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 –]]>
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 –]]>
Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elsewhere in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.
Montreal, QC–It should not be surprising that the longest student strike in North American history, the one kicked off on February 13, 2012 in Quebec, has captured the imagination. For sheer persistence alone, it’s a gripping drama. But strikes can be dreary things when they drag on — a standoff bringing matters to an unproductive standstill, and wearing down strikers, strike supporters, strikebreakers, police, and “bosses” alike, although to differing degrees and consequences. What’s striking about this particular strike is that imagination itself has been a key ingredient from the start — and a generative one at that. That sensibility is alive and well, and so there’s rarely a dull moment, or positively put, imagination that willingly and critically rethinks itself has to date made for a dynamic movement.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the word imagination, first and foremost, as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality,” along with “the exercise of that [power].” Related phrases that spring to mind are creativity, inspiration, andinnovation. Rather than a shutting down (in this case, of school), the Quebec student strike has been marked by creation, “the act of making, inventing, or producing,” to quote Merriam-Webster’s again. And such acts, in turn, have the potential to strike at the very heart(lessness) of capitalism.
People typically think of strikes as purely economic in character, related to some specific injustice. Within that frame, some people also think of strikes as decrying capitalism’s inherent logic of an exploitative power-over our lives, with the goal being to eke out a slightly better deal from it — at best, a “new deal,” if such a thing is still structurally possible under neoliberalism, which is highly doubtful. And it must be remembered that the U.S. New Deal, notwithstanding its amelioration of certain types of human suffering at the time, was a band-aid measure on the part of the U.S. government to stop the spread of revolutionary movements/ideas and heal the wounds of the Great Depression with liberal reforms that, as Howard Zinn remarked in the 1960s, actually preserved the worst elements of capitalism.
Maybe, sometimes, people recall strikes that advocated or led to workers’ self-management. Increasingly, though, most people aren’t workers. Or they are compelled to do work that shouldn’t exist, like smiley-face greeters at the front doors of Walmart or the Gap, say, or slaving away at labor under neo-sweatshop and neo-indentured servitude conditions. Or work takes up too much of people’s lives, with the alternative being not an eight-hour-day but rather unemployment, underemployment, and precarious “temp” or day labor. Besides, self-management within capitalism is, largely, still self-managed misery with a kinder and gentler face. This isn’t to minimize the transformative power of self-governing one’s workplace with other workers, as the film by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein on Argentina’s worker-reoccupied factories, The Take, illustrates so well. Yet in that same film, as the worker-husband protagonist speaks about his experience, his unwaged-worker-wife mentions how she looks forward to the day when they can afford McDonald’s “Happy Meals” for their kids again.
So alongside critiques of capitalism’s deadening effects, whether we reform or self-manage them, there’s also the “hidden” fact of most strikes revealed in The Take too: that wage-work strikers usually rely on unwaged still-working workers to keep caring for them. Not to mention that wage-labor “care workers” such as nurses are often prohibited by law from striking, or are caregiving “outlaws” who can’t strike, such as nannies without papers or sex workers. This has led to critical explorations such as that detailed in the essay “A Very Careful Strike” by the militant Madrid-based research collective Precarias a la Deriva, which proposes a notion of “caring strikes.” The overarching idea is that such a strike would be embodied in “everyday and multiple practice[s]” of de-commodified care writ large, since care, as one of the latest and most lucrative frontiers of commodification for capitalism, sadly needs to be reappropriated along with so much else. A caring strike would include, among other things, “transforming public space, converting spaces of consumption into places of encounter” — a notion germane to the Rêve Général Illimité. The Precarias a la Deriva collective asks,
“Why not begin to imagine and construct an organization of the social that prioritizes persons, that attends to our sustainability — from access to health care to the right to affect — which orients toward our enrichment as human beings — from the access to knowledge, education, and information to the freedom to move around the world — that listens to our desires?. . . [W]e want to think relations beyond those of the commodity mediations, following the logic of the gift, where one gives without knowing what, how, and when one will receive something in exchange.” (English translation from the Commoner, no. 11 [Spring 2006])
It’s hard to envision, much less see tangible evidence of, forms of caring strikes, and ones in particular whose own inherent logic brings out the heterogeneous “revolutionary potential of care” (as our Madrid friends put it) while also simultaneously defying capitalism’s hegemonic logic, whether consciously or not. Even when people are striking in more caring and careful ways, they are still often doing so against types of work and/or workplaces that are increasingly anachronistic, and hence in ways that are anachronistic or based on archaic notions like, in this context, the student as (factory) worker.
It’s hard to unravel how aware various Quebec student strikers were of their own “anticapitalism” or the novelty of what they were about to do when they set out to organize what’s become known as the maple spring. From the beginning, though, there seemed to be an explicit awareness on the part of these young organizers of their own self-determining ability to do something that capitalism would have us believe we can’t: acts of making, inventing, and producing the world, or rather, our world. The seemingly totalizing social system that capitalism manufactures, by stealing nearly everything from us — from our labor and leisure, to love and imagination, to time and space, and so much more — through its seemingly unceasing acts of commodification, convinces us (or better yet, simply socializes us from day one) that this world is “natural,” and relatedly, that another world is unimaginable and certainly out of our hands to create. If we buy into capitalism’s story, we’ve already settled for crumbs from or maybe, if we’re lucky, a meager slice of the pie.
Whether wittingly or no, the still-striking-students seemed from the get-go to write their own script, strategically and astutely, as in “we want to bake the pie ourselves and then share it with everyone.” That beginning was about making, inventing, and producing, for example, their own time, as in not striking until they thought they were ready — meaning, they set a date in the future for the strike to start, and then worked hard for many months to build self-organized strength — rather than letting capitalism (and the province) make time for them. The simple premise of qualitatively “doing(-it-ourselves)” and “on our own time” in direct contestation with further commodification, it could be argued, is what allowed the strike to successfully, at least for now, gain power-from-below, forcing a top-down governance structure and its enforcement agents into a defensive crisis. That self-made time has also included, it should be noted, a long view, in stark contrast to contemporary capitalism’s dizzyingly ever-accelerated, “just-in-time,” attention-deficit-producing tempo (over a year ago, a study put the average life span of a tweet at under two hours; such speedups nearly guarantee that no one has time to think, question, organize, or even remember).
That script has also been a figurative and sometimes-literal multimedia work of art and labor of love, with its component parts ranging, figuratively and maybe literally too, from jazz improvisation-composition to street art to dérive to high theatrics and grand oratory (for my earlier musings on the notion of the maple spring dérive, seehttp://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/queer-feminista-anticapitalista-montreal-nights-53-60/). The student strike, also from the start, strategically and astutely, was about making, inventing, and producing new spaces, again both figuratively and literally. Perhaps beyond it’s wildest dreams, or again unwittingly, the strike has helped facilitate all sorts of new spaces, such as the de-schooling of classrooms into actual places of learning (used by strikers for such self-schooling as organizing, artistic creations, and assemblies, say). Or the reclaiming of the city and its streets, neighborhoods, balconies, parks, and festivals for a host of new encounters, new practices, and new social relations — boldly, disobediently without permission of riot police or special laws.
At a time when state and capitalism, along with other institutionalized forms of oppression like racism and heteronormativity, have either thoroughly privatized all space (as in making it a clear commodity, with enforcement mechanisms to back that up) or throughly made a mockery of the notion of public space (as in making sure that anything public is hierarchically governed and regulated, and various behaviors — like sleeping — are policed), there’s little of the the one space that’s ours: the commons. The commons is a place, space, or even idea (as in imagination!) that is there for us to mutually use, share, and enjoy, thereby implying, if it is to have any qualitative meaning and sustainable longevity, that it has to be mutually self-organized and self-governed, via formal and/or informal mechanisms of our making, inventing, and producing.
