even the person or people who sans wages help to reproduce the worker. And conversely, the “simple” way to strike is by collectively not doing what you’re supposed to — business as usual — but throwing a wrench into the everyday of all of what we do, work, school, leisure, street life, urban space, and anything and everything else. Even if definitions disagree here in Montreal, people seem to concur that it isn’t just about disruption, though that’s essential, but what you do during that time of disruption to create something different. I haven’t heard it expressed this way, but it could be said that the idea is for people to “strike” in various ways, and while striking, give new meaning to “social” through the doing of it in new ways.
Remaking society for three hours is obviously a far cry from a long-running social strike that would, in turn, transform society such that we never have to go back to a hierarchical business as usual, but can continually play with better versions of communities from below. Still, there’s a way in which the concept of “social strike” opens up possibility, in the same way that a “general strike” has kind of a grinding-to-a-halt industrial feel about it, making it seem far less possible or, in my view, even desirable comparatively. The few times I’ve heard talk of a general strike here, it’s been to hold up the social strike as better and also more doable. That is, the general strike would involve trade unions, and by and large, those aren’t the most bold, daring, and dynamic sectors; most haven’t even been all that forthcoming in terms of solidarity with the student strike, unlike the newborn APAQs, say. There’s also a mafia here — a real, working one. The beauty of the social strike is that it can really happen anywhere — anywhere that there’s a collectivity of people who want to stop the routine and jump-start some potential.
Again, I don’t want to minimize the difficulty, typically, of shutting down a street even for three hours to do what you want in it with a bunch of other people, or way beyond that, moving toward what people call here, often, the “infinite” or “unlimited” social strike, with the added play on the French word for strike (grève) as holding within it also the word dream (rêve). That in itself captures the distinct beauty of a social strike over a general one: that there’s a dream inside the making and doing of it.
So what did we make and do for our three limited yet infinite hours of dreaming together in the newly liberated space of our one block? We socialized it. Communized it. Made it anarchistic. All in the lowercase senses. That is, between the cheerful orange chairs and happy red balloons could be found an egalitarian and generous spirit, valuing everyone for what they brought into it, from each according to their abilities and passions, to each according needs and desires, all self-organized and self-managed with intention and spontaneity, without compulsion, for a delight that can only be found when we manifest it ourselves, even if it took a lot of work (and even if, as one of my co-organizing APAQ folks mentioned today when I ran into her, she went to bed at 9:00 p.m. last night after it and woke up at 2:00 p.m. today, still exhausted — and still pleased, and also wearing the T-shirt that she’d gotten silk screened during our time in the streets).
Tangibly, what we did was nothing particularly special or even unique, and involved many of the activities that are merely the stuff of regular life: eating, talking, creating art, listening to music, educating and learning, relaxing, reading, making friends, setting up and cleaning up. Even the way that we did it was nothing special or unique in the countercultural circles I’m used to: everything followed a do-it-ourselves sensibility, as it does in collective projects on the antiauthoritarian Left. So I kept wandering up and down the street, focusing on keeping the twelve teach-ins on track and taking photos, among other organizational odds and ends, and thinking, “It’s going well, but so what?”
Then one of my friends who I’d asked to do a teach-in came up to me, after his workshop had ended. He’s an anarchist too, and I figured from the look on his face that he also thought it was a sweet day, but nothing special; we’re used to participatory endeavors and unpermitted undertakings. Then he launched into an enthusiastic depiction of his teach-in, underscoring how distinctly different it felt to be engaged in free and popular education, literally in the streets, centered on issues directly related to this social movement, and offering a vision of what education might be like if the social movement has some success. A few minutes later, someone else found me to offer thanks for my friend’s teach-in, since they knew I’d asked him to do it, saying how smart he was, how he could and should be a teacher, how much they learned, and how different — in a good way — it felt to be sharing in learning with others. “We need to bring him back again,” they exclaimed, “for a lot longer conversation, for us and others.”
I refocused my own lens on how I was seeing these few hours, and started really looking at what was going on. Groups of people sat circled close together on the grungy concrete, conversely intently and eagerly on topics like “Understanding and Fighting Austerity and Crisis in Montreal,” “Solidarity across Borders,” “Why the Student Strike Matters: Tuition, Debt, and Neoliberalism,” “Bodies/Protest/Public Space,” and “Four Points about Neoliberalism and Its Impact on the Common Good.” Many of the “teachers” had moved their “classrooms” to more personally agreeable spots on the streets by simply picking up their red-square sign and taping it down elsewhere, and took initiate to gather a group of “students.” A lawyer who’s also part of our APAQ was going to do a teach-in on special law 78, but only a few people came to sit by her red-square classroom sign. One of them was a military person who had served a tour of duty, and on their return home, had received a couple citations under law 78, so her teach-in ended up doing a close reading of this real-live case; the military person had never heard of the law nor knew much about the student strike before. The person leading the “Making Our Movement Green and Red” teach-in had brought his own butcher-block paper, markers, and an easel, but ended up using the giant chalk we’d contributed for the day to create a participatory mapping of his topic on the street itself.
The Alternative University Project and CUTV (live broadcasters for the Quebec Spring) were on hand to lead teach-ins, but seemed to end up more informally sharing ideas or, perhaps better yet, showing by doing. CUTV, for instance, taped the press conference, where various folks from different APAQs met each other for the first time, and chatted about future ways to collaborate and lend solidarity to each other, even as they explained the genesis of the APAQs, how they were demonstrating wider social support for this movement, and why they would stand behind the striking students. Displaying solidarity too, Anarchopanda had kindly agreed to show up for the first fifteen minutes or so to draw crowds and ward off police, and thus help us hold down the street, but the person inside the animal suit must have been enjoying himself. He joined in the teach-ins, socialized, and stayed for nearly the whole time — fulfilling his light-hearted comment to me on Facebook (when I asked him to offer a philosophy course, his specialty) that he was coming to learn from others.
An area filled with red yarn, red fabric, red-berry muffins, and red translucent “paper” — courtesy of Le Milieu, which concentrates on dialogue, popular learning, and empowerment while supporting creative processes — became a hands-on learning lab as people shared knitting skills, a center of solidarity as people jotted down their thoughts for the students and movement on the see-through red squares, and a subversion of our decision not to put rope across the street for safety reasons — proving that the best-laid DIY plans will thankfully be rethought by others who have a better idea. That’s how red squares filled with words came to dance merrily on the breeze above people’s heads, as nearby participants munched gladly on the the vegan wraps and vegan cake that the Midnight Kitchen –a volunteer collective striving to provide working alternative to current market-based systems of food collection and distribution — had made in quantity the day before along with folks from our assembly and others as part of a big cooking day for us but also a bunch of other educational events and actions over the weekend.
Montreal, QC–Late this afternoon — after slogging near brain-dead through the thick humidity all day — I almost decided not to schlep the five kilometers eastward for the Pique-Nique Rouge (“Red Picnic”) hosted by the Assemblée Populaire Autonome de Quartier (APAQ) de Rosemont-Petite-Patrie. What was supposed to be a short walk to grab a short-hop BIXI (public transit bikes) yielded only empty station after empty station, meaning a long walk in the blazing sun, drenching me in sweat. Fortunately, a flash of blazing red on a third-floor balcony distracted me: a red square, with the picturesque coincidence of sliced red tomatoes baking themselves underneath. I had to snap a photo, and then of course, I glimpsed another red square a half-block away, so onward I trudged, almost forgetting I was barely able to breath for the heaviness in the air — an added bonus of my obsession/passion for “Seeing Red” (http://seeingredmontreal.tumblr.com/). A bunch more photos later and at last a BIXI got me to Parc Molson.
I walked into the lush green of the park, and found several hundred people wearing red squares lounging in chatty small groups on the grass, a bandstand covered in red-fabric squares and red-highlighted signs explaining such things as “What is an APAQ?” and “social strike,” several big red APAQ and anticapitalist banners strung between trees plus various red artwork, kids running around with little red squares painted on their faces, bunches of red balloons hanging everywhere, and red-and-white checked clothes covering picnic tables filled with by-donation food as well as free red literature and a bag full of free red-felt squares.
It’s hard not to get obsessed/passionate about the red square in this context, especially when only minutes after I arrived, someone announced that the pan-APAQ assembly was about to begin, and everyone gladly formed into a huge three-quarters circle to share strategies decided on by the popular autonomous assemblies of various Montreal neighborhoods about blocking the reentry to schools starting in a little over a week. That is a longer story, and one that I’ll hopefully write up tomorrow, when it cools down a bit and I can begin to think again.
For now, an anecdote about Maple Spring in the midst of a red-hot August.
As we were shifting into assembly mode, I sat down next to a longtime Montreal anticapitalist organizer who I’ve known a good while, and he mentioned a piece I’d written 40 days ago, on night 63, titled “Lost in Translation: Maple Spring”, where I talked about various ways I stumbled on to meanings about that phrase supposedly capturing this movement. His key point was: a lot of people here don’t like that term.
For one, he told me, it didn’t emerge from the Quebec student strike. It was something that social democrats attached to it later. Implicit in his explanation was that social democrats were, in essence, trying to paper over or neutralize the highly participatory and often outright directly democratic structures of the student associations and assemblies that were crucial to organizing and sustaining the strike — still true to this day — and also move away from the language of grève (“strike”).
But second and perhaps more important, was what Printemps Érable (“Maple Spring”) implied in terms of another powerful movement globally. The first French word here means “spring.” But pronunciation adds a wordplay to the second term: one way of stressing the “É” in Érable means “maple”; the other means “Arab.” So this naming was intended to couple Maple Spring with Arab Spring.
As I wrote 40 days ago, “This maple spring is bound to the Arab spring, which in turn bound itself to the Capitol building occupation in Madison, which harkened soon to ‘occupy fall’ and then back around the world again to Spain, Greece, and so many other places. It is a solidarity that doesn’t know borders; it acknowledges instead our sense of deliciously sweet interconnectedness, mutual inspiration, and the shared project — notwithstanding all the very real contextual differences that make each uprising translatable and yet not translatable — of not only desiring but self-organizing toward new forms and contents of freedom.”
