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“Open the Window; There’s a World,” Montreal, Night 50


Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elseware in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.

Montreal, QC – The heavy, chilly midafternoon rain has subsided, but it’s a gloomy gray outside, and there’s a 70-80% chance of more rain this evening. I have slept something like 3-4 hours per night for a week, and am behind on my paid work too, not to mention email and anything remotely resembling “real life.” All I want to do is NOT walk downtown for the 8:30 p.m. rendezvous point for the nocturnal manif in Montreal, likely wet by the time I get there to Berri-UQAM, before we’ve even started walking illegally.

Then I pop a new, gifted CD into my computer, to listen while I try to focus on paid work, and words of other uprisings and rebellions, and defeats too begin to fill my head. I toggle between work and twitter on what’s happening in Montreal, between work and hoping CUTV is online early, between work and searching for stories and images of maple spring.

That leads to another maple-spring distraction: scrolling through the many photos I’ve snapped on my smartphone, while forever walking on the red streets of Montreal, and I stumble across this picture. It’s one of many images I haven’t yet posted, of public art painted within large rectangles on the pavement of the closed-off Mont-Royal street during last weekend’s sidewalk sale that stretched for blocks. I assume, in years past, this art, which also stretched for blocks, with the yellow divider line for traffic running through each big piece, was supposed to encourage shopping, not disobedience. But nearly every piece this year included red squares, sharp & blurry, large & small, playful & serious. And red. Lots and lots of red.

At first, in the 2:30 a.m. dim light from streetlamps, I thought this was an abstract piece. It was so much darker, furious even, than any other piece. Then the continents slowly took shape for me–continents in strong, angry black; continents we know, without the artist having to show it, divided into states, capitalism, racism, heteronormativity, and so many other enclosures of freedom. So many borders demeaning dignity and breaking bones.

Then the red. Angry, proud, on the move, bursting from the dark and even “darker nations,” as Vijay Prashad titled one of his books. Screaming, to me: Revolt in Quebec! Below, in a corner of this massive piece of art, are some words in French. I click a photo, and only now try to decipher it, likely badly, using an automatic translator program–ironically, since a fantastic human translator is loaning me her apartment now while she’s at a retreat. I may not be getting the French right, and at some point soon, I want to write a piece called “Lost (& Found) in Translation” to explore how I am experiencing this moment as someone who doesn’t speak French and isn’t a Canadian–and how that both masks things and reveals things. So while it should matter that I get the French right, for tonight, as the rain pours down heavily again and whips the trees wildly outside the third-floor window where I sit (trying, trying, failing to work), my translation speaks what I want this piece of street art to say:

“Open the window; there’s a world.”

There’s a world outside. A world that in a few minutes, I’ll walk out into, dry skies or not, because it’s night 50 in Montreal of marches that have illegally snaked, raced, rioted, marched, casseroled, chanted, trudged, danced, skipped, skateboarded, biked, walked, wheelchaired, strollered, and otherwise taken over, flagrantly, as every night the police say no. No, it’s illegal. No, you need to disperse. No. The illegalistas answer with their feet, unstoppable. For 50 nights.

There’s another kind of world outside. That world that we want to change. That world broken apart into separate things called nations, provinces, property. Millions of miles of enclosures, when all we see as we march through the streets of Montreal are millions of openings–that we’re taking and making. Maybe that’s why so many red squares, each one like a fire-engine-red spark. That red that’s breaking out of the black blocs of continents in this art piece is a red that can and must travel, to find others who “see red” when they see injustice, misery, exploitation, pain. Those others who answered all the police and military, dictators and presidents, who said “NO. A million times NO,” with one big global “ENOUGH,” small at first, like the initial pots and pans on that first night when they banged in Montreal, but suddenly bursting in a cacophony of casseroles, in the way that our “ENOUGH” connects from Chiapas to Cairo to Quebec, and so much in between.

It’s 7:45, and it looks like the rain is only a drizzle. I’m wondering if I should take a black umbrella along, for rain and because police recently targeted them as another symbol of illegality, as something seen as suspect and subversive. That kind of targeted happened “long ago” in the United States, when following 9/11, the US government and its police created their own menacing categories: toothpaste, backpacks, Swiss Army knives, bottled water, shoes.

This is why people go out here. Against tuition increases and US-style “higher education,” yes. Against austerity, yes. Against repressing dissent with new laws and too many police, too tired from 50 nights on the street and so more dangerous than usual, yes. But, I think, simply to reclaim the common sense of life–where toothpaste cleans our teeth, shoes protect our foot, and little red squares make us happy.

Rain or not, night 50, all out.

-Cindy Milstein-

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Intimacy Versus Capitalism: Montreal, Day 49


Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elseware in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.

