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Even Rebels Need to Rest, Montreal, Night 65


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 – I snapped a shot of today’s best-of sighting of a red square on my lengthy walk downtown to the Berri-UQAM Metro corner to then walk further in a miserably tiny pre-night-demo demonstration, the Journée annuelle des prisonniers et prisonnières politiques — slated for 7:00 p.m., but we sat around doing nothing until 7:30 p.m. — of about maybe 150 people in the desolate Old City, as drizzle fell from the darkening gray skies. For some reason, we marched on near- to completely empty streets to a near-empty court building after its closing hours, around 8:00 p.m., in what seemed like a bad choice of time and place to express our solidarity with political prisoners. Even the few police lazily following us seemed bored the whole time. For a minute, one of the cops appeared to try to shake off the lackluster quality of it all by telling the driver of a parked tourist bus (also empty) on a deserted street that we “were dangerous” — coincidentally, just when I noticed I was walking next to a dad with his 1- or 2-year-old all decked out in a tiny (baby) anarchopanda hat with a red square safety-pinned on to one of the felt black panda ears. Even that “provocation” by the cop, though, failed to stir much emotion on anyone’s part.

We trudged down a slippery cobblestone street and circled back around to the usual Berri-UQAM convergence point, again, to join about 250 more folks waiting there already. We hung out in quiet, low-key clumps of people from 8:30 p.m. until a bit after 9:00 p.m., until someone got up the nerve or was just plain sick of standing around, and started off the relatively small regular night demo. The march went right, then right, then right, and finally right again, until we were back at the same spot we’d started, having fully circled the one-block park. There was an awkward pause. The police had formed a loose line just ahead of us, as if they were only perfunctorily blocking the street, with the now-usual knowledge that we’d just walk around them on the sidewalk and then get back in the street again, which is exactly what happened. It didn’t feel like a surprise to anyone, save for a few folks at the front of the march who seemed pleased with themselves (hopefully this was their first experience and thus was actually empowering).

Both demos were illegal. That’s the point. To keep them going, as protest against the law that now outlaws them. But with small numbers, it’s harder to feel the force of that challenge. (Not that it’s always about numbers. But as someone said to me tonight, recently we got used to saying that 5,000 people was a small demo.) In the first demo, someone joked at the outset about people putting masks on, so we’d be illegal for sure — another part of what the new law criminalizes — since it takes over 50 people to make an illegal march under special law 78. Both times the police “blah-blah-blahed” us with their usual early-on loudspeaker announcement about how we’re illegal, need to disperse, and, well, blah-blah-blah, all from the safety and comfort of their slow-moving van. But the cops didn’t seem to have their hearts in it amplification, and the words were barely audible (said my French-speaking street companion). And anyway, no one listens anymore, whether from defiance or, in tonight’s case, inaudibility.

The person I walked on the demo with tonight (just the first march; they got feed up, and left before the second one) said they were committed to keeping these illegal evening walks going, since people promised they would do so until the emergency law is revoked and thus it’s symbolically important to keep up the pressure–and also exhibit solidarity with the striking students. I feel the same way. But they added, to paraphrase, “I’m not sure I can keep coming if it’s just a few-dozen people, because they are often the most annoying people.”

The usual night demo did seem unusually routine, lackluster, and filled with irritating folks. Someone kept kicking over construction cones for no apparent strategic value, and someone in a Guy Fawkes mask was following them from behind, stopping by each plastic cone to wave a plastic flower dramatically over it. I could hardly muster the energy or patience to tag along with this demo after about an hour — well, maybe even after about a half hour. It was clear it was kind of going in circles, figuratively, and when there are minimal amounts of folks on these evening walks — hundreds, not thousands, and someone said there was under a hundred the past two nights — those favoring sovereignty seem to dominate with their flags and voices. For instance, “Who’s Streets? Our Streets!” (always the French version, which now sounds much more pleasing to my ears, probably because I’ve chanted the English version once too frequently) morphed into “Who’s Quebec? Our Quebec!” (of course in French–err, Québécois French!)

All to say, this particular image of a red square — captured in my snapshot above — painted on the side of a building near a park, with some “natural” interruption in its “revolution,” reminded me on my lengthy walk home again that social movements and rebellions have their arcs, their fair share of highs and lows, and if successful for a while, more highs again. This maple spring-summer is still strong, still on the offensive, and still full of surprises ahead. But it’s also at a low ebb. The past few days I keep hearing this basic refrain, “Everyone’s tired. The students are especially tired. Everyone needs to rest, especially the students. We need to be ready for August.”

August is when everything will likely come to a head: school is scheduled to start, with old and new students; the students need to gather in their various decision-making bodies to determine whether to hold fast to their strike or not; if they do hold to their resolve, which seems probable, that likely means more blockades and hard pickets, lots of serious organizing and propaganda, the need for tangible help and solidarity from neighborhood assembly participants and many other folks including teachers, and facing up to a lot of heavy policing; the emergency law is likely to actually be used, with big fines and jail time (even though many say it will probably be thrown out in court eventually, that “eventually” won’t be in time for August, so it will have a simultaneous chilling effect on some and cause others to suffer punishment); Charest and crew will probably set an election date; and who knows what else will happen in this drama. One certainty: a grand chess game will kick back into high intensity.