That’s certainly one reading, and I know there are many people who draw that connection. But today, under the still-stifling heat, this Montreal anarchist turned to two other radicals, asking them to tell me what that marriage of Maple to Arab springtimes meant to them. They responded in French, and he translated for me, but that likely means — his good translation notwithstanding — that yet again I’ve lost a lot in the translation. And no doubt there are still other nuances and political debates I’m missing, which is part of the problem that these three people have with the Maple Spring moniker: the movement here isn’t equivalent to the Arab Spring one. I’m interpreting loosely here, but basically, such snappy brandings do an injustice to critical contextual differences of all sorts. These three folks didn’t go into detail, because the pan-assembly was called to order, but I gathered that rather than Maple/Arab Spring providing solidarity and interconnectedness, one could argue that much gets erased — deeply lost in translation — to the benefit of a North American movement and the detriment of the Middle Eastern one. Maybe it’s too harsh (or maybe not) to call it, say, a colonizing relationship, a hierarchical one, or a Westernizing project, but there’s a sense that somehow it isn’t quite as reciprocal a pairing as one might imagine at first glance.
Before I darted off to resituate myself in the English whisper-translation section of the pan-assembly (basically, ridiculously, consisting of only me and my now-regular anarchist translator comrade), I got one more tidbit something along the lines of this: that “Americans” (like me) probably just think Maple Spring sounds cute, or don’t quite get it, because most of us don’t speak or understand French. And this student strike — veering toward a social strike, or an attempt at one, if this pan-assembly is any indication — is definitely Francophone-driven, for better and worse. Because besides the language and other divides between Anglo and Francophone, there’s divides between many formerly French-colonized peoples in Montreal, such as the largest Haitian community outside Haiti, and further divisions between Anglophones/Francophones and the many Middle Eastern and Muslim people living in Montreal, not to mention many Chinese- and Spanish-speaking people and others. One of the two people sitting next to my friend added, “It probably would have been more accurate to call it the ‘Fleurdelisé Spring,’” referring to the four white fleurs-de-lis on the Quebec flag that are symbols of purity, originally represented by the Virgin Mary, but gesturing toward the various sovereigntist sentiments that have been renewed through the student strike as well.
All to say, the notion that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” doesn’t hold up even in one language, and it certainly gets even more complex and potentially more painful in two or more languages when things don’t simply translate equivalently, or because language itself is loaded with baggage. What we don’t understand about each other, from past historical wrongs of great magnitude to present-day complexities that can reinscribe such wrongs in new ways, only gets stickier for us to grapple with among ourselves the longer that our movements manage to stick around. That’s a good problem to have: breathing room within a movement for deliberative, contemplative spaces like this one — before we’re all called into action as August heats up even further soon. But often, as I’m finding, that entails being willing to revisit the stories we’ve heard and meanings we’ve assumed, again and again if necessary, and continually reevaluate our practices from there.
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Everything about night demo 100 in Montreal felt enormous.
There were the numbers of people — so many that when we were on long hilly streets, all you could see were people all the way back and people all the way forward for blocks and blocks; so many that when we reached a late-night, outdoor fashion show festival and thus a busy area, and hence the riot cops appeared to disperse us, it seemed as if every which way you looked, up and down different intersections, we still tightly crowded the streets; so many that it was impossible to guess how many, which means thousands and thousands, or ten thousand or more. This in contrast to recent night demos, where on the last one, we were lucky if we reached the “magic” number of over 49 to put us squarely in the illegality of special law 78. It felt, as one of my friends said, “Like the old days,” by which he meant the night demos of week 1, 2, or 3, way back when it was still assuredly Maple Spring, not the red-hot August 1 of last night.
There were, speaking of red, giant amounts of that too — more than usual, both in terms of mass quantity and dimensional size. It may not be clear from the red flag “100″ pictured above, but it was gigantic — many times taller than the person carrying it — and backed up by several equally gigantic plain red-square flags.
There was a huge contingent of drummers, all dressed in red, and it in turn was backed up by red-bedecked popular neighborhood assembly banners and an enormous three-dimensional fabric red square (on loan, I’m nearly certain, from the École de la Montagne Rouge [School of the Red Mountain] art collective — and the whole brilliant-red group was part of the ever-larger and also extremely red rolling wave of popular neighborhood assemblies and casseroles that started way north of downtown about two hours early and fused with each other as they met at multiple appointed intersections to then continue on together, ever larger and ever louder.
Most momentous, though, was the accidental line in the sand of this 5.5-month Quebec student strike: night 100 of the illegal manifestations and Premier Jean Charest setting the election date — September 4 — starting on August 1 too. For my non-Canadian friends, within certain parameters, elections are called by the party in power, and that can be used as a political chip in their favor if played well. Once called, candidates have five weeks to go all-out with promotion, and at the stroke of midnight as July 30 turned to August 1, I saw Québec solidaire (QS), a social-democratic and sovereigntist political party that includes candidate Amir Khadir, who got arrested this past June in a casserole while protesting special law 78, already busy putting up posters, including ones highlighting that QS stands for “free education.”
But the elections are already not playing well, at least not to the “audience” that poured unexpectedly by the thousands into the streets on this first illegal night march of August, turning the now-familiar “fuck law 78″ chant into a revised “fuck the elections.” As the majority student association CLASSE so well articulated in its manifesto, printed in the French-language paper Le Devoir the same day when rumors flew recently of Charest’s intent to call the elections, there is a grand divide right now between two worldviews — one represented by this night 100 versus day 1 of electoral campaigning:
“The way we see it, 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 neighborhoods. Our concept of democracy places the people in permanent charge of politics, and by ‘the people,’ we mean those of us at the base of the pyramid — the foundation of political legitimacy. . . . Each time we take to the streets and set up picket lines, it is this kind of democracy that at last breathes free. . . . Democracy, as viewed by the other side, is tagged as ‘representative’ — and we wonder just what it represents. While elections come and go, decisions remain unchanged, serving the same interests: those of leaders who prefer the murmurs of lobbyists to the clanging of pots and pans. Each time the people raises its voice in discontent, on comes the answer: emergency laws, with riot sticks, pepper spray, tear gas. When the elite feels threatened, no principle is sacred, not even those principles they preach: for them, democracy works only when we, the people keep our mouths shut.” (http://linchpin.ca/English/Share-Our-Future-%E2%80%93-CLASSE-Manifesto)
The first of August also signaled the calendar leap into the impending rolling wave of striking schools that are supposed to open soon — 13 of them, for instance, between August 13 and 17 — based on whether the impending rolling wave of student assemblies decide autonomously, school by striking school, whether they want to continue to keep their college closed. These highly participatory and/or outright directly democratic assemblies are an infrastructural legacy of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, as I’ve mentioned before, and a long-lived practice within many of the now-striking schools. Students may have taken a break the past few weeks — and a well-deserved one, so as to rest up — but they are ready to jump back into their assemblies, where they already know how to make strike, blockade, direct action, solidarity, mutual aid, and other decisions about aims, strategies, and tactics. And starting next week, students will begin voting in their general assemblies as to whether they should continue the strike (see the schedule here,http://www.bloquonslahausse.com/2012/08/calendrier-de-la-rentree-des-grevistes/, along with a call for a convergence in Montreal to support the students from August 13 to 17, http://bloquonslarentree.com/node/12).
But night demo 100 signaled another huge shift, potentially pivotal as well in relation to the elections: there are now numerous popular assemblies, begun over the past couple months. They weren’t there at the start of this student strike, nor at the start of the illegal night marches. Now, in many corners of the city, they meet weekly or every other week to talk about issues related to and springing out of the student strike, and many include students, parents, and teachers alongside other neighbor-allies. They also discuss steps toward a social strike (even if in small symbolic steps for now) and tangible aid for the upsurge soon in the student strike. Furthermore, the assemblies all use various forms of direct democracy. They share and borrow that from each other. For instance, the Mile-End popular assembly that I attend asked facilitators from another neighborhood assembly to come and facilitate our first couple assemblies (which they did), and we sent emissaries, supporters, and helpers to a new assembly started in the neighborhood just next door to Mile-End last week, in Outremont. We also did outreach for their first assembly during our weekly “orchestrole” (casserole plus marching band) on the Wednesday before their assembly, detouring into their neighborhood a bit to hand out flyers — ’cause lots of people come out to listen to loud music rambling down the night streets!
The assemblies could be bigger, and certainly more reflective of various population groups in Montreal — a problem not unique to the neighborhood assemblies, nor the student ones, nor those of Occupy (and on and on). As with other assembly experiments, those within them are aware of such shortcomings. And in this case, the assemblies seem to be particularly sensitive to two key things: first, they want their own autonomous identities, to grapple with the needs and issues of their parts of the city; and second, we’re all also under this pressure-cooker schedule of having to ramp up quickly in order to offer real aid to the striking schools, real soon. In Mile-End, for instance, we’ve been having 3-plus-hour assemblies once a week, along with 3-plus-hour weekly mobilization/social strike working group meetings (and other working groups, but that’s the one I’ve been going to), and our weekly evening orchestrole, a form of illegal demo, solidarity, celebration, and outreach. Oh, and they are also contending with the fact that in all likelihood, they too (like so much other dissent and organizing) are illegal in various ways under special law 78, and hence the sentiment of disobedience spelled out on the Villeray popular assembly banner:
Last Wednesday night, a week before August 1, back in Mile-End, at the end of our orchestrolling as some of us stood around in an intersection chatting, with 3 cop cars vainly trying to get us to go home, we discussed trying to get our assembly and neighbors to walk downtown as orchestrole/casserole and meet up with other neighborhood assemblies at various convergence points along the way. Several assemblies had done this several weeks ago for a night demo, and it was lovely. We figured: let’s make a Facebook events page, do outreach via email to our various contacts with other assemblies, and hopefully the “casseroles march downtown” will happen again — since that’s pretty much all it took last time. Over the next few days and into early this past week, before August 1, suddenly it seemed that multiple assemblies had had the same idea, had also made Facebook event pages and even posters, and had also started doing outreach (there is no centralized popular assembly list, even a bottom-up version!). And absurdly enough, many of us had picked many different and conflicting convergence points, with no way to pull those puzzle pieces together. Organizational enthusiasm seemed to be creating mayhem, which sort of seemed a good problem to me in this case, since it at least emphasized the enthusiasm part. At our mobilization working group on July 30, we decided what the hell, it is too confusing. Let’s just meet up at our orchestrole spot at 7:00 p.m. on August 1, since people are used to that in our neighborhood, and then do our best to find other neighborhoods. Of course, we hadn’t actually mentioned this meeting point to anyone at that point, so we went home and started trying to spread the word around Mile-End.