Montreal, QC – Capitalism, due to its own internal logic, is “compelled” to do increasingly horrible things to humans and other living creatures, ultimately turning us into dead matter. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that in moments of popular uprisings, everything comes quickly to life. Maybe the power of the Arab Spring last year and the Maple Spring this year is that bursting forth of life that comes in spring regardless of revolt, from frozen ground to the sudden intoxicating procession of crocus-daffodil-iris-lilac. But mix rebellion into the cherry blossoms and all hell can break loose. We, ourselves, can break loose.

And once we’re awakened, like people seem to be in Montreal, that accelerated return to life, from the deadening world of capitalism, spills into summer. How could it not? Especially in a place like Montreal, where winter is especially brutal (kind of like the police of late here) and so summer becomes especially precious–especially public–in a city architecturally scaled for public street, park, and balcony life. I’ve visited Montreal a lot in past summertimes, and it’s always had a particularly enchanting quality. But that quality now seems elevated to what I can only, perhaps still inadequately, call a feeling of “intimacy” in its most expansive sense. People are remembering what they are capable of, from solidarity to courage, from mutual aid to direct action, from collective illegality in the face of repression to sharing this moment–the many exquisite moments–with each other in so many intimate ways.

The other day, before the Grand Prix disruption on Friday, one of the CUTV guys kept telling me that this many months of maple spring blossoming into maple summer was about love, from the student strike to the social awakening. I’d run into him–a complete stranger–a couple weeks ago when he randomly asked me on the street if he could interview me on livestream (CUTV stops lots of folks to do interviews on the long nightly marches), and when he said he was from CUTV, I threw my arms around him without thinking, hugged him tight, and exclaimed, “I love CUTV!!” (For those of you who know me, I can be a pretty exuberant–overwhelming?–person.) I didn’t do an interview that night, mostly because after I’d hugged him, I felt embarrassed, especially when he kept urging me to say how much I loved CUTV on camera. When we ended up chatting the other day, it was the first time I’d seen him since that hug, and I reminded him of that moment on the street. He blinked for a second and then lit up; of course he remembered me! Then he leaped into a repetitive refrain, equally exuberant to our first encounter, tha basically went, “but this movement is about love! It’s always been about love!”

His comments, in turn, reminded me of OWS in its first weeks, when love seemed the strongest of symbols and motivations, and there were thousands of people similar to my CUTV friend, who retains that freshness that OWS and other occupies have lost, because we’re still in the spring that’s about to become the summer of the maple uprising. Because there’s an intimacy here that comes from seeing a tiny red square on someone’s hat or skirt, and knowing you can wink or smile at them, or share a knowing glance. Because there’s an intimacy, too, that comes from standing next to someone you didn’t know a few minutes ago and feeling tear gas constrict your throat, and pulling each other away from riot police–then running into them again at some random place like a cafe, as if you’re old friends.

There’s also this intimacy forged by hours and miles of walking illegally together, in what’s becoming a grand civic experiment in collective summer evening strolls (and perhaps a grand experiment in collective exercise). Or an intimacy in relatively tiny moments, like when we convened tonight by the hundreds, yet scattered in small knots, around the good-sized park, fringed as it always is by clumps of riot cops and bike cops, next to Berri-UQAM Metro for the 8:30 p.m. march.

Suddenly the police pulled out their loudspeakers from their “technology section” van to say (for some reason, now in French and English, perhaps for the benefit of summer tourists) that we needed to walk in the right direction or we’d be declared illegal. In a flash, people surged toward the police and their van, becoming a mass that seemed to swell to a thousand or more, and everyone stepped off the curb without hesitant, and with tons of noise, and briskly tried to go in the wrong direction together. In tonight’s case, the wrong direction was toward the International Economic Forum of the Americas conference meeting.

Today, I’ve had intimacy versus capitalism on the mind.

This past weekend and now this night 49, it’s so clear what–far more than who–the police are protecting: capital. On the weekend, they encircled $200,000 cars being shown off during the outdoor Grand Prix party area around St.-Catherine Street; tonight, they formed lines around key buildings in the financial district as we passed by them, such as the trade center, the stock exchange, the largest mainstream media producer, and bank offices.

But there’s also this odd way that capitalism, in its “mom-and-pop” form, is flagging the symbol–the threatening little red square–that increasingly links student tuition, austerity measures, and capitalism together, or the very undoing (if this revolt were to succeed) of the very basis of their business. One store in the neighborhood where I’m staying is offering 50 percent off on summer clothing if you wear a red square; when I asked why, one clerk pointed to another one–a young woman wearing a red square. “She wanted to do it,” he said, “in solidarity.”

More and more, I’m seeing store windows displaying red squares, often pinned to a mannequin’s clothing or for sale as red-square earrings. Some local shops forbid employees from wearing the square; others seem to encourage it, including as an incentive to tip those employees–wearing a red square, of course.