The space that perhaps the student strikers never envisioned — and may still only have inklings of — is that of critical thought and popular education. In helping themselves along with more and more of the “nonstudent” society to unlearn, relearn, and learn afresh through the various new physical and psychic spaces being experimented with now, the space of education has moved from the deadening architecture of the UQAM complex (a visible testament to how the “promises” of the Quiet Revolution were, like the New Deal, partially a way to contain revolution), implying that education happens in a specific building at a specific age for specific types of people in specific often-mind-numbing ways, to the enlivening architecture of the new city that’s being played with in multiple ways, including various engagements with this festival summer.
Thus, to return to the beginning of this piece, it isn’t so much that the strike grabbed people’s imagination, as that imagination ignited a student strike, which in turn is firing up notions of a social strike, which hopefully in turn will open up new possibilities, including around legacies of unfreedom. The student-and-social strikes are self-generative via the doing of imagination — as opposed to passive consumption of or even spectacular participation in “imagination,” usually of the corporate-sponsored variety.
Hence what really should be no surprise, but probably comes as one, is that, first, the striking students in Quebec were and increasingly are asking for a social good that structurally isn’t possible within capitalism — education for all, now and in the future, and what’s more for free. Education isn’t and likely never was a factory per se, though its form and content at present should be drastically rethought, and “students” are or should be part of what we’d want an albeit-free society and everyone in it to be: educated and engaged. (As a related aside, two University of Michigan students, Brian Whitener and Daniel Nemser, contend that there are presently four crucial ways that universities are connected to capitalism and profit-making more generally: construction, endowments, research and development, and student debt; for me, that means that students are almost like mannequins in a shop window within this structural shift in academia.)
This, secondarily, has opened up space to imagine all sorts of social goods, with people not doing things because of narrow, economistic self-interest but rather out of an expansive social solidarity. If you participated in any of the casseroles, especially in their “early” days, that was lavishly glimpsed on streets and balconies, as well as from kids in pajamas clanging on pots outside their front doors to night waitstaff joining in with forks on glasses outside their restaurants. A wide swath of the populace, in Montreal and places far distance, created an imaginative people’s music that was at once a wake-up call to those still not listening, a self-orchestrated celebration of popular power, and deafening solidarity for the student strike and all the shared austerity looming like storm clouds in the close distance.
And third, the forms facilitating this student strike were and are generative of other ways of making, inventing, and producing (as in experimenting with “not making capitalism”) everything from education to decision-making methods, cultural creations to city streets, to name a few — or to name another, as someone noted on a Facebook event announcement this week, a “manifestive.” A manifestive is itself an imaginative remaking of the French word manifestation (“demonstration,” and it could be added, in the double sense within English, a display of both “protesting” and “proving” something) and the ubiquitous summertime landscape of festivals here in Montreal.
There are many examples of this creative strike within maple spring-summer. And because there are so many, many examples, all emerging out of a shared and powerful demand — in essence, a society that’s abundant, not austere — the student strike has given renewed and prolific life to the phrase “a diversity of tactics,” itself invented during the height of the anticapitalist days of the alter-globalization movement. “Tactics,” however,” doesn’t do the manifold practices under this rubric justice. The student strike revolves around “a diversity of strategies,” which increasingly point toward a diversified world beyond the monocropping culture of state and capital, not to mention racism, heteronormativity, and patriarchy (alas: etc.) and legacies of colonialism (alas: etc.). This raises the unanswerable chicken-and-egg question of whether imagination generated this movement-from-below or this movement-from-below is generative of imagination. Happily, the response doesn’t matter. Thanks to the student strikers, imagination-from-below has all the power! At least for the time being.
Looking backward, that’s meant everything from the little red square growing up from its 2005 infancy to become a big and colorful superstar, but not letting this go to its head; anyone can add their personality to the red square, and they have and do (for an ever-increasing archival sampler of all the nonhierarchical making, inventing, and producing of red squares, see http://seeingredmontreal.tumblr.com/), and many people carry around bunches of felt squares with safety pin attached as a caring-strike gift. That’s meant, too, creative ways of clothing and unclothing oneself, from anarchopanda to naked marchers. It’s meant as well a plethora of ways to fill one’s striking hours and configure self-educate, from imaginative methods of soft and hard blockades (including a try once at a huge group simply laughing for twenty minutes), to CLASSE congresses and neighborhood assemblies, to artist, translation, video, and livestream collectives, to repurposing classrooms as much more purposeful spaces, to disobedient yet joyous illegal reclaiming of the streets through everything from grand manifestations to nightly demos, from casseroles to F1 disruptions. And this list could go on . . . and indeed is going on.
Which brings us to this week and consecutive night 73 (July 5) of the illegal evenings of what could be seen as creative interventions into the culture and geography of self-organized resistance, and better still, caring and careful self-generated reconstruction: Rêve Général Illimité au Festival du Jazz de Montréal (for more info, see the Web site of the Montreal-based HOWL! Arts Collective, composed of cultural workers, artists, and activists working for social justice via artisticexpression:http://howlarts.net/post/26376871104/reve-general-illimite-au-festival-du-jazz-de-montreal).
From the inspiring large student strike to more modest flights of fancy like this Thursday, July 5′s creative intervention, or manifestive, at the Jazz Festival, toward general unlimited dreams. Wow! Or meow, as the striking graphic for the Rêve Général Illimité exclaims! (For the story and designer behind this graphic, see LOKI design’s Web site, http://lokidesign.net/2356/2012/07/reve-general-illimite/.)
I’ll let the HOWL! Arts Collective’s description of this manifestive — to which HOWL! invites everyone to participate in (specifically, the call says to “dress in RED, and bring your placard signs, instruments and casseroles” at 6 p.m. to the open space at Saint-Laurent metro) — speak for itself for a moment:
“As the Liberal government’s political repression continues against the largest protest movement in Québec’s history, notably with the passing of Law 78 to silence dissent in the streets, massive cultural festivals are being planned without consideration of the ongoing political crisis.”
“The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal is seen by people around the world as a symbol of the free spirit and cultural character of Montréal. As community artists based in this city, we feel the corporate sponsorship now driving the festival ultimately undermines the political, social, economic, and physical space that allows independent culture to thrive in Montreal. Is the spirit of jazz truly represented by Toronto Dominion, a bank responsible for pushing neoliberal economic polices in Canada, and profiting off the backs of poor and working people?”
Understanding how to relate to the spirit of festivals that dominate Montreal in the summer — a time when, due to the intensity of winter, it seems like this city lives outside and for unabashed enjoyable — was a delicate, seemingly tricky question as the festival season neared. The anticipation hung heavy in the air, where nightly a helicopter also hung low to surveil the illegal demos, as to what would happen with the first of the “festivals”: the Grand Prix. The student coalition CLASSE and the anarchist organization CLAC collaborated on various strategies to disrupt the F1 and its conspicuous display of wealth, sexism, and (as many people are fond of saying here), douchebags.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the disruption was grand, engaged in by so many people that the the police couldn’t tell “casseroler” from “anarchist” from “student striker” from “tourist” from “ordinary Montrealer” from “Saturday night partygoer” to even just a plain ol’ “douchebag,” and were thus at a loss to control it — the “it” being a shared “fuck the police” sensibility that encompassed a host of grievances and antagonisms, but also underscored yet again just how deep this movement is within this city. And best of all, the disruption also underscored the brutality of the police, absurdity of special law 78, strength of the student-social strike, and the reason behind targeting the Grand Prix. How could elites toss around so much money even as they are part of the crew, for all intents and purposes, trying to raise tuition and cut other social goods? How could they get so drunk on their own power “without consideration of the ongoing political crisis,” as HOWL! observes above in relation to the Jazz Festival, but probably more accurately, in complete consideration of the ongoing political crisis, as in a big “fuck the student strike” on the part of the rich.