At 7:00 p.m. on August 1, there were 3 regulars and me, with our banner, 1 pot & spoon, and a horn. Then 4 more people showed up, than 3 more, along with dogs and kids, and so on, until at around 7:15 p.m. we had maybe 3 dozen, and off we marched — growing as we headed toward Laurier and St. Denis, where we knew some Plateau folks were convening, and then growing and growing again as neighborhood stumbled on neighborhood in this surging wave of casseroles. We, along with our fellow popular assemblies, thus became another big reason that night 100 was so enormous, numbers and energy wise. Indeed, having gone to both the full “casseroles march downtown” walk and entirety of the illegal evening demo last night, it was clear that by the time all the many neighborhood assemblies and neighbors reached the already-large crowd waiting at the now-regular Gamelin Park meeting spot, arriving at 9:00 p.m., we by far outnumbered those patiently expecting us.
Beyond sheer numbers, there was something extra poignant about seeing popular autonomous assembly banner after banner streaming through the streets together, each with their unique character, but all articulating a contrasting vision of politics to the one that Charest and all his suddenly numerous riot cops (and politicians of any stripe) uphold. I think it’s never been more apparent that this isn’t “merely” the longest-running and perhaps now-largest student strike in North American history; it’s plainly a social movement with a deep and widespread social basis. And now, as July turns to August, the students know for sure that they have popular support(ers) far and wide outside their college doors — all, also, trying to practice direct democracy as the organizational grounding for this movement and all, also, attempting to experiment with another type of politics beyond statecraft (slow, embryonic, and painful as that is at times — “painful,” unlike Occupy at too many moments, not because people are awful toward each other but rather because sometimes, at least in Mile-End, people are too nice, and our meetings go on way too long so everyone can really be heard and respected, which is another nice problem to have, I suppose.
Of all the neighborhood banners, I think I was most touched by the Outremont one — both because unlike many other assemblies, it only convened this past weekend, as I mentioned above, and also because of its black cat and message of “popular power,” which seemed to so well capture the spirit of this evening where everyone knew so much is now at stake in the coming days of August: not provincial election so much as enormous social contestation.
This grand battle was captured for all to see — writ large on night 100, like everything else — in the form of an enormous projection on a building wall, just as we thousands and thousands rounded a corner at a big intersection. Ahead in front of me, I could see people turning backward to face the part of the demo I was in, but instead of looking at us, I could see people looking upward, fingers pointing upward, eyes lighting up, illuminated by the illumination of Nous Sommes Tous Art. Click on this link to see it for yourself (http://youtu.be/CIgnVSkXWWs), but it involved a series of repeating words, including our street slogan “fuck the elections,” but also decrying phenomena like racism, capitalism, and neoliberalism, and contrasting representative democracy to self-management. Its grand finale was the logo/slogan that’s now appearing as wheatpasted poster and elsewhere around Montreal: “August 13. The Strike Continues.” Rather than agitprop or empty street art, though, this wall of words reflects the on-the-ground reality of what everyone is preparing for — to hold the strike — using the very processes that offer a working alternative to electoralism (whether people take 30 seconds to try to vote Charest out or not in the privacy of a voting booth, since clearly ousting Charest is widely popular within this Maple Spring, if only symbolically).
So perhaps beyond the numbers, beyond the boundless joy and creativity and sea of red, beyond the newfound power of the neighborhood assemblies, and even outstripping the clear challenge of direct versus representative democracy — more enormous than all of this on illegal evening 100 was the tension hanging in the air, accentuated by the return of the helicopter hovering low overhead, even as Anarchopanda was right below, giving out hugs and sporting his own big red square pinned to his black-and-white fur. Back were the riot cops in large and aggressive numbers, along with sound grenades, reports rubber bullets and pepper spray, attempts at dispersal and kettling, and definitely some arrests. I ran into someone today with bruises on the side of their face, and they told me how police had chased them down, grabbed them, told them to lie on the ground so they could be arrested, but when they did, a cop then punched them in the head several times before carting them off to a night in jail.
Yet all that wasn’t so unusual in the course of this long student strike. And in fact, much of the tension that riot cops usually create seemed neutralized, precisely because people have now lived through it and gotten used to it. As many people commented, nearly everyone on the street displayed a remarkable lack of fear around the police, replaced by a militancy in the sense of not backing down. That meant different things for different people, including the police, who often ignored things like a bank window being broken (apparently a coop bank, so everyone in the vicinity laughed “Why not a real bank?” as some random guy calmly used the ATM next to the smashed window, causing the second amused & proud comment from the illegal night marchers: “Only in Montreal!”), and when the police encountered a dumpster barricade at one point, the ones on horses trotted through to follow the enormous demo from behind, but the cop cars behind the horses simply turned around and went a different way, leaving the dumpsters to hang out on their own on a now-quieted formerly busy street — with both disobedients and police gone.
The anxiety that the riot cops produced was not on this night 100 per se. Rather, it was what their larger presence signaled in terms of what’s to come. Everyone seems to be bracing themselves for the worst. But because neither cops nor let up on night 100, and because more candidate signs went up even as we marched, night 100 only seemed to add to the intensity of “What will happen?” in the next couple weeks.
For me, more than anything, night 100 illustrated the stark contrast between two types of “popular power” — liberatory versus mean-spirited. This is the power between citizens and neighbors, where people self-organize out of goodness and generosity toward all, or hatred, fear, and stinginess. And both are there. On the streets. It was illustrated in one potentially murderous act at the start of night 100, underscoring just how nerve-wracking a moment this is — when electoralism and riot police converge with student strike and neighborhood assemblies converge with aspirations for free education, social strike, and so much more, and all that converges with strong popular sentiments on all side, with all of it coming to a head in this already-hot August.
If last night’s marker of consecutive evenings of illegal marches ever since the passage of special law 78, a governmental tactic to try to quash the Quebec student strike, was a magnificent display of the strength and power of this social movement, it also revealed the social tensions brewing underneath, fueled by the machinations of the province/state because of the social crisis it clearly faces.
Early on in the evening, at 7:00 p.m., a bunch of us from the Mile-End popular assembly and other neighbors met up at our usual Wednesday night casserole/orchestrole spot, as I described above. We then boisterously walked over with our banner, pots & pans, horns, red squares, and whistles to greet the “Quartier Rouge” Plateau neighborhood folks around 7:30 p.m. and some several hundred of us were all joyfully reclaiming a busy intersection, waiting for our Villeray, Rosemont, and other neighborhood assembly comrades to meet up with us for the march downtown. It’s hard to explain the beauty of casseroles meeting each other from various directions, but add to that the pride of neighborhood assemblies, and when one neighbor starts marching toward another a block or two away, it feels like triumphant freedom fighters returning from hard-won battles into each other’s arms, which in a way, is what’s happening, as people struggle toward a wholly different version of the world, perhaps far ahead of us, that’s neither austere nor hierarchical.
Suddenly, within a group of hundreds in our intersection, all dancing and prancing around, I saw the front of a car coming toward me, with adults, kids, and dogs (most of them my comrades from the Mile-End popular assembly) “bouncing” off the hood, nearly being crushed under tires and hit by other parts of the automobile. It seemed so surreal that someone would simply intentionally drive into hundreds of people that I could barely register it at first. It had that slow-motion sense alongside horror. I and others leaped to help, and many folks threw pots and pans at the hit-and-run driver as they sped away; people ran after the car to try to get the license plate. There were lots of shaken folks who’d been brushed or hit by the car, including a kid who got hit in the knee, and one person seriously hurt (pictured below). Someone called an ambulance, and folks formed a circle around the wounded person, trying as best they could to medic. About five minutes later (despite police obviously lurking on the edges of our casserole), paramedics arrived. When I look at this picture, in hindsight, I realize that half the faces of those doing the caretaking are my neighbors in Mile-End and my comrades in the assembly.
The “silver lining” was how good everyone was to each other, and how it was clear no one wanted to let this stop night 100 from growing larger and larger, and us marching downtown. But many folks commented on how such willful brutality by other “neighbors” highlights that even if this really is a popular and widespread social movement, which it is, there are those who vehemently disagree and are willing to do almost anything (in this case, absurdly, purposefully try to injure or even kill) those struggling toward a better world for everyone, probably even including this hit-and-run drive, if I know some of my popular assembly mates.
At tonight’s Mile-End Popular Assembly (night 101), those of us who were there talked about this terrible incident, and I got this general update (hopefully accurate, since it was whisper translated to me in French): one of our assembly folks went to the hospital with the person who sustained the worst injuries to keep them company and help out. Apparently they had only arrived at our casserole convergence about 5 minutes before this hit-and-run and almost decided to stay home that night; at a previous night demo, they’d been kettled and arrested along with a whole bunch of other folks. Last night, they were hit in two places, but nothing was broken, and it seems like they’ll recover; they are just in a lot of pain now. People at the scene got the license plate number of the car, and they decided to give it to the police, who as of this evening somehow still hadn’t been able to locate the hit-and-run driver. Kids, dogs, and other casserolers are all OK, other than being upset by the experience. We processed that for a bit, and then returned to our assembly agenda, including working toward an August 10 “Mile-End: Dans la rue pour la grève sociale / In the street for social strike” event (http://www.facebook.com/events/408559369180806/), where starting at noon SHARP on St. Viateur and Waverly, we need lots of people, including you, to help us create an outdoor red-square street full of free education, food, music, art, and a couple hours of social striking, to also bolster ourselves and others for the coming August 13 to 17 week of resistance and solidarity. And likely, an enormous amount of a whole bunch of things, including popular power and social tension.