My cynical perspective on this, and likely there’s some truth to it, is that capital co-opts everything, and adores turning rebellion into trendy commodity. The state and politicians do similar things. For instance, a Montreal anarchist friend who I walked with in the nightly march for about an hour this eve told me that today, a Facebook page announced that some self-appointed organizers–mostly from political parties–for this Wednesday’s “Casseroles across Canada” in Montreal had shared the “illegal” route with the police. Apparently Montreal anarchists commented, a lot, on this plan via Facebook in return, but in a persuasive way, explaining that the whole point of the evening marches was that they were intended as an illegal direct defiance of special law 78. The electorally minded folks recanted, saying there would be a new route and they wouldn’t tell the police about it. Key to this example, for now, is that only 25 people had “joined” this Wednesday night Facebook invite–hence the politicians haven’t managed to crush the flowers of this spring (yet). My friend told me this as we marched past the Economic Forum meetings, with now thousands of other friends, acquaintances, and new comrades–all illegal.

Maybe that’s why the CUTV guy still has this joyfully innocent outlook about love and this uprising, because it’s still in the romantic spring/summer phase of its head-over-heels new love of its own collective and civic power. Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep, and why nearly each and every interaction of more than an hour or so that I have with people on the rosy-red streets elicits feelings of intimacy and love in the CUTV sense–where I’d hug a CUTV person at first sight simply because I so appreciate all they are giving and gifting through livestreaming each evening, unstopped by neither rain nor heat nor pepper spray. And if I spend more than a hour with you, watch out! But it isn’t just me; I see this intimacy, profoundly so, on the faces of the 17- to 21-year-old college students, or rather the striking college students, who are probably addicted to the love of what they’ve created and each other, for creating it. Probably they can’t sleep either, which is why maybe the end of tonight’s march seemed to consist mostly of me and 17-year-olds.

Maybe those employees wearing red squares and their “mom-and-pop” bosses are still in this “in love” moment where they aren’t posting or promoting red squares in order to boost their sales but because they believe in the magic too. Maybe they also have come alive, and don’t see the relation (yet) between capitalism calculation and this sappy-maple awakening. I’d like to think that we could stay in this suspended time of simple comaraderie. But as long as capitalism is still around, it will manufacture its own red squares to all-too-soon sell our revolutions back to us–taxidermied May 1968s, as corpses in our mouths.

My friend Alex–someone I already feel close to precisely because we met on the streets right after law 78 passed and barricades were being built by new & old rebels, then torn apart by police, then rebuilt, then torn again, until someone opened up a fire hydrant and St.-Denis became a revolutionary water park, a mix of anger and empowerment–recently pulled out her well-worn and marked-up copy of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. She opened it to his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where in section xv he speaks of “the awareness that they [those in the French Revolution] are about to make the continuum of history explode.” And so “in the July revolution an incident occurred. . . . On the first evening of the fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris.” An eyewitness, Benjamin goes on to note, wrote that they “fired at the dials in order to stop the day.”

Pablo Neruda’s beautiful words “They can cut all the flowers, but cannot stop the spring,” which have been lovingly overlaid on movements this 2012 spring season, seems to me to have another meaning, as I walk hours and miles through the maple spring. Maybe we want to stop the spring ourselves, so as to savor it and hold it dear, so as to hug it tight like new and old rebel friends on the street. Maybe we want to fire on the clocks that wake us for work, that time us for a paycheck, that tick away the minutes until summer becomes fall and then a cold, brutal winter again–that measure our deaths under capitalism, and have no time at all for intimacy.

So on this night 49, filled with the warm radiant heat of a summer night, made hotter still by so many people continuing to turn out illegally to march, and the warmth of the bonds we feel when we do so, I’m overcome by the actually existing fact that people can and do act along the lines of an “economy” of gifting and mutual aid and solidarity, backed by the intimacy and love created in our spring uprisings, despite all that capitalism does to beat the life out of us.

Tonight, when I walked the half hour from temporarily gifted home to illegally reclaimed streets, I kept hearing the now-familiar sound of casseroles every couple blocks. Each time, from the sound of it, I thought I’d see 50 or 100 or more people, banging on. But each time, there was only 4 or 5 people, and often only 2 or 3. They stood at the intersection of their quiet residential streets, lined with spring-summer flowers (oddly, coincidentally, often red ones), and put their heart into their pot banging, which sounded so loud from a distance because it echoed off the houses. I’d left my pot and spoon at home, so each time I passed one of these casseroles, I clapped along with their beat. And for a minute–each time, a long and luxuriously minute that we stole for ourselves–it was as if their noise was the sound of clocks being fired on, so that we had time to offer knowing glances of solidarity, nods of intimate acknowledgment that we’re all in this together, that each person matters, that every pot holds a person who’s awakened themselves from the hibernation of winter to plant their own spring.