Once again, imagination had won the day — particularly the imaginative strategy of dressing “normally” and walking into the closed-off downtown party streets for the Grand Prix with hidden disruption tools: pots and pans, ladles and spoons. Who would have ever thought that cookware could create such chaos!
To the credit of those many people involved in this maple spring-summer, a “diversity of tactics/strategies” is being applied to the festivals, since not all festivals are created equal.
Problematic as the sovereignty question is, along with its various tendencies (statist, racist, successionist, and/or independentist, for example) and various legacies (for instance, exclusion, oppression, brutality, and colonialism), the FrancoFolies with its definite Quebec-pride flavor, offered both an enormous and enormously sympathetic audience along with highly sympathetic musicians. Perhaps it was too sympathetic, as evidenced by the increasing appearance of Quebec flags and imagery among student-social strikers, and whether a further diversity of tactics/strategies around this free fest and the student strike should have occurred is an open, serious question. Those who engaged with this festival choose the path of least resistance (save for the Pink Bloc, which tried to queer it up!). So after an early episode with the police trying to block the nightly illegal demo from entering the festival, the festival organizers apparently made it clear that it was fine for any student strikers and their allies to come in and bring their message along too. The illegal demo thus easily made swings through the music-listening audience on various evenings, culminating in the band Loco Locass bringing student-strike spokespeople and the École de la Montagne Rouge up on stage with it, complete with “Quebec is Dead! Long Live Quebec” screen prints.
And this brings us around to the Jazz Festival, perhaps the flagship festival of the summer, especially for those many people and performers who flock into Montreal for its mix of free and ticketed performances but especially its open celebration of music and culture. Many people involved with or sympathetic to the student-social strike were already booked to play in the festival. As HOWL! noted, Toronto Dominion had already signed on as corporate sponsor. Likely everything about this gigantic festival is planned long, long in advance — maybe as long ago as the now-striking students began organizing toward their strike, although probably with a whole lot less vibrant of an imagination. So now knowing what the Jazz Festival knows of the political terrain, how could (or should have) it have honestly addressed the student strike, even if only to nod to its existence? How could (or should) it have incorporated themes, artistic and cultural, that grappled explicitly with this social crisis, even if that meant ticking off its corporate sponsors ever so slightly or more? How could it go on as normal, as if this summer were like any other, without some or a whole lot of mention of this historic and longest-running student strike in North America? Or is that even the Jazz Festival’s job, contrasting it to the FrancoFolies, which decided it was its job, but perhaps for some of the wrong reasons?
Maybe this is where street art diverges from festival art. It can, and should, intervene. So maybe the best of ways that the Jazz Festival could (and should) be engaged with in relation to the student strike is not by wanting it to make space but rather precisely by collectives and communities of resistance and reconstruction (from HOWL! to École de la Montagne Rouge to anyone and everyone who decides to join in this Thursday) taking their own space inside it. After all, in the open space of Metro St.-Laurent that is intended to become the people’s space during the Rêve Général Illimité manifestive, we will find not disruption (such as of the Grand Prix) or uncritical sympathy (such as with the FrancoFolies) but instead another type of path at another type of festival.
With the Rêve Général Illimité, we might discover the art of making culture collectively, the art of provocation as social critique and social vision, and the art of doing-it-ourselves. We might unleash the art of the new forms of strikes and strike solidarity, opening up literal and figurative spaces for de-commodified making, inventing, and producing. Then too, we might feel and share the art of the caring strike. And we might, and hopefully indeed will, engage in the art of manifesting our dreams — if only in a short, improvisational manifestive moment, to be strung together with the many moments, nights, and months of this still-imaginative student-social strike.
Maybe none of this will happen, and the general infinitely unlimited dream will feel like a nightmare afterward. That’s also the risk of experimentation. If there’s one thing — well, there are many — but if there’s one thing that the still-striking students have shown those of us not in college, it’s that careful, caring, yet courageous diversity of tactics/strategies, with a hefty dose of social goodand a hell of a lot of imagination in the mix, can fly far beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. What’s your daydream for the Rêve Général Illimité? As HOWL! invites for this Thursday, July 5, at 6 p.m. for this creative intervention: play it, dance it, perform it, draw it, pantomime it, paint it, sing it, sketch it, dramatize it, recite it, print it, improv it, or casserole it!
* * *
Coincidentally, another creative intervention just popped up on Facebook as I reached this ending, which it seems is only beginning, if this student-social strike keeps up the way it’s been going: LIVRE CARRÉ ROUGE pour la 75e manif, or badly translated, SQUARE RED BOOK for the 75th demonstration.
And to forge ahead with my bad (online-assisted) translation: To mark the 75th night of demonstrations — this Saturday, July 7 — a book will be filled with 75 texts, 75 words of encouragement to the protesters, 75 thoughts to continue until victory! All participants and sympathizers are invited to write a thought, caricature, sketch, tag, or note. The book will be read starting at 7:30 p.m. at Place Émilie-Gamelin, followed by the nightly illegal demo.
For a more coherent French-language version, seehttps://www.facebook.com/events/441118925922776/.
* * *
My thanks to Thien for the three gorgeous photos of the Rêve Général Illimité sticker in action (for more photographs, head over tohttp://quelquesnotes.wordpress.com/), and kudos to LOKi design, again, for the Rêve Général Illimité image. And especial appreciation to the person (who shall remain anonymous here, since I’m not sure if they’d want to be named in relation to the intervention or my blog) who when I asked how I might contribute to Rêve Général Illimité, asked me in turn to write something. I hope this goes some way toward what they were looking for, since their dedication to remaining a student of life and ideas, from organizing to the arts and/as politics to reading theory and history during the downtime of their wage-labor time, has gone a long way toward inspiring me of late.
Down with schools; up with education! Or as I wrote a few nights ago, “No school but learning” (http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/no-school-but-learning-montreal-night-68/).
Philadelphia, PA–I’ve done the All in the Red casseroles marches weekly in New York and was curious to see what it would be like in a different city. Arriving to the Occupy National Gathering in Philadelphia on Sunday, this was my first march as part of the National Gathering, and my first ever protest in Philadelphia, and I was unsure of what to expect but mostly optimistic and excited. It would be interesting to participate in a march that (as far as I knew in the United States) was only happening on a regular basis in my home city, but this time in a new place with a group of unfamiliar people.
Shortly after we began, there was a split between those who wanted to take the streets and those who did not. I recognized those who organized and were pacing the march were from New York; where we’re from, taking the streets is a risk in which you may be arrested immediately for setting one foot in the road. But the cops here cruised on their bicycles, letting us move freely. The pacers responded by mic checking that they supported autonomous action but were not recommending or suggesting we walk in the street. But once it seemed as though the police truly did not care, they and most of the march poured into the street.
Because many of us are from different cities, and therefore have varying experiences with different police forces, everyone seemed to react differently to the authorities. I was not in Philadelphia the day before, so I had no previous experience with the Philadelphia Police Department and could only go by their indifference to our taking the street, and felt that the police were being very permissive and respectful. But a few people taunted the police while others yelled at comrades in the streets things like “Good luck getting arrested!” Few of us from out of town anticipated the police’s leniency, and I probably wasn’t the only one who wondered how long this would last.
The bulk of the march was spent walking east on Market Street. I had been here before a few times years ago, going across the river to Philadelphia for concerts in my teen years, but the new context made the place seem rather alien. The last time I visited here was before I moved to New York, and today the city seemed desolate and devoid of people—but here on Market Street, people stopped, stood and watched us.
We approached Penn’s Landing, and many of us out-of-towners weren’t quite sure where the bridge led to. We took the bridge, and when we made it half-way across we circled around and came back. “We shouldn’t have turned around,” I heard someone say behind me. “Why don’t we cross to the other side?” A few steps after our turn-around we stopped again with a mic check from a pacer: apparently, we were originally meant to cross the bridge but the front of the march had come upon a wall of cops on the other side. Not wanting to start conflict with them, those in front decided to turn around and walk back. But some protesters took issue with this and wanted to face the cops. Would we continue on this new path, off the bridge on the side we entered, or confront the police?