The enormity of night 100, when all was said and done, is that everyone recognized its enormity. That’s why the streets were filled, with people, politicians, media, and riot cops. That’s why so many indie photographers took so many gorgeous pictures, a few of which are here, and why CUTV livestream reporters seemed to be around every turn, chatting with as many people as they could cajole to talk on air. That’s why so many people walked miles from their neighborhoods and then kept going, kilometers more, with heavy banners and/or heavy instruments in tow. That in itself was the portrait of popular power: the populace showed up in droves, on foot and bikes and wheelchairs, or leaning out windows and balconies to wave — as always — as we marched by.
As most of this blog post notes, night 100 was a marker forward, to what’s ahead and what’s now at stake, thanks to a student strike that has unleashed a host of crises, anxieties, possibilities, and difficulties. But the students who had the foresight to start organizing this strike some two years ago, whether they knew it fully or not, were also unleashing a bunch of small yet perhaps, cumulatively, pretty great victories. Maybe not the victory of stopping the tuition increase or ousting Charest, nor transforming electoral politics as usual into a self-governing society. Nor ending capitalism. Some or all of that might be lost, or just might take a longer horizon to achieve. But there are other ways of understanding our victories, perhaps by accounting for those things we hadn’t intended that happen along the way of what really is a social (and a sociable) movement, stretching in this case from night 1 to night 100.
So even though I posted it yesterday as a separate blog offering, I’m going to end with it again here: “100 Red Nights,” a gift of 100 little victories (words by me) set to 100 little images of the 100 red nights, offered as a collaborative labor of love by myself and Thien V Qn (who took the photos), just one of the talented crew of new friends I seem to be running with on the red streets these nights: http://100-nuits-rouges.tumblr.com/.
After looking at our “100 Red Nights” piece during day 100, another of our talented friends, Amy Darwish, remarked to me last night as she and I started out on our long night of strolling at 7:00 p.m., basically this: “It figures that you and Thien would create such a gift. You’re the two romantics of this movement.” Romantic yes, because it’s hard as hell not to be when you dive into the spectacular beauty and innovation of this student strike. At one and the same time, though, I hope you’ll see that some of the victories contained in our “100 Nuits Rouges” are actually dilemmas, implicit critique, or as-yet only partial promise, which to me are indeed victories, because we’re making them visible and hence available for dialogue and deliberation, as something for the increasingly long agendas of the many self-governing bodies within this movement.
(Photo credits: red flags, red marching band, giant red square, Villeray and Rosemont banners, and red-brick building by Thien V Qn,http://quelquesnotes.wordpress.com/; big crowd scene by Martin Martel,http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151960346950062.871472.666270061&type=1; QS sign, Outremont banner and outdoor project, and dumpsters by Cindy Milstein; aftermath of hit-and-run driver by Jesse Rosenfeld,https://twitter.com/kissmykishkas/status/230813774976794624/photo/1; and final romantic night 100 shot by another of my talented new friends, Kevin Lo,http://lokidesign.net/2356/2012/08/100th-night-demo/).
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Montreal, QC–It’s a bit after midnight, and I just got home from a perfectly curated musical fund-raiser in the Mile-End neighborhood of Montreal titled carré rouge sonore (“red square sound”) organized by HOWL! arts collective. HOWL! was also largely responsible for dreaming up the Rêve général illimité (“unlimited general dreams/strike”), an unpermitted creative intervention during the Jazz Festival and hopefully another version will take place before the start/nonstart of schools here in Montreal on August 13. From what I’ve seen so far, HOWL! doesn’t sit back quietly but instead tries to use the language of cultural creation to voice political aspirations for a new world, as tiny as those voices might be right now or even for a long while to come. Social change is hard work. So conversely, it should be pleasurable hard work — or at least that seems to be part of the unspoken aim of HOWL! This arts collective doesn’t ask permission from arts councils or cops; rather, it imagines what music, say, might sound like in an altogether different form of social organization — one premised on what’s been facilitating and sustaining this student strike: direct democracy in various forms. (For those of you agitating just south of here, in that place still called the United States, and maybe even folks outside this Francophone province, please take heed: if anything is key to this strike, it’s the long-lived legacy, infrastructure, and practice of face-to-face decision making — not easily replicated quickly, but necessary nonetheless.)
For example, the École de la Montagne Rouge crew, made up of still-striking students who are still making posters and other brilliant (and often brilliant red) visuals for asocial movement instead of sitting quietly in rows of chairs in a classroom, brought their own collective envisioning of red squares to this musical fund-raiser by designing the logo (http://www.flickr.com/photos/stefanchristoff/7625011812/).
Such infinite dreams, of course, are largely circumscribed by the present culture industry, but nights like tonight show that a few stray notes that can’t quite be captured by the capitalist logic manage to slip through to a few eager ears and open minds — many of them opened by the student strike itself. At the “red square sound” event, I ran into still-striking students who are busy taking gorgeous photos and writing indie news accounts for this social movement, or further discovering anarchism by recently taking a road trip to the Anarchist People of Color convergence in New Orleans; there were teachers there, also strike allies, and Mile-End popular assembly folks who are busy organizing a “casseroles and orchestrole” go downtown to illegal night demo 100 this coming Wednesday, August 1 (http://www.facebook.com/events/408425942526577/), and an August 10 “Mile-End Bloc(k) Party: Toward a Social Strike” (http://www.facebook.com/events/408559369180806/) — basically, hopefully, a large (perhaps red) square of street turned into an open-air classroom to illustrate what free education looks like, via a festive direct action in disobedience of special law 78, and to let the students know that the neighborhood assemblies are behind their strike, just ahead of the start/nonstart of their schools. It, in turn, emerged out of a call from the St. Henri popular assembly for a “day of action” in neighborhoods on August 10, building toward the notion of social strike in complement to student strike and, again, also just making visible popular support for the students, so they don’t feel alone. So they aren’t alone. Although if CLASSE has anything to do with it, its also-August 10 evening gear-up for the August 13 week “class or no class” — Nous sommes avenir (approximately, “We are the future”), http://www.facebook.com/events/422915807747262/ — will draw hundreds or thousands together to make that plain for all to see.
If the major student association, and the most radical and bottom-up one, CLASSE, has anything to do with it, its August 10 evening gear-up for the August 13 week “class or no class” — Nous sommes avenir (approximately, “We are the future”), http://www.facebook.com/events/422915807747262/ — will draw hundreds or thousands together to make that plain for all to see. Oh yeah, and then there’s the callout for an international convergence in Montreal to support the Quebec student strike during the week of August 13 to 17 (http://bloquonslarentree.com/node/12). [Update: I could start adding a lengthy string of student and social strike organizing here, often starting to overlap in people’s enthusiasm to organize, which is a good “problem” to have in a social movement if one thinks about it. Indeed, as of the afternoon after I wrote this piece, there are now three separate calls for neighborhood casseroles and orchestroles to converge at the night 100 demo, and a 6 p.m. call by Anarchopanda to also do a solidarity demo in front of the Russian Consultate for the Riot Pussy women in jail. Somehow I imagine it’ll all work out, since after all, it’s great that there’s such widespread popular support for what’s called a “social” or “popular” struggle, and the point was to demonstrate to the students and greater public that neighborhoods, too, are behind the strike!]
Tonight’s sounds of the red square displayed a preview of this togetherness. It included the music of resistance, from jazz to the first-ever indoor orchestrole (with loaner cookware on hand, so others could join in, loudly and boisterously) to hip-hop to protest chant in between, amid a room full of red squares and rabble-rousers. Despite the forecast of rain, it turned out to be a lovely evening here in Montreal to raise legal funds for the Quebec striking students. Those funds are signaled by another graphic play on the red square in the logo of the legal helpers je donne à nous, a group that’s still gladly taking contributions for the coming storm of riot police and, as rumor has it, actual implementation of special law 78 when school soon starts/doesn’t start come August 13 onward.
The benefit was held in a neighborhood collective space, which felt both part homey, part social center. It was only a block or so from where the autonomous popular assembly of Mile-End met earlier tonight, in a local cafe that itself features local musicians all day until closing time at 6 p.m. Due to the potential of wet weather, the cafe folks loaned their space for this fledgling experiment in neighborhood direct democracy. There, in week 6 of so of our assembly, old faces and new ones heard a presentation by one assembly participant — also a lawyer — on special law 78. We’d decided this at last week’s assembly after doing a go-around of the some 45 or so people in attendance at our usual outdoor park spot about how we, as a popular assembly, wanted to lend support to the likely still-striking students when they likely will try to keep their schools shut during the increasingly key week of August 13-17, when some 13 schools are supposed to open by law — backed by the force of this new special law 78 that seemingly makes any kind of dissent criminal, including probably all neighborhood assemblies. We offered our views on comfort levels around “green, yellow, and red” zones, or levels of potential risk of arrest, and then seemed to concur that such designations would more likely be up to the police, not us. Banging a saucepan, for example, could flare into “red” in cop’s eyes. Wearing a red square that week could fuel the same overreaction on the police’s part. But despite varying degrees of worry over risk and the law, our go-round last week showed strong support for us tangibly supporting the students, though it’s unclear what that will look like other than, for now, remaining open and flexible, and creating as many links and lines of communication as we can between other neighborhood and student assemblies.
It’s not that we can’t start imagining various things we could do; rather, it’s because everything and everyone has to wait on the individual schools (and sometimes individual departments within schools) to hold their own student assemblies to decide whether to continue the strike or not, and if so, how. In what’s becoming a nail-biter moment for this social movement, student assemblies largely don’t convene until the few days before the start/nonstart of schools that August 13 week.