I fear that my lack of sleep and the dreamy quality of this red city cloud my judgment in these blogs. That maybe it really doesn’t feel this way right now. But tonight, I ran into five anarchist(ic) acquaintances from the United States in the evening’s illegal stroll. Yesterday evening they crossed the border that lets capital in so freely and keeps so many people unfree on both sides, and instantly landed themselves alongside the night 48 and riot cops, who was extra unfriendly last night after a Grand Prix weekend out of their control. As we started out on night 49, stretching across multiple lanes for several blocks, one of them–someone I’ve barely only met once–walked up to me and we chatted as if old comrades. She had this look in her eye, like falling in love at first sight. My tempered side, the side that doesn’t want to lose each and every ounce of intimacy I’m experiencing, and wants to start protecting my heart now, says: that will diminish, of course. Yet through her eyes, I could see the freshness that still hasn’t been lost in this groundswell of popular power, as she said something like, “I didn’t think it would really be like this, but you really can feel maple spring in the air.”

-Cindy Milstein-

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Occupying Saskatchewan


In regards to police, we had a much different experience than other Occupy cities. There were some online threats of violence against us before the camp started, so on the first night, when there was only a dozen of us, I stayed awake, sitting in the a.t.m. lobby of the bank, coming out whenever someone was walking around. I had some good conversations late that night after the bar closed, explained what we were doing to people who had either not heard of Occupy Regina or who had only heard negative or vague media. This was one of the most important aspects of Occupy for us, the fact that we were able to communicate with the kinds of people who don’t go to protests, who don’t seek this kind of information out. As we grew, the nightwatch became institutionalized. Every night a few of us would stay awake, not just to do security, which was all too necessary because of the area, but because it gave us the opportunity to have discussions about various issues with the many random people going through downtown at every hour of the night. From before the first night, Occupy Regina had a police liaison, the police told us to keep the drugs and the alcohol out of the park and phone them if there was any violence or threats. By the way, Victoria Park, where the Occupy Regina camp was located, is in the middle of downtown, it is the main “drug park” for Regina. But while we were there, the dealing stopped. For the month that we were there, we kept that part of downtown safer than it had been in decades.

To put this in perspective, I am currently, for the record, the director of the Saskatchewan chapter of the National Organization For The Reform Of Marijuana Laws, and I’ve been the Regina event coordinator for the last 10 years. So for 10 years I’ve been organizing legalization rallies, including mass civil disobedience exercises like the annual 4/20 smokeout, and the vast majority of these actions have been held in Victoria Park. Other Occcupy residents were recreational users, some of them people who usually bought and used in Victoria Park. But we spent 4 whole weeks enforcing the “drug free zone” policy the group had agreed on to establish positive relations with the police when we started. This was surreal for me. We had a friendly, working relationship with the police throughout the existence of the camp, some came through quickly while off duty and out of uniform to donate.

We have a housing crisis in Regina, and there were nights when all the homeless shelters in the city were full. They’d direct the overflow to us, because we had a community tent. It was safer than sleeping in an alley somewhere alone, where many of those people are now that the Occupy Regina camp is gone.

Like many Occupy supporters, I’m kind of anti-capitalist on the whole, I believe we need an entirely new economic system, but we found common ground with the people who ran local businesses and family farmers from the downtown farmers market, and many of the union people who came around because we recognize that the banking system has fundamentally undermined capitalism itself,and we focused on finding and nurturing this common ground as much as possible. We did our dishes at local businesses, we had donated food, clothes, blankets, even tents, propane tanks, and money from people coming through. We had people who would come by to ridicule us based on something they heard in the media and come back the next day with donations because they discovered that they actually agreed with what we were saying.

Some businesses said that we were drawing more business downtown by being there, like a tourist attraction. This was especially true for the special acoustic solo performance by Joe Keithley from DOA, which brought out all kinds of different people. During the week before remembrance day, right wing talk radio kept harping about how we should shut down before Nov. 11 to “show respect for veterans”. Long before, we had agreed to take down political signs and banners and not campaign for that day, but not taking the tents down. The veterans, for the most part, liked us there, we were invited to the Legion hall and the Archbishop of the Quappelle Diocese, who led the remembrance day ceremony, gave us totally positive mention in his sermon, saying we were honoring the sacrifices of World War 2 by using the freedoms they fought for in the way they were intended.

We ultimately didn’t resist shut down. We recognized how uniformly Occupy camps were being shut down at the same time everywhere and realized that the decision was being made somewhere other than Regina, somewhere far away. We recognized that federal funding for projects might have been threatened to get City Hall to evict us even though we had an entirely positive relationship with the public, only 4 complaints and lots of compliments. We also didn’t want to put the police in the position of having to forcefully remove us, because we had a totally positive relationship with them and wanted to keep that for future events.

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