Opinions divided, and the march did as well. I followed the group that went back towards the police, but there was no clear strategy as to what to do once we met with them. What were we here for? Some said confronting the police was exactly the reason why we had all come together; others said this march was only to educate and raise awareness to the student debt crisis, and that conflicts with the police would only muddy that message and invite criticism we didn’t need. So we ended up doing a lot of standing and sitting on the other end of the bridge in front of the police. I heard one guy gossip that obviously an undercover had suggested that we move back towards the police instead of re-routing; another one was showing rumors that he received on his phone that police re-enforcements were on their way to kettle and arrest us all.
There was slight conflict with civilians when the police opened up space in their wall to allow civilians from a street festival on the other side of the bridge to pass. I wasn’t so close to see what happened—I expect protesters tried to squeeze through—but I heard a lot of yelling as a mother and her kids (and then other civilians, but she was doing the yelling) walked past us looking flustered. One girl said it best: “They see us as an inconvenience, and don’t realize that this inconvenience is a public service.”
We eventually decided to march back to Franklin Square Park. Again, we were divided between those in and out of the street, but the walk back was largely casual, with fewer chants. We made it back with pretty much no conflict, and lots of support from bystanders and drivers.
– Joe Sutton –]]>
Montreal, QC–When I write essays in English — unlike when I blog or even speak (both too quickly) — I’m meticulous.
Writing, for me, is a political engagement and a political act(ion). It is not something I do as some sort of allegedly pure artistic self-expression, although part of being meticulous is the joy of wordsmithing. Nor is it commodified or compulsory labor. And it is never, ever passive. It springs from what I’m both participating in and thinking about, also referred to as praxis. It’s also not meant to be received passively. The Zapatistas, like the Situationist International, scribed a cornucopia of quotable, borrowable, graffitable slogans, and I know I’ve used and lent out this particular phrase before, but it always bears repeating: for those of us who struggle for and/or strive to prefigure a world from below, us misfits in a present-day world we should never fit into, “our word is our weapon.”
Writing, then, is always intended as a political intervention. That can mean my words are sometimes inspiring or sometimes critical, or if penned well, a blend of both. Sometimes, too, they are militant, thrown down as a challenge — to myself, first and foremost, and also to my antiauthoritarian comrades of many tendencies, and/or to those outside our circles, but usually not too far outside (those who’ve moved close enough, by learning to think for themselves, to actively listen and dialogue). Always my words are meant to contribute, in whatever way they can, to social transformation. So I only write when I have something to say, and I try hard — slowly, excruciatingly slowly at times — to pick each word carefully, for nuanced meaning, poetic beauty, and accessible clarity as well as to construct a sharp argument that aspires to “educate, agitate, and organize.”
This isn’t to say that I always succeed in any or all of this.
In particular, this past month or so, when I write blog posts in English — in another country, as participant-observer in a largely Francophone-influenced and organized maple spring — I’m (inadvertently) careless.
I say “careless” not because I don’t care. Just the opposite. The reason I’m sticking around Montreal is because I already care too much about this longest of student strikes in North America and most remarkable of social movements. I mean careless as in spontaneous and yet sloppy. I’m not an anarchist “foreign” correspondent, carefully checking into each and fact, or even (I suppose) relaying facts at all. My “Dispatches from Maple Spring” are more like the written equivalent of an impressionistic painting: my visible “brushstrokes” are merely aiming to portray movement, unusual angles, changing qualities — all with an openness of composition.
I say “inadvertent” because I didn’t set out to be careless, as in “sloppy.” But this week, I received two fairly lengthy emails about two of my fairly recent blogs — one quite critical of what I am not seeing here and didn’t write about; the other offering me a friendly behind-the-scenes backstory. Both gave me pause, and both made me think, like militant challenges thrown down. As I emailed back to the first of the two folks, their words were a gift. If we’re serious about social transformation, we need to think critically. We need to think and speak the truth, not just to “power,” but to each other, to ourselves, to the power imbalances and machinations within our circles.
I asked the first emailer if they’d be willing to publicly post their critiques as a “comment” to the particular blog post of mine that bothered them, but thought soon after I wrote them back that it was really up to me to bring some of their meticulous suggestions into my writing. To start seeing things I’m not seeing, because of my own blinders, assumptions, or plain lack of knowledge, and/or because certain things aren’t prominent parts of this student strike, or are inadvertently, carelessly carried forward within the student strike because they build on a history of struggles that had their own blinders. For instance, ideas of decolonization shook up Montreal for the better in the 1960s, but also highlighted (and still do) “the contradictions and ambiguities of applying ideas of decolonisation in Quebec” (see book recommendation below). In the same way that even as I write, there’s a “national” gathering of occupies going on in Philadelphia, the “birthplace of American democracy,” on the July Fourth weekend. I can clearly see that while well intentioned, the very choice of time, place, and phraseology for this “natgat” already makes so many people feel left out of any sort of remotely liberatory political project — say, indigenous peoples who were on the land before the birthing or black peoples who were forcibly enslaved to raise the newborn country, not to mention those who practiced (and still do) forms of direct democracy on this continent without need of or desire for states or nations. That’s “easy” for me to see — “easier,” for as an Anarchist Person of Color (APOC) friend recently said, to varying degrees of better and worse, we can only be racist antiracists, at best, in a racist society — as it’s been easy and frustrating to see throughout “occupy,” itself a contested term that, happily, created transparent space for continuations as well (frustratingly) beginnings of political interventions.
Both email interventions/dialogues with my blog words made me think long and hard, and that’s good indeed. It feels good to have one’s brain work long and hard, through something it doesn’t already know the answer to, because to quote another phrase I adore repeating, by Theodor W. Adorno, “Open thinking points beyond itself.” If we have any chance in hell, from within this hell, of changing the world, we need to actively, politically engage in open thought. From there, if we’re lucky, we’ll be able to actively, politically engage in open experiments that point beyond themselves, like this student movement, which started as a student strike to challenge a tuition increase, and now points beyond itself, toward a social strike, too, and free education for all. With more open thinking and experimentation, who knows, it may point further still. Or not. Social resistance and reconstruction comes with no guarantee.
Neither do these blog posts. I will and am making mistakes, blunders, and typos. So I titled the blog piece in between the two recent emails I received with this phrase: “Lost in Translation.” I may do a few more parts under the same header, although I should more accurately have titled it “Lost (and Found) in Translation.”
For in thinking through critique and backstory both, I decided that what I’m doing, what I want to do, and more to the point, perhaps what I’m capable of doing here in Montreal, are impressionistic word-paintings. Maybe that’s why I’ve been especially drawn to commenting on visual culture, such as posters, street art, and graffiti. What you’re reading is, in essence, my open thinking. Sometimes it will point past itself; at other times, it might stumble and fall flat. I barely know the film An American in Paris, but its title, reworked badly, seems to capture my part here: An “American” in Montreal. Or better yet, An “American” Anarchist in Montreal. I finally just looked up the film’s plot, and it turns out that the main character, “the American in Paris,” is attempting to be a painter and of course he falls in love. It is, after all, a George Gershwin musical from the 1950s. I fell in love with maple spring in Montreal and now am attempting to paint it, clearly as the temporary expat who doesn’t believe in borders. Hopefully this movement-narrative will have a happy ending too!
So I’m going to embrace being that love-struck outsider and impressionistic word-painter role in a romantic rebel city, so that you — my love-struck outsider friends — can see this movement-narrative unfold, because I’m counting on that freshness, that openness, pointing beyond itself, to help us in our resistance and reconstruction elsewhere. If this is a foolhardy performance at times, that’s a risk I want to take, because of something that a 20- or 21-year-old student striker artist said to me and a friend several weeks ago. He said it in English, haltingly, so hence my notion that things actually are both “lost” and “found” in translation. What he said — versus what he probably would have more fully or altogether differently said in his French language — might not have been this at all: “No school, but learning.”