This nervous anticipation translates into low-grade inklings of what’s to come. For example, one of my friends who organized tonight’s fund-raiser said he got stopped by a cop yesterday for allegedly jaywalking some “three blocks away,” when clearly the cop couldn’t possibly see that far to spy the alleged infraction of the social order. When my friend asked if he was actually being stopped because he was wearing the red square, the cop’s face pretty much confirmed it. But it’s not just the cop versus people tension that emerging right now; it’s also the clock ticking away toward August, and how much needs to be decided, directly, before those school doors are supposed to open (or not) for classes. If Facebook is any indication of anything, student-strike-related invites are piling up and indeed overlapping for all things rebel red starting August 1, that pivotal day 100 of illegal contestation night after night in Montreal’s streets — a small count, relatively, compared to the soon six-month-old student strike.
Earlier this afternoon, I got a feel for the weight on the shoulders of these students, many of whom are probably pretty new to politics and also likely now have become fast learners and incredibly savvy at striking. Most of them have blocked many a door, seen many a riot cop up close, and gone miles on many an illegal demo, not to mention gotten really good at self-governance — or better than average, at least. I went and sat in on today’s UQAM strike council of some 75 people, give or take, mostly students (though most students are still away on break) in a lifeless UQAM lecture hall, but the room was brought to liveliness by the discussion — a bit slowly, though, since no one seemed to step up to facilitate what was clearly an informal direct democracy today. Brainstorming about everything from how to block classes to what logistics are needed to organizing solidarity demos, it suddenly became clear that this was an enormous puzzle given all the schools meeting as assemblies to decide whether to stay strong on their strike and then opening/not opening their schools within a tiny window of time in mid-August. The brainstorm also showed that nearly every school, for various reasons, thinks it is deserving of extra support, which of course is probably true.
Someone suggested they create a giant “calendar” on the chalkboard, which only underscored the incredibly complex communications and organizational task ahead. For instance, 4 schools open on August 13, and many of the schools are nowhere near each other geographically. How to communicate what all the student assemblies decide (including one that is supposed to meet the same day that the students are supposed to return to their classes at that school) to all the other schools, and all the students, and all the neighborhood assemblies, teachers, parents, allies, media, and the list went on. After some 45 minutes of trying to even begin to figure out a calendar, the task of doing so seemed to be abandoned in favor of trying to talk about the communications and organizational quagmire. I had to leave to get back for the Mile-End popular assembly, but the council meeting reminded me that, first, this strike is remarkable in that given all this complexity, the students have so far figured it out and stayed on strike, using these face-to-face decision-making structures; and second, as this sidewalk stencil from Mile-End urges, there’s a need to: “Prepare for August!”
Or better still, as this poster around Montreal proclaims: “On August 13. The Strike Continues.”
Or rather, both are true: there’s the need to prepare, and near impossibility of truly preparing given all the variables (elections, student assemblies, popular assemblies, police, special law, public opinion and especially material support, and the list goes on), and yes, it looks highly probably that the strike will continue nonetheless.
For now, as July draws to a close, so much radical subversion is being debated, imagined, and enacted through collectives and assemblies — the imperfect practice of what created a strike, what might let it go forward, and what might be its historical contribution more than anything else.
And likewise, so much of this radical subversion is being read through the tiny little red square. Sometimes, like in the photo below from much earlier today, taken on my walk to the UQAM strike council, all the eye thinks it sees is the pleasurable aesthetic of intended square converging with an accidental one, or the randomly lovely visual of this symbol in all sorts of places and spaces across the urban landscape, so quiet now during the two-week summer holiday that hits Montreal at the end of July. (In fact, there’s basically a voluntary “social strike” of sorts already going on, since many businesses simply close altogether for these two weeks and go on holiday too — making it maybe a little easier for folks to perhaps imagine what a social strike would look or feel like: leisurely noncompulsion, for starters, so as to do what one wants instead.)
Somehow, though, in the context of the building drama toward the opening/nonopening of school in mid-August, every scrap of red feels fraught with organizational and strategic difficulties, and yet ever so revolutionary.
(For more “Seeing Red” snapshots beyond those sprinkled through this piece, take a peek at my ever-growing archival record of red squares in Montreal and on Montrealers at http://seeingredmontreal.tumblr.com/.)
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Montreal, QC–Thanks to the orchestrole, the past four Wednesday nights in Mile-End have been more than magical, which itself would be enough — in this neighborhood famous for its magical Montreal bagels (the one filling thing besides poutine you can get 24 hours a day). In the orchestrole, struments and cookware bang out a loud protestation against special law 78; friends, neighbors, and fairly new autonomous popular assembly participants reclaim whatever streets we settle on taking that evening — or rather, decide to borrow as we temporarily take them — as a marching illegal demonstration against the criminalization of dissent. The magic comes in because it’s festive to stroll down tree-lined streets as the sun sets and stars begin to appear, and people in their homes pop their heads out doors and windows to watch, listen, or wave, or step on to their balconies with their own instruments or cookware to join in, briefly, in our orchestral cry against the government trying to shut down the student strike. And magic, too, because some sort of addictive joy seems to come over us all while we’re orchestrolling (for my story on the first orchestrole, see here).
More important, however, the core crew of our popular assembly and neighborhood musicians have transformed protest into the art of prefiguration with this orchestrole invention. It is a creative intervention that reshapes public space on its own terms, without permits or permission, while expressing not only outrage but also solidarity for the student and social strike, and each other too, precisely because we’re doing it in a way that builds bonds between us, allows us to do political outreach and organizing, and shows that we can make our own culture, sans commodification.
Tonight’s highlights in our fourth orchestrole included the following:
The innovation of lyric sheets, in both French and English, to some of the songs put together by some of the musicians, who decided to do a practice session before the march this week. I’m not sure if this first rehearsal of theirs is because they are increasingly enjoying being the newly named “Mile-End Orchestrole” as musicians, in demand from others in our neighborhood who aren’t musicians, or due to the fact that they’ll be playing the first indoor orchestrole tomorrow night at a “Red Square Sound” fund-raiser for legal funds for the striking students, morphing our new protest-prefiguration form into new ways to contribute to the DIY sustenance of this movement as well.
We also handed out five different pieces of literature — up from nothing the first week, to one piece the second, and maybe two last week. One of those was an invite to a new neighborhood assembly, in nearby Outremont, so we swung into the edge of Outremont to lend aid and music to our autonomous assembly comrades with a bit of outreach for them. I’ve walked through that neighborhood several times in search of red squares, and there’s been hardly a one, so perhaps this explains why it’s taken them so long to call for an assembly, or may later explain why so few people show up. But several of our orchestrollers were insistent on doing neighborly solidarity for Outremont’s first effort in a park this Saturday.
As we marched on and night grew darker, we seemed to better have each other’s backs this week, more than ever, as we assuredly blocked the whole of St. Laurent, or the biggest, busiest of the streets that we borrowed for a while. Unlike last week, when some 100 or so folks showed up, there were probably 30 at most this week by the time we reached St. Laurent. We were only loosely blocking about half of the lanes, and you could feel the cars and motorcycles edging up behind us, menacingly, about to put foot to pedal and try to drive way too fast past us on the other half of this one-way street. One person within our posse looked at a few other orchestrollers, and said, “Should we take the whole street?” Bodies moved quickly in answer, without breaking the music, spreading out across all lanes, as the drivers grew visibly more frustrated at not being able to get by. Several folks turned to face the oncoming cars, went up to talk to drivers, and made sure there weren’t gaps that would allow a car to attempt a zip by us. One of our crew on a three-wheel bike kept sort of doing circles around the cars. Even those folks who’ve been concerned at the popular assembly about defying law 78 or engaging in what they perceive as direct action seemed completely pleased that we were holding the streets, safely, for each other. (I suspect this doesn’t seem like it “counts” as a direct action, which is one reason it and casseroles have opened us space for those who might be nervous about such activities).
As we neared the end of this long stretch of St. Laurent, and chose to turn left on the main drag of Mile-End, St. Viateur, and start winding down our orchestrole for the night, the police finally decided to catch up to us with some three cop cars for the remaining 25 or so of us. The cops began to act as if they were blocking the streets for us, staying well behind us. There was a brief moment where we turned to look at them, and then everyone quickly agreed in word and motion that we should just ignore them. We ended up hanging out in an intersection chatting for about a half hour while the police sat in one lane, telling us several times to leave, then helplessly watching when we didn’t. They finally pulled their cruiser up close, and one of our crew played them an instrumental solo of a song that isn’t exactly cop friendly — but they didn’t seem to understand. They were probably too busy wishing they could assert control over what was simply a group of friends and neighbors talking politics, life, and music in the night.
I know the police could have asserted their power; at the same time, the fact that no one paid them much mind seemed to go far in this context to shatter their authority. That, in turn, gave us extra time to have an informal organizing chat of sorts about next week’s orchestrole — on consecutive night 100 of the illegal downtown demos, when we decided to take our neighborhood assembly banner and orchestrole downtown (plans since then include multiple neighborhood casseroles meeting at various points to bring many assemblies downtown, and a solidarity demo for Riot Pussy called by Anarchopanda, plus the Mile-End orchestrole gathering at Gamelin Park at 8:30 p.m. to then take the streets with likely many people on this special marker of a night against the specially awful law).
This is, certainly, nothing earth-shattering or world-changing about the orchestrole, whether week one or four Wednesdays in. But like the little red squares that are scattered here and there, disappearing and reappearing, each of the many little illegal and prefigurative acts here in Montreal and Quebec have added up to a near-six-month-long student strike that only shows rebellious-red signs of reemerging in early August, when students return and school, well, maybe doesn’t open.
I’ll end this overview of orchestrole 4 with a personal favorite moment from the evening. We’ve taken to taking the one particularly upscale street within the Mile-End neighborhood, where there are a bunch of expensive restaurants with outdoor seating and lots of unsympathetic-looking patrons. My contribution to the orchestrole is making red-felt squares and filling up a pot, then banging on that pot, but also holding it out to folks to take a square, so they can then wear and spread the solidarity. People often take several red squares, for themselves and friends, and on this fancy street, the waitstaff frequently want one too. The well-heeled diners always stick their noses up at us, avoid eye contact, and refuse my squares. Which makes me put my pot under their noses, across their fancy dinner plates and wine glasses, just to annoy them. This week, when I did that to one woman who sported fancy dress, thinking she too would reject this gift, she instantly took a red square, then raised her fist and said, in French, but in words I now perfectly understand: “To the infinite social strike!”
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Montreal, QC–I’ve been doing dual-purpose with my pot to bang on during the weekly (now in week three) Mile-End Orchestrole by using it to hand out free red squares too as we orchestroll our way through the streets, sans permission. The Orchestrole itself, an outgrowth of the Popular Autonomous Assembly of Mile-End, is multipurpose: bringing friends and neighbors together, outreaching about the assembly that meets weekly on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. in a neighborhood park, serving as a magical wake-up call in residential and business areas about the student strike and related austerity concerns, showing solidarity with the students, and asserting with our voices, sounds, and feet that special law 78 won’t silence people nor keep them from demonstrating . . . and making music. (For my earlier story, written about our first Orchestrole, see here.)
As I hold out my saucepan filled with red squares to passersby or folks who come out of their front doors to see the clanging, singing, dancing, and beautiful-sounding (and growing, with well over a hundred folks this time) band, people first hesitantly peer in and then their faces light up. If they are in support, of course. That’s usually a lot of people — except when we swing through the more upscale part of Mile-End. So many people are so appreciative and excited about getting this surprise gift as they are wandering down the streets when our ragtag solidarity march goes by. Others, strangely enough (or strange to me), ask me how much the squares cost, and then are overjoyed when I say, “Nothing! They’re a gift.” Last night, I must have given away some two hundred red-felt squares, and I can see — to my great joy — that people generally pinned them on their shirt or bag ASAP. And multiple folks asked for me extras, for friends or to give out. One guy told me, “Great, a new one! I’ve given away about ten and figured I’d never be able to keep one of my own.” I told him to take about ten, which he did. I arrived home last night with maybe twenty squares left in the bottom on my pot, and sleepily put it aside, knowing that tomorrow I wanted to get more felt to make more squares.
So this morning, when I emptied out the few remaining red squares in this saucepan before heading off to the fabric shop, I was surprised to find $6 in coins underneath–either from confused or kind people, and magically, just enough to buy another yard (at $6!) of felt today to cut out more red squares during tonight’s popular assembly in Mile-End.
I’d been to this same fabric store before. The cashier is a talkative — really talkative — woman. But she didn’t seem to be there. Instead, a completely silent guy took the bolt of red felt from me, and without any words, cut the two yards I’d requested — since I figured, the more squares, the merrier, and so why not double my good luck of last night’s donation with my own $6. He set my felt on the table and then, just as wordlessly, disappeared.
The talkative woman rushed back in, apologizing profusely that I had to wait maybe thirty seconds for her to ring up the sale. Then she launched into a much-longer tale of how she went out to take a cigarette break, after working hard all day, and had asked the guy who helped me (who apparently isn’t allowed, in the workplace hierarchy, to use the cash register) to keep an eye on the counter. Apparently, too, she’s not allowed to take such cigarette breaks, because she told me that her boss had run after the guy when he went to out to fetch her and admonished her severely. She told her boss that she’d only been taking out the trash, because she’s supposed to do that. “But he smelled the smoke on my breath!”
She then looked at my red felt on the cutting table and the red square pinned to my shirt. “To make red squares? For the student strike?” “Qui,” I responded. “Good! Good luck! Good!” she exclaimed over and over, as she raised a thumb’s up high into the air. So I, in turn, figured it was OK to wish her “good luck” with maybe telling her boss that she deserved breaks. She kept her thumb in the air and smiled a knowing smile, without words, as I walked out, my red felt in hand ready to be turned into other small red squares.
* * *
Photos by Thien, who made and gifted me many of the red squares I handed out last night. He also told me recently (something that others have said too) that what’s great about the red squares, among many other things, is that they open up a space to smile at people on the street who are also wearing them and sometimes talk to them about politics too. For many other magnificent photos of his documenting the red of maple spring-summer, see here.
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
A [Paul] Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
— Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940)
One must have a home in order not to need it.
— Jean Améry, “How Much Home Does a Person Need?” (1966)
Montreal, QC–I’ve been thinking a lot lately of home, history, and exile, and the intertwining legacies between them. Of the wreckage.
I’m in voluntary exile this summer. In so many small ways, though, my exile can be traced to my own brokenness, a “personal” narrative that is also constructed by the contemporary social conditions, which in turn are shaped by the “catastrophe” of history. Thus I experience a twist on another Améry essay, ”The Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew”: the necessity and impossibility of being at home in this world.
His essay speaks volumes to me, a godless Jew, in the wreckage of the Holocaust (which Améry survived and didn’t survive) and the state of Israel. As an assimilated Jew prior to the Shoah, Améry had no relationship to Judaism and didn’t identify with being Jewish; with the onset of National Socialism, he couldn’t avoid being Jewish, or rather, it picked him out, tortured him, and put him in a concentration camp; after the Holocaust, he conjectures, it’s both necessary to embrace our histories and impossible to do so. “With Jews as Jews I share practically nothing: no language and no cultural tradition . . . for me, being a Jew means feeling the tragedy of yesterday as an inner oppression. On my left forearm I bear the Auschwitz number; it reads more briefly than . . . the Talmud and yet provides more thorough information.” Hence his further query, in another essay in his collection At the Mind’s Limits, “How much home does a person need?” after he and millions of othered Others — Jews, Roma, queers, those considered mentally or physically impaired, and more — were forcibly exiled, and if not annihilated physically, then annihilated culturally, emotionally, materially. Their communities and worlds, often even a memory of them, were forever gone.
This necessity-impossibility paradox seems to mark the human condition at this juncture in the twenty-first century. Most of us have been exiled from all that we’ve produced, reproduced, created, dreamed of, cared for, and loved — our sense of being at home in our own world — reduced to pressing our noses against the glass houses of the few who’ve stolen nearly everything from us and yet cruelly flaunt their abundance (a situation that’s captured, even if poorly, in the 1% language of Occupy). We, the vast “pile of debris,” can only look forward to austerity, which daily gets more austere.
I’m one of the relatively lucky ones in this present-day exilic existence, since it’s more parts existential than, say, geographic or material, although at times — like this past week, when I experienced a minor health issue — it viscerally hits me how much most of us are increasingly being forced outside the human community in terms of basic needs like health care. For too many, the necessity-impossibility paradox has already heaped “wreckage upon wreckage” on them for decades or even centuries.
Like the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, five hours north of Montreal, who are presently trying to fend off Resolute Forest Products, which began active clear-cut logging of the Algonquins’ traditional territories last week, and the riot squad, sent in by the government to enforce the logging (there’s a solidarity casseroles at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 18 at 111 rue Duke, Montreal, http://www.facebook.com/events/413763868670087/). Like a family from Ville St-Laurent that due to racial profiling and the criminalization of immigrants, faces the deportation of the father this August, after thirty years in Canada, to a country he hasn’t seen since he was nine, separating him from his partner, mother, and kids for years and perhaps forever (Solidarity across Borders is holding a “Beat the Borders” reggae music fund-raiser at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 19 at 2009 Decarie, #108, Montreal, http://www.facebook.com/events/267149120057721/).
So many peoples, so many names, over so many catastrophes. Like in the now-tourist-attraction Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where between 1954 and 1959, two painters took it on themselves to inscribe the names of 77,297 Bohemian and Moravian Jews murdered in the Holocaust on the walls of the main nave and adjoining areas. They included each person’s birth and death dates, but in most cases, a deportation date to a concentration camp was the last known moment of each individual’s life, and all that the artists (or perhaps these angels of history, battling in vain to “awaken the dead” with their act of remembrance) could record.
It’s hard indeed to feel at home in this world, because this world offers little comfort and shelter to most of humanity. I come from a country that, for instance, spends three to five times more per year on incarcerating someone than educating them. Where it’s normal not to have health insurance (forget health care), and just a routine part of life in a big city to see lots of people sleeping on the streets. Where’s it’s someone’s own fault if they go hungry, can’t pay their bills, or lose a job, or get depressed because of this. All this is reason enough for exile, and reason, even more, to stay and resist with others. A necessity and impossibility, bound up in the recent paradox of the name “Occupy,” signaling an awakening for some and a further erasure and pain for others.
So last week in Montreal, when I ran across another piece of street art by Harpy, “EXIL,” I got to thinking a lot about home, history, and exile. Because like exile, Harpy’s work unsettles, as all good street art should at this unsettling moment (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Harpy/249684105126331/). Maybe this bison, a stopped-in-its-track still image from the stop-action series of photographs taken by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) as well as a shorthand symbol for the exile and extermination of indigenous peoples of the Americas, like Benjamin’s angel of history, isn’t running away from something — a passive victim. Perhaps this bison in Harpy’s “EXIL” also has its face turned toward the past, toward the wreckage piling higher and higher, even as the winds of “progress” propel it with “such violence.” Or maybe it’s racing full-steam ahead (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Muybridge_Buffalo_galloping.gif), propelling itself toward its own half-compulsory, half-self-imposed exile, from which to then linger, look backward in its own good time, and contemplate what it would mean to “make whole what has been smashed.”
That’s likely not what Harpy intended, and maybe Harpy didn’t even intend for our bison friend to evoke images of the “tragedy of yesterday” that was the American West but rather exiles and genocides of many peoples, from many places, over many times. I can ask Harpy in person the next time I run into their alter ego on the streets of Montreal, of course, but good street art is, I think, less about what the artist wants you to think; that would make it street decoration or paid advertisement. It’s about making you think. Putting you outside yourself, and perhaps into the exile of engaging with the impossibility and yet necessity of social transformation.