Since I know written English, I can now return to my wordsmithing for a minute. He didn’t write down these four words. So they could also have been: “No school but learning.” A little comma, like the little red felt square on so many people’s shirts and backpacks, can make a world of difference.
This person, one of the École de la Montagne Rouge (School of the Red Mountain) collaborators — I’ve rarely seen such almost-intuitively egalitarian collaboration, and one that produces new subjectivities and skills as well as such extraordinary and extraordinarily complementary/collaborative movement cultural creations (but that’s a whole other blog piece) — was answering a question about how it felt to be using their classrooms-turned-into-studios for self-managed, self-directed, collective artistic experimentation after experimentation, teaching each other, free from constraints like grades, professors, or other institutional pressures. So he might have meant, “We’re not in school now, due to the strike, but we’re still learning anyway.” But another part of his explanation made me think he intended it otherwise, for he also said something to the effect that he didn’t want to think about how it would feel when school started again.
My heart stopped when he said that. When I looked around at the Red Mountain crew in their red overalls, screen printing red ink on to 500 hundred posters that night, well into almost morning of the next day. There was such passion; they were indeed love-struck with each other and their creation, the School of the Red Mountain along with its growing body of work, literally crawling up the walls of their high-ceiled, reappropriated space. Of course he didn’t want to think about how it would feel. Having felt heartbreak time and time — and time — again, over people, places, projects, and movements, I know that the restart of school is going to feel devastatingly cruel and hurt more than he and his red-clad friends will almost be able to bear. I know that’s how it’s going to feel for all the other 17- to 22-year-olds (and some slightly older) who have been at the heart of meticulously making this revolt, with an openness — likely inadvertently — that has allowed for maple spring to become maple summer and probably spill beyond that. I oh so want it to have the Gershwin happy-ever-after ending; I also know that’s rarely how these social movement stories end.
But I’m also a “good” anarchist in the sense that besides steeling myself to heartache in order to have a wide-open heart left to fall in love again and again — and again — for a lifetime (because otherwise one gives up and becomes a coldhearted liberal, if even that), I don’t think narratives have a beginning or an end. There are no neat stories in real life; just a lot of twisted tales, messy manuscripts, and poetic passages, such as those being created by my artist friend and his collaborators. So whether he knows it consciously or not, I know he meant “No school but learning.” As in: “This strike has pointed beyond what we thought school meant or can ever mean. Now we know that we don’t learn through their schools, as this society has constructed and structured them, or through short-term places called college; we learn, always, by schooling ourselves. We learn by doing it ourselves, together. Our school is learning, for the whole of our life, and learning, throughout one’s lifetime, takes place in our own self-constructed school.”
When the strike ends, or is ended, and the Red Mountain’s paper prints come falling off their studio-returned-to-classroom walls like the red leaves of autumn, they and all their extraordinarily hardworking fellow “strikers” — no work stoppage here, but rather an outpouring of voluntaristic creation! — will likely experience the deepest of bloody-red wistfulness. But they can’t lose now, because they’ve already won so much.
If I miss the realism in my painting-words for the impressions of what maple spring is bringing to life — tinged, too, with impressions of its problematics — I hope you’ll still glean a few new ways of seeing this moment. And I hope you’ll send me your thoughts on where I’ve erred, in your view, or fill in some of the blanks — or post them as a public comment — so I can try to be a better artist-agitator.
I think if we’re humble about all we don’t know in this historical moment of grand transformations and turmoil; if we remain generous about each and everyone one of us collaborating and contributing to “making history” together; and if we stay open in thought and practice in order to critically yet constructively keep experimenting while this window onto history is still fairly wide open, we might just learn without school. I know I am, since I always believe, for better or worse, that there is no school ever like our own learning, even if I occasionally deserve a D for “damn, I missed something” or an F for “fuck, how I could have been so myopic?”
And even though this might only make sense to me and the person who critiqued me via email, I’d like to recommend a book that another smart friend recently recommended to me: The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties’ Montreal, by Sean Mills. I’ve only read a little bit of it (so far), but as backdrop to maple spring, at least for this “American” anarchist in Montreal, it seems thoroughly illuminating. Here’s a brief description:
“In a brilliant history of a turbulent time and place, Mills pulls back the curtain on the decade’s activists and intellectuals, showing their engagement both with each other and with people from around the world. He demonstrates how activists of different backgrounds and with different political aims drew on ideas of decolonisation to rethink the meanings attached to the politics of sex, race, and class and to imagine themselves as part of a broad transnational movement of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist resistance. The temporary unity forged around ideas of decolonisation came undone in the 1970s, however, as many were forced to come to terms with the contradictions and ambiguities of applying ideas of decolonisation in Quebec. From linguistic debates to labour unions, and from the political activities of citizens in the city’s poorest neighbourhoods to its Caribbean intellectuals, The Empire Within is a political tour of Montreal that reconsiders the meaning and legacy of the city’s dissident traditions.”
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Montreal, QC–Yesterday, I shared some Montreal street art on my Facebook page. A Montreal anarchist friend had just introduced me to the work of this particular Montreal street artist, Harpy, who produced the piece pictured above (and who self-describes as: “Harpies have wings, they can fly and shit… Also, they turned against the Gods”).
The image provoked a lot of “likes” & shares, but also a lot of heated feelings on my Facebook page and others. Many of the comments concerned what the wheatpasted image was getting at — or not — in relation to capitalism/anticapitalism. They also touched a lot on yoga.
At the first meeting of a “popular assembly” last week here in my temporary Montreal neighborhood this summer, someone mentioned that street art — in the form of posters, but I’d apply it more broadly to cultural creation — should be two-way, sparking a dialogue. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, in an expansive sense: from dialogues that we have in our own heads when we see images, to dialogues between people looking at the same image at the same time, to street art that’s dialoguing with a current moment or social issue. And so much more. After posting that one Harpy piece yesterday — and some sixty-seven Facebook shares and counting later — “dialogue,” however, seems necessary but not sufficient. The debate that ensued over “Fuck Yoga. Smash the State” seems a far better role for art that finds its way on to the walls, parking meters, streetlamps, sidewalks, bus stops, and other “public” places that are no longer ours in any meaning sense.
Indeed, this evening — after the second assembly in this same neighborhood, where part of the discussion touched on the legality of even meeting with other people to talk politics — I was thinking about how rare it is that street art does what Harpy’s piece did: provoke, as in “to arouse,” “to incite,” “to call forth,” “to stir up purposefully.” And even when it does stir things up, it’s usually without an intention of doing so “purposefully” — as in provocation toward liberation, or at least to incite critical thinking — and more for shock value or out of some sort of ironic boredom, perhaps like a poster I saw (and yes, probably foolishly after one beer with friends, tore down) tonight that read: “ACAB — American Cops Are Better.” (If that was your poster, I’m happy to hear why it should have provoked me in a way that gets at “All Cops Are Bastards” in a far more clever manner than simply repeating ACAB, as in the spray-painted versions of those four letters that I’ve also seen numerous times today on Montreal walls.)
At this historical moment — and on this illegal evening number 66 in Montreal, in light of a popular assembly that underscored both a law that attempts to criminalize so much of human interaction and action related to making a better world, and simultaneously a student strike determinedly forging ahead nonetheless — perhaps the two best aspirations for cultural creation are: to purposefully provoke, and to just as purposefully prefigure. Or, as I argued a few years back in a piece called “Reappropriate the Imagination,” social critique and social vision, although I’d now argue with myself that “critique” and “vision” aren’t strong enough words given the transformations for the worse in the realm of cultural production. Words, after all, are cultural creation too, and shift how we think about and act in the world. Montreal’s “Place des Arts” has of late been renamed “Quartier des spectacles,” which maybe explains some of what happened during the recent Grand Prix spectacle, both among partygoers and party disrupters.
At any rate, on the provocation side, there’s way too much complacency with the “world as it is,” to the point where “even” us antiauthoritarians find it difficult to distance ourselves from our own life choices (which I hope are relatively enjoyable, despite capitalism, etc.) long enough to critique the social order that forever will try to recuperate everything. On the other side, prefiguration, there’s way too little imagination concerning the “world as it could be,” to the point where “even” us antiauthoritarians who busily run around doing things ourselves have a hell of a time not simply reacting to everything and everyone as what we call politics.
A bit of the context, for what it’s worth, on the Harpy image is that I found out today that it was intended for the lobbies of condos in a neighborhood that’s been structurally gentrified (i.e., like all/most gentrification, due to capitalism, development laws, and state/city policies, all of which are also deeply shaped by institutional forms of oppression like racism). Rather than read Harpy’s street art as decrying yoga per se — or any of the other veneers of what (en)forced shifts of peoples/cultures in neighborhood entail, such as “suddenly” being able to get excellent espresso in spacious new cafes — it seems pretty clear that this street art is contesting a hierarchical logic, not practices outside that logic. We not only need to work toward nonstatist forms of making decisions but also reclaim and/or reimagine altogether yoga, coffee, and cafes outside state and capitalism. Even if I love a quality espresso, which I do.
That’s only part of the context, though. Like all street art, there’s mystery and serendipity, and both did their parts in developing the five words within this etching from perhaps a century ago. Purposefulness and playfulness. Yeah, we likely need a healthy mix of both to provoke a new society. Along with the ability to laugh at ourselves.
Anyway, late this evening or rather the early hours of tomorrow, I’ve been trying to find a photo of another piece of Montreal street art to provoke — to provoke equally well — and I realize that I have little on my camera-full of images after some five weeks of taking pictures while wandering the streets. So here’s this one, taken in the Plateau, with thanks to Amy for the suggestion of an image to share. It’s a rather inadequate stirring up, and not nearly as likely to incite a hot & heavy dialogue, much less debate. The stenciled words translate to: “With you in the shadows.”
I sometimes wonder how these blog posts emerge, because they often feel like they are “called forth” while I’m writing them, rather than me setting out with some sort of predetermined direction. It’s actually similar to how I experience the illegal evening demos, as I wrote in an earlier post: as dérive. Come to think of it, that one little word probably best captures how I got here, to Montreal and maple spring, and how the whole of my time is shaped here.
Dérives, via random and contingent encounters, let us see things in new ways. And so my noncommodified manner of strolling through these blogs has, tonight, lead me to this: the longest student strike in North America, neither random nor contingent, has been a purposefully well-orchestrated shaking up of society, precisely because it’s provoked time and again. And it’s been able to do so because of how it’s prefiguring a new politics and a new culture. Maybe this student strike itself is the new form of street art. The only street art possible now. We have so little room left “in the age of electronic reproduction” and commoditized places of spectacle, when street art is somehow not supposed to disturb our days and walls, but be pretty and ironic, and when streets — whether private or public — are never supposed to be ours anymore, to say nothing of our minds and education.
* * *
For more on Harpy, see their own Facebook page, where you can dialogue with and debate them directly — well, indirectly via the mediation of social media (similar to the way that tonight, at our open-air assembly in a park, I think most of us saw the paradox in setting up something like five to six electronic ways to communicate for what is the start of face-to-face conversations about face-to-face politics and engagement). Or maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of Harpy’s wings, darting around a corner after a new wheatpaste on various open-air urban canvases.
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
New York, NY–The students of Quebec are currently facing threats on their education system that would increase tuition by 75% over the next five years. As a response, the students of Quebec have called for an infinite strike, refusing to accept this new policy. Hundreds of thousands of students have taken to the streets of Quebec for over 100 days now.
On May 18th, The National Assembly of Quebec passed an emergency law: Bill 78. The law attempts to restrict freedom of assembly, protest, or picketing on or near university grounds and anywhere in Quebec. The law also places restrictions upon education employees right to strike.
#NYC Infinite Strike will continue to march in solidarity with the strikers of Quebec, while also working towards building a strong student movement here in the United States.
OUTSTANDING STUDENT LOAN DEBT IN THE UNITED STATES HAS REACHED $1 TRILLION.
– Giles Clark –
This is a selection of photos from Giles Clark’s collection; the full collection may be found here.
This is also one of many accounts of events that took place on June 6th; read multiple points of view of the first five minutes of this march, and a longer account of the march’s progression. An account of an arrestee may be found here, and jail solidarity in Chicago may be found here.]]>
Montreal, QC–Ryan Harvey, the second half (with me) of my solid affinity group this weekend, says of his raw video footage from June 9: “Watch as Montreal police attempt and fail to control massive crowds on the 47th consecutive night-march emerging from the student strike/anti-austerity movement”–in a weekend of trying (and often succeeding) to disrupt and highlight the show of conspicuous wealth that marks the Grand Prix here.
Odd that just over 24 hours ago, I was standing next to Ryan while he filmed this demonstration, or what might better be called a spontaneous convergence of convergences over many hours, illegal like every other one since emergency law 78 passed. It looks just as surreal in this clip as it did in person. Time and again, the police seemed to have no idea or capacity to gain the upper hand on a populace that seems to have lost its faith in and is in fear of the police’s authority.
Whenever I ask a Canadian about this, they pretty much all say, “If a law like 78 passed in the United States criminalizing dissent, people wouldn’t stand for it either.” The argument is that we in the United States, too, would be able to make our cities ungovernable and generate a serious political crisis for government. And I keep thinking, “Really?” Here, maple spring seems to have unleashed a profound awakening that Canadians don’t want to become like the United States. Whether watching scenes like this in person or experiencing casseroles and massive marches, the depth of belief that a society should obviously offer social goods–a social goodness too–from education to arts and more, seems diametrically opposed to popular views in the United States, where education, food, health care, and the like seem to be perceived as somehow things that will always be in scarce or limited supply, and correspondingly, things that people should individually earn or somehow individually deserve. Yeah, surreal here.
And overwhelming. So on night 48, I sort of took the evening off. A new acquaintance who went to tonight’s night march said it was “small” (meaning about a thousand), did a lot of snaking through downtown, and met with a ton of police in none-too-good a mood. I instead went to get a glimpse of Occupy Montreal at the end of a day of assembly and workshops–all seemingly small (as in dozens or less), and made to seem far smaller by the fact that it was being held in the large Parc LaFontaine. It was hard to find Occupy, in fact, amid all the many, many other people in the park in red–not only squares, but shirts, pants, hats, bikes, frisbees, and more.
On Ryan’s last night here on this weekend visit, he played to an even smaller Occupy crowd in this park as the warm sunshine of today mellowed into the gentle warmth of a summer evening; half his audience was me, three of his friends, and a new friend I’ve made on the streets of Montreal, plus two stray kids who wandered over and a dog that ran over with a ball in its mouth. But a couple of the folks there, including my new friend, were at that open-to-a-world-of-new-ideas point in their lives, as they were newly working to help make that new world through Occupy (here and, for my new friend, in the United States). So Ryan played to them–songs of rebellion, resistance, disobedience, and hope. He also, inadvertently, played to me with his final song–about how the police kept coming at people, time and again, and the people don’t back down. Here I was, sitting in a thoroughly lovely park, with charming graffiti on a nearby park cafe proclaiming “La Resistance,” and only about 24 hours earlier, he and I had been part of the police coming at people and people not backing down. For really real, in a way that Ryan’s video simply can’t capture. Yet in a way that the chorus to Ryan’s last song this evening eerily grasped for me:
“Hold the line, even if your voice shakes
Friend of mine, even if your voice shakes
Push forward, it’s up to you
See it through”
For really real, people did that by the thousands last evening, although with unshakable voices. Surreal indeed.