I’d heard rumor that Harpy had some new pieces related to the student strike, ready to grace various alleyways and crumbling urban walls. So when I heard another rumor that Harpy and their late-night fairy-helpers were out wheatpasting one night last week, I wasn’t expecting to see “EXIL” the next day. And I wasn’t expecting it to stick in my head, like a song heard in the background, on radio waves wafting out of an open apartment window on the heavy summer air. I couldn’t stop humming it in my head, turning its rhythms — of that bison, galloping, fleeing, racing, running, maybe scared or maybe proud, or both — over in my mind to try to hear what it was saying to me.
A few days later, I found another “EXIL” wheatpasted under a bridge, but this time it was in the same vicinity as another new Harpy piece, a triptych on austerity: “Time,” “Debt,” and “Work.”
It was suddenly as if this bison was hurtling itself toward a new battle, even if it becomes it’s last stand, against a capitalistic world seemingly hurtling itself toward its own self-annihilation, by destroying its own home — its ecology, along with everything and everyone that inhabits it. “Austerity” is one more ugly means to exile vast swathes of humanity — us — by taking away all we need, and all we also desire, to be comfortably at home. Out of the impossibility of this moment, and certainly from necessity, people around the globe are (re)turning to experiments in what it might mean for us to take ourselves out of exile: from struggling toward the right of return to simply returning, from defending land to simply taking back the land, from fighting occupations to simply occupying those places that should be ours in common(s).
This is and probably will be no easy homecoming. The government does and will send in riot police, in greater numbers than the bison at their peak, to trample us. But maybe there’s also no pristine home to come back to, either. We may be finding that we need to invent wholly new ways to house ourselves by first looking squarely at that “pile of debris,” in which there’s no comfy narrative of good guy versus bad guy, but only us fallible humans, most of whom are now suffering from the necessity and impossibility of being human in the face of austerity. The story of the bison’s habitation and exile, life and death, stretches across many peoples and social structures, even if settler colonialism and commerce were the largest and final nails in its coffin. (Ah, I forgot, capitalism is breathing new life into the bison as niche-market commodity!)
I started this blog post thinking I was going to write about “The Form & Content of Social Goodness,” which is probably just the flip side of the same coin I’ve been tossing around this evening, and what I’ll turn to next. Because I’ve also been thinking a lot lately of the good society, the present, and making a home for ourselves in this world. Of reconstruction.
So I was struck today by the simple “social goodness” perpetrated by an anonymous crew of wheatpasters who seem to have done a second round of poetry posts to cover the corporate ads on the city rental “bixi” bikes. They proclaim that “BixiPoésie is the work of a group of . . . . students, workers, artists, activists . . . who dream of a world where art and culture flow freely in our streets. Where our minds are no longer stuck in the logic of might and economic reason. Where public space belongs to the citizens, rather than corporations” (http://bixipoesie.ca/). It is just one (albeit minor but telling) example of how the student and social strikers along with their allies are dreaming up strategies not to replicate the wreckage, which is kind of what Occupy feels like to me at the moment, or not to get “irresistibly propel[led] by “the storm” of the likely provincial elections “into the future to which [their] back is turned, while the pile of debris before [them] grows skyward.” Instead, there is an effort here to “awaken the dead, and make whole” by focusing on a relation between means and ends, which is another way of asserting a relation between form and content, versus what seems to have become a lopsided fixation on form as content in Occupy, eviscerated of an ethics — or social goodness. (Here’s one example from Occupy, where both the “choices” offered by this author are just different versions of contentlessness as well as a lack of imagination, especially if one actually hopes to grapple with the wreckage of history and fly intentionally toward a better future; http://truth-out.org/news/item/10358-occupy-national-gathering-electrical-storms-and-insurrectionary-corpses.)
This isn’t meant to romanticize Maple Summer. It’s just to say that exile, chosen or not, unsettles one’s perspective, and maybe there’s something that can be gleaned from that — to bring back home, if one has a home, or as the basis for even thinking about making home, or having the strength to attempt to do so.
The one thing I’m sure of tonight is, as imperfect angels on earth trying to make our own history in this inhospitable world, we’re going to need strong wings indeed.
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Montreal, QC–I took the above photo shortly after I got to Montreal, some two months ago, never intending to stay so long, and having little idea what the black letters on this banner meant. I knew that red — usually square, yet sometimes stretched in other shapes when needed — stood for the student strike, particularly being in solidarity with it.
But I’m an anarchist. So even though the only word I clearly recognized in the above slogan was popular, the tangible struggle that I saw on the streets over my initial five days here convinced me that the one term I understood rung true and I should stick around. Something remarkable was — and is — going on in Quebec. Anarchists do a lot of things wrong. One thing we’ve done right since the beginning of “anarchism” as a named political praxis, though, is gladly cross nation-state borders to lend solidarity based on a shared humanity along with shared desire for freedom writ large and egalitarian. In my case, I’m not sure how much solidarity I’m supplying. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m largely the recipient of the solidarity that going on here, both as receiver and witness.
First there’s the + 1 – 1 = 0 sort of solidarity. Where you think you’re holding out some universal, nonstatist handshake of solidarity, and then realize that even if the same canceling-out dynamic happens in one’s own backyard, when it occurs outside one’s “own” country (that is, if one has citizenship), it underscores how you’re a “guest” in a struggle that you’ll never fully comprehend.
Plus One: I now nearly always carry a batch of red felt squares with safety pins in which to give out — a quite simple act to show my solidarity and let others, in turn, then display theirs. When I overheard two cashiers in a store speaking, in French, about their carré rouge, and saw one pat her upper-right chest sans red square and frown, and saw that neither wore squares. I understood enough to know she had lost hers, for what in French sounded like four times. “Parlez-vous anglais?” I asked. “Qui, I speak English,” she responded. I held out two fresh cherry-red squares. “Would you both like one?” “Qui! Merci!” Their eyes lit up, at me and then each other. “Merci beaucoup! You can’t get these anymore. They are all sold out.” (Her English was better than my near-nonexistent French, but it still wasn’t great, and I think she meant sold out of red felt. When the student strike and its “squarely in the red” square symbol became popular, rumor has it that red and even off-red felt disappeared from the shelves of every Montreal store. So people started knitting squares out of red yarn.) The pair both eagerly pinned their new red badges of solidarity to their shirts.
Minus One: Like the two clerks, I too wanted a red square, way back after my first illegal night demo some two months ago. That evening, after hours and kilometers on the streets with thousands, I was walking back the hour or so to where I was staying, at 1 or 2 a.m., and at one point noticed a flash of red on the pavement. There it was! My little red felt square! I’ve worn it, daily, ever since. So today, as usual, I had it pinned to my shirt. Just moments after I left the now-happy cashiers each sporting their own carré rouge, a guy on the street yelled out at me, in English: “Hey, red square! Yeah, you! You’re a fucking douche bag!”
I’ve experienced a few disapproving gazes and downward-pointing thumbs for wearing a red square here, but the only times people have directly confronted me, verbally, briefly or for extended conversations, has always been in English. And that’s never been preceded by a “bon jour” or other nicety, then allowing someone — via my accent in response — to ascertain whether to speak French or English to me. French is the official and most-often-spoken language here, and by and large, the language of the student strike. This person didn’t know, of course, that I’m from the United States and barely know French; those two facts only heighten, for me, the legacy of the history of domination in which the English language plays a part. Even without that knowledge, or particularly without it, this person is signaling the still-felt tensions of the legacy of the French-English divide here, which for them (and the other folks who’ve chosen to instantly yell at me in English) is now displaced on to a little red felt square. A big part of the legacy leading to this student strike can be found in the 1960s’ and 1970s’ so-called Quiet Revolution, which illuminated many of the social inequities related to language (with, you guessed it, my English-speaking readers, the Francophones often receiving the short end of the stick), which in turn gave birth to many of the French-language colleges that are at the heart of Maple Spring and also underscored a host of other social injustices related to other languages (First Nations peoples, for instance, or the “body language” of gender). As a related aside, I want to again recommend the book The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties’ Montreal by Sean Mills.
Zero: Maybe the pleased cashiers versus the displeasured man on the streets don’t cancel each other out. Various polls while I’ve been here have hedged the truth or outright lied in order to claim there’s little support for the student strike, or have more “scientifically” leaned toward numbers emphasizing popular support. The felt experience of being among, say, five thousand, forty thousand, or two hundred thousand at a demonstration, not to mention seeing red squares on shirts and houses, tends to make one think there’s broad support. And the picket lines and other bold tactics of tens to hundreds of thousands of students and their allies to hold the strike for five months — often against scare tactics by school administrators and brutal tactics by the riot cops — add further proof that this struggle is indeed popular. But now, on this hot July day in anticipation of what may be a really hot August when the schools are supposed to start, every little + 1 – 1 = 0 can’t be ignored. As someone at the anticapitalist assembly I was at this afternoon said, whether the strike can stand strong in August against intensified policing, the chilling effect of special law 78 (whether or not it gets enforced and/or tossed out in court later), the distraction of provincial elections, and other pressures is, perhaps, “all a matter of our capacity.” That is, lived social solidarity, and whether it’s tangibly there or not when it really counts.
Which brings me around, secondly, to the -1 + 1 = 0 sort of solidarity.
Minus One: Me. I can now read the words in the photo that started this piece, and because I’ve been a participant-observer within a specific moment/movement, I can increasingly read key words and phrases, and maybe sometimes understand them when I hear them. Like grève étudiante: “student strike.” Or better yet, grève sociale: “social strike,” which I can also even somewhat pronounce. And I now generally get the play on (g)rève, with rève meaning “dream,” as in the above-photographed street art. At the time I snapped this shot about a month ago, I didn’t know that. I also didn’t know the designer behind this poster. Now I know both, so can share both (hence, credit and appreciation to LOKi design’s #ggi downloadable poster portfolio, ready for others walls, http://lokidesign.net/2356/2012/05/ggi-poster-portfolio/#more-3007).