We left the park as darkness fell, and joined CKUT radio show host and now CUTV crew person too Aaron Maiden to hear Penny Rimbaud (formerly of Crass) perform poetry/words with some Montreal dancers/musicians at La Sala Rossa. Between Ryan’s songs in a lush-green park and Penny’s spoken word in a bohemian red-and-black performance space; Aaron telling us that La Sala Rossa had long ago been home to Arbeiter Ring (Workers’ Circle) and that as part of that, Emma Goldman had spoken in the same room; and knowing that as we watched what felt like something out of early punk days with an edge, people were convening at the usual march spot at Berri-UQAM Metro stop for night 48, I was again overcome by a surreal feeling. This time, it was a feeling of how amazing and almost unbelievable it is to live in this particular time, but a time that is also connected to so many other rupturous moments by threads and discontinuities, mistakes and heartbreaks, and sometimes a gaining of ground, a holding of the line. Sometimes even some wins, and a bit more freedom.
Earlier in the day, on my “day off,” I’d rented one of Montreal’s Bixi bikes so that I could join the “tour de l’ile en rouge” (tour of the island in red), which began from the same Parc LaFontaine where Occupy Montreal was having its assembly in another corner.
Our critical-red mass was made up of some thousand or more cyclists, most dressed in red, and pretty much everyone sporting the red square on their shirts or hats, or as a cardboard square within their bike wheel or square-red flag attached to their bicycle. Many also brought spoons, so many spoons, and a healthy chunk of pots too, making us more of a red casseroles tour of the island. One of the folks I biked next to the whole time–another new acquaintance, a Concordia student who told me about how hard it had been to try to maintain even a small strike there, especially when they attempted to do a hard picket line against exam day–mentioned how she always now travels with her spoon. You never know when it will come in handy–say, when a bunch of folks were already inside the Grand Prix outdoor party area on/near Crescent Street on Friday night. Spoons have become the new public enemy, along with red squares, red scarves, and black umbrellas, among other subversive objects! Police have been targeting, stopping, hassling, hitting, and/or arresting people for these household and clothing menaces.
Who knows, soon cops may be rounding up the little kids who are joining in too? Like the 8- or 9-year-old girl on this bike ride today who kept starting up chants all by herself, calling out the first part, with all the adults around her then calling out the second part–such as in “Charest” “Whoo-Who!” You have to hear this chant to appreciate it, resonating with what I’m told is a hockey cheer/jeer, and never failing to elicit glee among the participants. The glee on this young cyclist’s face, though, put all the others to shame: her little act of self-organization was working! And like kids who’ve grown up in Zapatista autonomous communities in Chiapas or MST communities in Brazil, to name two, maybe this child–and so many children I’ve seen on the Montreal spring, outwitting police cars during their neighborhood casseroles in order to take the streets, or already on the streets in situations like last night’s eruptive disruption, or organizing walkouts from their high schools, or even meandering into Ryan’s music tonight–will grow up in such a radically different society that she’ll think self-organization along with practices of mutual aid and dignity, for starters, are the “natural” norms.
I spent the near-three-hours of this gorgeous red bike ride–meant as a counterpoint to the noisy, fuel-unefficient, expensive Grand Prix happening on a nearby island–in friendly political debate with yet another new acquaintance (uprisings are good for the creation of social bonds and communities that usually feel far more genuine and mutualistic than most, and often last far longer too). He and I were basically arguing about political strategy and the related notion of a diversity of tactics–or, in his view, not. And yet here we were, on this stunning red bicycle ride on a stunning maple summer day, winding our way through Montreal neighborhood after Montreal neighborhood, and all around us were people going out of their way to raise their fists or wave hands in solidarity, display their own red flags or squares, bang their own pots, or even grab their bike and join us. While yesterday night, winding our way through the streets of Montreal, all around us were people going out of their way to raise their fists or wave hands in solidarity, display their own red flags or squares, bang their own pots, or simply walk off the sidewalk and join us. One calm leisure, and the other chaotic disruption. Both, though, evidence of the depth of social support for and involvement in this profound moment of people not only holding the line on austerity cuts but opening up space for their own collective empowerment and social solidarity. And both evidencing that there is increasingly, as I’ve noted before, not an “us” on daytime bike rides or nighttime disobedience with people watching from the sidelines but a growing “we” weaving through the whole fabric of this society in upheaval.
Like Occupy in the States, and no doubt Occupy Montreal and other Occupy sites across Canada, social and self transformation is a messy business, or rather a beautiful and messy experiment. There will never be a perfect “we,” neatly bounded like the perfect little red squares increasingly visible all across the Montreal landscape and Montrealers’ bodies. There will be the debates about strategy, tactics, and aspirations, and struggles over how to turn street power into popular, self-governing power. There already are, and many of the conversations with many of the new acquaintainces and friends–and old ones too–that I’m having on the streets involve both the surreal quality of this maple spring (in a breathtakingly dreamy sort of way!) and the constant lived experiences of the dilemmas it raises. Should we ride bikes, bang pots, play music, or riot, among other things, or all of the above? Which brings in more people? Keeps them there? Which scare people off? Or which, as Ryan’s video shows, only embolden them further?
Even my rental bike became part of the surreal quality of this historical moment in Montreal, in yet another display of how imagery, symbols, and art are equal yet complementary partners in this uprising. All of the bixi bikes have advertising on them. (At one point a while ago, some anonymous culture-jammers printed up some 11,000 stickers with a few dozen or more different versions of short poems on them, and in a couple hours, covered over all the bixi ads with them [on 5,500 bikes.] They then put out a Web site that looked legit, claiming that bixi had decided to abandon the ads for the social good of beautiful words instead. When the prank was discovered, the Montreal bixi bureaucracy decried the vandalism and started ripping off all the poems. There was a near-riot, metaphorically, among the populace, which wanted those poems on those bixis, damn it! But I digress…as usual in this evening’s meandering blog.) My random choice of a bixi had this (red!) ad for RioTintoAlcan, which describes as “a world leader in finding, mining, and processing the earth’s mineral resources,” on its side and front:
And coincidentally, as if harkening to the night before on the Grand Prix party streets of Montreal, as if this bike had maybe even taken itself over there for a peek, this reworked (red!) version on its front:
I’m not sure where this blog post tonight is going, or like my lengthy rebel red bike ride, where it actually went, so I’ll end now with big hugs to a dear “friend of mine,” Ryan, who has the remarkable ability to be as gregarious as me, get as enthused about and engaged in revolutionary possibility as me, and inspire me, and who was a super companion on the streets and in the parks of Montreal. Plus he aided and abetted my obsession with taking pictures of red squares, including this one on his guitar case today:
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Montreal, QC–I feel like I probably saw and was in the middle of only a fraction of all the tides of popular protests against the Grand Prix tonight. But to likely understate it, the police (SPVM to SQ) totally lost control and the people totally held the streets. And as one person said to us on the streets as riot cops swarmed by us for the umpteenth time–after about the umpteenth time that nearly everyone (and by nearly everyone, I mean an eclectic mix of thousands and thousands of people, many dressed in fancy Saturday night party clothes, far from “the usual suspects” and not a black bloc in sight) pushed the police back, or for all intents and purposes kettled the cops, and after the many umpteenth times that nearly everyone booed at and many threw plastic bottles (or a beach ball) at the police–there’s a universal language on the streets this evening, and it’s “fuck the police.”
Of course, there was plenty of good reason to speak this global language on Montreal’s streets this evening: tear gas, batons, the incessant beating on shields, pushing, harassment, pepper spray, injuries, arrests. But none of those tactics worked. Nor did the tactic of attempting to divide the thousands of people “marching” or simply filling the streets. Each time the police managed to split enormous amounts of people into two, three, or four groups, or seemed to have dispersed people altogether, seconds or minutes later, there was a new massive group, or several, or another hot spot, with no rhyme or reason, and definitely no coordination. The sheer beauty of a mysterious spontaneity birthed of some sort of popular will and determination. Whether tourist or local, student or person in their seventies, a kid a stroller or an adult in a wheelchair, white or black, out for a drink or out for a protest, and on and on, people just kept coming at the cops again and again and again, with little fear and lots of animosity. This constant onslaught, from nearly all people and definitely in all directions, was relentless, bold, and tough, but never felt out of our control–even though the “our” was thoroughly unclear, or maybe a better word would be “expansive.” The “our” was the populace. And no one was in charge. Somehow, though, there was a common understanding of what our tactics were: holding ground, screaming at the police, throwing objects at the cops that couldn’t really hurt them, but under no circumstances would we give the streets or intersections over to them, or especially, under no conditions would we let our disruption be disrupted by the cops. These tactics of ours didn’t include breaking store windows, or what seemed a far more likely target, smashing the windows or otherwise damaging the many extremely fancy and extremely expensive cars that we encircled time and again. Instead, we basically compelled the police to clearly “protect” the luxury cars from a nonthreat–other than the threat that we were walking the wrong way against traffic and making the car’s drivers/passengers come to a halt for hours. This only underscored the absurdity of this display of wealth in the midst of a governmental crisis over not meeting people’s basic needs.
When we started out at 8:30 p.m. from the park next to the Berri-UQAM Metro, it felt that the couple thousand or so of us were modern-day peasants foolishly thinking we could breech the castle with our modern-day pitchforks: pots & pans, flags, drums, horns, and a lot of chanting and hand clapping. We passed by the big, free French-language music festival, and hundreds of concertgoers cheered us on, as did numerous passersby, who also often joined us. Our demonstration tried a couple times to “assault” the Grand Prix party area, but to no avail, and it seemed like things had come to a standstill and that everyone was dispersing.
My affinity group of two (myself and Ryan Harvey, on our night two together), kind of figured it was over and started to aimlessly meander toward the F1 party area, and then just as quickly as the march had disappeared, hundreds of police cars, vans, and cops swarmed by us, lights and sirens blaring. So we walked a block over from where the cops seemed to be heading, landing ourselves on the completely packed Ste.-Catherine street, a few blocks from the heart of F1 entertainment excess. Within two blocks more, our peasant crew of a couple thousand was backed up by many thousands more–the rabble, who likely didn’t plan on being rabble that night–and it was instantly clear that like last night, protesters and the populace (or rather, the populace in protest) had again managed to outwit the cops and disrupt the Grand Prix’s evening bash. Even more so than last night, however, the cops were completely outnumbered, seemed completely at a loss as to what to do, and often yelled orders that they couldn’t possibly fulfill. Each time they tried to push the crowds away, people stood their ground until the last minute, moved back a bit against walls or doorways, and then as the cops retreated, simply moved back into the streets again–with pretty much everyone on the street participating (and there were thousands and thousands of people out tonight in this busy area). Frequently, we ended up chasing the cops away, or basically pushing them back instead of them pushing us, by the thousands of us simply walking briskly toward them, shouting at them in at least two languages.
It’s hard to describe, or rather hard to translate, how this all felt, especially since it felt like nothing that I or Ryan have ever experienced. Ryan kept remarking how on incredible this past year-plus has been–from Tunisia and Egypt, to Indignados and Madison and Occupy. We both marveled at this wave of revolt that sweeps this way and that, washing away prediction after prediction that it was disappearing the same way that tonight the people seemed washed away by the police, only to more turbulently sweep back into the streets that they so obviously understood as theirs, in their own maple uprising. They turned the normal life of a busy Saturday night street into a normalized yet extraordinary battleground of contestation and popular control, the 47th evening on top of something like 115 or so days of a massive student strike. People were clearly in complete, confident, calm (relative to the situation) collective self-command, and yet it was utterly rebellious, utterly disobedient to authority and cognizant of its own social power, and utterly populist.
I don’t want to minimize the fact that some people were arrested (CUTV reported that tonight marked the 9th attack by the SPVM on their crew in these last 3 days!), others were hurt, and many may only have been expressing anger at cops. Yet there’s also obvious widespread discontent at things like the evisceration of the promise of free education (a palpable memory of a promise some 30-40 years ago, mind you!) and increasingly harsh austerity cuts. There’s an obvious widespread disillusionment with the government and its police, with the word “fascist” being the most frequently used word to describe what people feel it happening to Canadian and especially Quebec society in light of special law 78.
It’s like the student strike–some two years in the making/planning, and building on the history of other student strikes and the not-so-quiet Quiet Revolution of the 1960s to 1970s–was the first strike in a wake-up call that has now startled people into not falling asleep again. As one longtime anarchist on the streets tonight mentioned to us, basically: we anarchists (or more broadly, anticapitalists) have a lot to learn from this. There’s no way radicals could have brought about the social upheaval that is winning. That has already won many hearts and minds and actively engaged bodies in a way that’s way beyond any “mere” social movement. There’s a lot to learn about what it took to organize the student strike, what it took to build and sustain it, what it’s taking now to keep it going, and how the hell so much of the population here sympathesizes with and brazenly leaps into this struggle. And there’s the perplexing question of where it will all go. This particular anarchist friend said he thought June 22 was crucial; that it needed to be big. A second later he added, “But who knows? Maybe June 22 isn’t key.”
On Thursday night, a mere 3 days ago, with a couple hundred mostly anticapitalist folks (since that was the call for this demo) quickly kettled and thinking we were going to spend the night in jail, I thought the Grand Prix would go merrily on its way, untouched by this monumental and historic student strike. Now, in the early hours of Sunday morning, with the start of the Grand Prix’s noxious engines just a few hours away, I’m astonished that I’ve spent two nights smack in the center of the F1 party, as a society-at-large (rather than a handful of radicals or protesters) chooses that it’s worth the disruption in order to make the student strike and now widening social strike plain as day. Making it the story.
As usual, I walked the hour or so back to where I’m staying after the hours of near-riot tonight, passing late-night partiers and people walking their dogs, realizing it was nearly 2 a.m. as I turned on to Mont-Royal, which has been closed to traffic now for 2-3 days for a street fair, or mix of entertainment, food, and lots of sale items from the surrounding stores. There were still a fair amount of folks mingling around on the closed-off Mont-Royal, but most of them were all looking down at the road.
In the middle of the street, for some 6-8 blocks or more ahead of me, were gigantic street art pieces, composed of paint and chalk, each with the yellow line of the road vaguely appearing in the center. Some of the artists were still around, adding to their work, and I asked a young artist about his piece, after I noticed that the first 8 or 10 of these massive street drawings had red squares in them, not to mention casseroles or the number “78.”
“What is this? Were you supposed to include the red square in your work?” I asked him, noticing a red square pinned to his shirt.
“This happens every year, but we can create whatever we want to. A lot of people want to use the red square in their art. They say that us students are violent. Sometimes a window might get broken, but that’s not violence. It’s the police who are violent. They just get more violent. All we want is a better world. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
I saw him notice my red square too, and he added, “Thank you for wearing the square. It gives us students strength to see the square everywhere.”
And so 2 a.m. turned into 3 a.m. as I slowly walked down the line of giant paintings. I walked the line of thousands and thousands of red squares, alongside other people, without disruption. In the quiet of the late night/early morning, we whispered our appreciation and pointed at particularly delightful renditions of red squares. I kept thinking, this is a magical time to be alive, when anything is possible and everything is surprising: from a downtown with the streets held by people in rebellion to a neighborhood with the streets filled with the color of resistance.
– Cindy Milstein –]]>