Today, I could basically read the large-type summary sheets taped to the wall at the start of the anticapitalist assembly, offering ideas of, for example, various antiauthoritarian strategies related to struggling against hegemonic forces of social control like the state and capitalism while supporting the grassroots student strike as well as notions of a social strike. But when it came time for the meeting to begin and the facilitator checked in about who needed whisper translation from French to English, I was the only person out of some forty to fifty people. (And when the facilitator asked if anyone needed whisper translation into French when, or rather if, English was spoken during the assembly, no one did.)
Plus One: An anarchist I’ve known as an acquaintance from various anticapitalist convergences in Canada instantly volunteered to be my English whisperer (fortunately, he talks as fast as I do, but in two languages!). When I thanked him, with embarrassment, for having to translate the whole three- to four-hour assembly, he simply waved a hand in the air, tossed back his head, and muttered the French equivalent of “Pshaw, it’s nothing!” But of course, it is something: a huge act of solidarity, especially given that he’s an active participant in this social struggle and wants to talk at the assembly. Equally of course, he meant it: no big deal. We’re both anarchists, after all, and this is what we (try to) do for each other.
For a third of this assembly, we then broke down into discussion groups around topics and/or projects. I and my personal whisper translator both decided to go to the student-social strike conversation, which attracted some twenty to twenty-five folks. He looked around the circle, and exclaimed, “OK, is there anyone here who doesn’t speak and understand English?” Silence. “OK, let’s just fucking do this in English, since Cindy can’t speak or understand French.” He meant “fucking” in the kindest of ways (indeed, several times during his whisper translation from French to English in the main assembly, he apparently added that same word to sentences, and many people around the room who could hear laughed, finally explaining the source of their mirth to me, to which he laughingly responded to everyone, “I’m adding enthusiasm!”). Again I felt the sting of embarrassment, and again the implied “Pshaw!”
Zero: Maybe the fact that I could hear, listen, understand, and even speak a couple times versus the fact that one person spent two-thirds of the assembly whisper translating to me (and a hefty chunk of the assembly spent another third switching languages for me) don’t cancel each other out. A longtime anarchist friend who has lived here in Montreal for a long time, an Anglophone too, said that no matter how good their French gets, there’s still a way in which one can’t articulate oneself as well in political meetings, and thus it feels like it creates power dynamics around language, and who gets really heard and listened to politically. Being whisper translated to is, in some way, like experiencing a mediated or “representational” form of politics, where you’re getting the sense of what the person translating for you — kindly, out of solidarity — thinks is necessary or important for you to know, or worth adding enthusiasm to. On the other hand, it feels acutely, for me, like I’m a burden for needing this help, especially since I’m here only short term, so don’t need to be included substantively in the same way as, for one, the Anglophone anarchist mentioned above. I also, equally, acutely felt how it does indeed make you feel the outsider, or the less than fully “enfranchised” participant in a directly democratic assembly (where, as an aside, rather than “twinkles” for affirmation, the facilitator jokingly asked for a show of “caribou,” as in the animal antlers). In terms of me — the minus one — it is merely a “Pshaw” moment. In terms of social solidarity, much less solidarity among Francophone and Anglophone students, it’s been a factor that, at a minimum, makes it hard to translate this struggle to certain people, like my “Hey, red square” guy mentioned earlier, or across certain places, such as English-language schools, and that could be a bigger deal in terms of tangible solidarity come August.
Third, and finally, take yesterday, night 81, Mile-End’s Popular Assembly night.
Now solidarity equates to 1 + 1 = 2, or maybe a whole lot more.
One Plus One: We’re now in week four of the Popular Assembly of the Mile-End Quarter, which meets every Thursday at 6:30 to usually 9:00 or even 9:30 p.m. at a “park” wedged between two near-highway urban streets — hence, the assembly promo always adds quotation marks to the location of “Clark Park.” The park is always bustling with dinner picnics and kids running from the “water park” fountains to the playground equipment. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles whiz by. It’s hard to hear under the best of circumstances, and like the anticapitalist assembly, the popular one necessitates whisper translation. Fortunately, it’s been not only me but three, four, or six others we need it. We huddle in a corner of the assembly circle, hardly able to hear the already-circumscribed version of the conversation (again, the “translators” are always whoever kindly volunteers and are always doing their best!). Most of us English-as-first-language folks don’t speak up, except those who can speak French but have a harder time understanding it, so need the whisper translation.
Every Wednesday — well, the last two — we’ve also held a new casserole plus orchestra, or “orchestroles,” bringing instruments of all shapes and sizes along with pots and spoons mixed with good cheer and free lit/red squares together for an illegal marching band in the streets. It’s a powerful and noisy show of solidarity for the strike, and actually creates an incredibly rich and wonderful sound; the musicians are good, and the rest of us manage to make our cookware a palatable accompaniment. (One passerby this past Wednesday asked if we were from a music department, bringing songs to the neighborhoods, and another wanted to hire the horn section.) But it’s also just a whole lot of silly fun. And so it’s been an icebreaker of sorts for us. Switching and tangling up languages, or pantomiming what we mean, or simply laughing together, the past two weeks have opened up communication in a way our assemblies might never have accomplished.
So this Thursday — yesterday — after our breakout working groups, it turned out that those who stayed for our re-assembly into a big group again were majority English-language listeners/speakers, and only two people were exclusively French-language listeners/speakers. So it made sense to now whisper translate from English into French for them — a first at our popular assembly. One of the two Francophone listeners/speakers looked like she was struggling to hear/understand through the whole of this whisper translation. We wrapped up the assembly, in the gathering darkness, with feedback on how the assembly went. The Francophone woman, in French, explained that it was awful having to miss so much of the conversation, it was awful feeling left out, and yet it was wonderful to truly not only understand but also viscerally feel how awful it is to be in my (and others’) shoes when we’re getting French to English translation. Her face lit up as she explained how glad she was for that experience and, more specifically, our assembly now, because as she put it (translated to me, of course), “Together, we’ve finally broken through the wall of silence between us all!”
Equals Two, or More: This was true of the fourth Mile-End Popular Assembly, but also today’s anticapitalist one, and last week’s interneighborhood meeting, and a social strike consulta last weekend, plus the few other neighborhood and student assemblies I’ve gone to so far: there’s always talk about the ongoing student strike, on the one side, and notions of a social strike, on the other, and how the two are inseparable as a question, discussion, and problematic. Each time someone tries to separate them, it’s clear that’s impossible — that they need to breath together, and breath life into each other. Which is not to say that they are equivalent. There is this sense of reinforcement or complementarity, in terms of how they can and could lend solidarity to each other. Or perhaps reciprocity is the best word choice here.
The May 22 grand demonstration called monthly by CLASSE to display support for the student strike, for instance, brought upward of a half-million people to take the streets of Montreal, illegally according to special law 78, and for all intents and purposes, such an enormous march starting in the middle of a weekday was a social strike. People left jobs and other compulsory duties to participate; stores and offices didn’t open; traffic got snarled; public transit couldn’t run. Another night, on an illegal nocturnal demonstration, some forty thousand or so inadvertently shut down a main bridge into Montreal simply because it took about an hour to march up a lengthy north-south street that leads into that urban artery, again offering an albeit short social strike (as in “economic disruption” writ large; the definition of “social strike” is often a topic of conversation lately, but that will have to wait until another blog post).
But without the striking students physically blockading their schools’ entryways, so that strikebreaking students and other college-related people can’t get inside, can’t go to class, can’t teach and go about the (literal) business of academia, a social strike would mean nothing. The student strike has already been victorious in many ways. It is the heart and soul of this Maple Spring, but not as a cry for present-day students’ self-interest. It is a demand for solidarity across generations, where these present-day students understand that they are doing this for generations to come, so cheap or (as the demand now seems to be moving) free education is something that everyone desires, as a social good, in a good society. This has, in turn, emboldened others in what could be seen as newly emerging related struggles, to offer equally compassionate forms of solidarity. The Canadian government just passed an omnibus bill that included many awful measures, such as cutting off health care to adults and kids without citizenship status, and health care folks (along with others who see this as a first step toward privatizing all health care, and just plain inhumane) are starting to pledge to offer health care anyway, even if they have to do it for free.
All to say, that there are conversations going on at every assembly and consulta about what solidarity for the student strike is, what it will look like, and how it will be implemented as August inches closer and closer, and how that might or might not relate to a social strike, as solidarity and as something unto itself. All to say, there’s a whole lot of grand conversations about solidarity, and a whole lot of micro-examples of it, in the lead up to a grand experiment in solidarity on what’s possible next with this student-social strike.
Those conversations never fail to mention that each striking school and/or school department or association has its own autonomous decision-making structure, and that any real solidarity has to involve taking the strategic and tactical lead from each of these autonomous bodies. They explore moral and material forms of solidarity, such as neighborhood assemblies holding festive “block” parties as teach-in, socializing, and mobilizing spaces just before thirteen of the key striking schools are supposed to go back or raising funds for legal support in advance, or students informing assemblies of their needs or coming to do teach-ins, such is as happening now with CLASSE touring to share how students have organized this strike and their direct democracy (take 4.59 minutes at the end of this post to watch CLASSE spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau Dubois speak, mostly in English and with subtitles when in French, on the how and why of this strike at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br0QdKC9a4I). The discussions also grapple with what can and cannot be said, because special law 78 (and the fallout from the G20) seems to criminalize so much that’s just common sense and humane, like voluntarily gathering with groups of people to speak one’s mind, and strategize toward social solidarity and social goodness.
What, then, does solidarity look like when those who want so much to be in solidarity with each other — students and neighborhoods, and assemblies of all types — can’t speak as openly as they’d like, in French or English, so have to read and whisper behind the lines, because of an emergency law meant to rip all this solidarity to shreds? Or just because of our own linguistic capabilities? Maybe our struggles to make language work, to hear and listen and speak and act in new ways, as a connective bridge between us, rather than a dividing wall of silence, are part of the answer. Or at least help to illuminate part of the (unintended) difficulties of reciprocity and solidarity in any language.
– Cindy Milstein –]]>