Every other time I’ve been involved in a social movement in North American — not a huge number, but maybe enough — it seems we’ve ignored the group exhaustion, and not thought about it strategically. We didn’t take heed of the collective low tide, nor those moments when outside events perhaps meant that we either had the time to rest, or should have taken it to regroup and rethink. Occupy, I think, made this mistake, among many others. But perhaps it too hasn’t run its course and has time, which I hope people are using wisely now. Anyway, I found myself today feeling the emptiness that comes from both being overly tired and thinking I should push ahead anyway, because isn’t that what we need to do in such moments of revolt (even if I’m only participating as another body on the streets and by observing/writing)?

Yet if the red-square movement is going to move toward a revolutionary sensibility and strategies — which it increasingly seems to be doing, from talk of a student strike and holding the line on tuition now moving toward wider conversations about social strike, austerity, and free education — it needs those refreshing downtimes. When I got home, I downloaded the photo I took earlier this evening, and noticed how the ivy seems to be tenderly embracing this revolutionary red-square moment, offering comfort and respite. It almost indicates that if we’re to forge ahead with social transformation, lovingly, we have to take care to do it in a way that sustains life, that sustains our ability to better think through and implement the next steps together, and that tries to extend freedom(s) beyond what’s already being envisioned, plus beyond who it’s currently being envisioned by, with, and for. There’s something that feels at once emboldening and calming as well as beautifully audacious about this photo, or rather, what’s captured in its frame, and that seems just the right picture now.

Because alongside the “we’re tired” phrase, another one keeps getting repeated of late too: “It’s good to have this time to rest. It’s good that the neighborhood assemblies are starting to meet, giving students a break. We’ll be stronger in August.” And in those assemblies — I’ve gone to three neighborhoods so far, but have heard similar reports from another few — people are talking about lots of things related to their sense of place, things they want to do with these directly democratic spaces, etc. Yet the commonality between them all is this: they are all talking about how they can support — moral to material to bodily support — the students come August. In turn, the neighborhood folks seem to be pacing themselves too. Casseroles are focused on special nights: like Wednesdays at “hot spot” intersections in various neighborhoods, or like last Saturday, when neighborhood met neighborhood met neighborhood (with sweet neighborhood-specific banners) to pick up people and steam as they grew in numbers and converged together downtown for a large, raucous illegal night demo, complete with a Saturday-night anticapitalist bloc.

“Getting some rest” has as much to do with being tired as it does with being smart, strategic, and knowing — intuitively or because there are enough good organizers — that quality is better than quantity. And that taking time means you can qualitatively organize to ensure the quantities of people necessary to start or maintain a strike. That’s what the students did some nine months before they started their strike: they waited. They waited so they could organize, so that they’d have enough people to ensure a strike would work. Controlling the time of our rebellions, setting the pace of the highs and lows, is part of getting and then staying on the offensive.

Maybe I’m giving too much “self-awareness” and “intentionality” to what is simply accident. Last weekend was basically the start of the traditional summer vacation period extending until early August or so; this coming weekend’s July 1 is the traditional moving day (leases by law all generally end on July 1, so it’s move-out mayhem apparently all over the city and lots of free stuff on the sidewalks); there are umpteen free music festivals around Montreal for the next month or so; and apparently many people usually leave Montreal for some or all of July on relaxing holiday in the countryside and elsewhere (though this still seems odd to me, since goodness, Montreal is about the most gorgeous of summertime cities!). Perhaps the slowdown is just normal for this time of year, irregardless of a popular social struggle.

I suspect it’s a combination of both conscious strategic planning on the part of smart radicals and just plain “I can’t do it anymore,  at least for a bit” exhaustion talking. My street companion on the first demo tonight said a friend had begged and begged that they go out to a bar a couple nights ago, and once the first beer was drunk, my street companion said they remembered how much they liked drinking socially, and might need to do that for a while and skip protesting for a week or two. CUTV livestreamers said they might not make every night demo — maybe every second or third one in the coming weeks. Still, there are assemblies in different neighborhoods most nights, illegal demos downtown every night, red-square art exhibits and weekly or twice weekly casseroles, consultas, strategy meetings, political music and film interventions, talks both formal and informal, art and propaganda making, and, well, one can certainly keep maple-summer busy.

I suspect this time to rest a little is also going to be a time to reflect a lot.

The student strike started on February 13, over four thoroughly monumental, brutal, exhilarating, historic months ago. The illegal nightly demos are well over two months old. At this point, millions have taken to the streets at one time or another, and thousands have been arrested or injured, or both, by the police. Hundreds of thousands went on strike, and still are on strike, along with all the uncertainty of that and all the disruption that entails to their lives — and the lives of their teachers, support staff, and others who are allies. There’s been incredible innovation and experimentation and bravery; there’s been everything from the highest of humor to the most touching of social solidarity, from brilliantly complementary cultural production to brilliantly savvy mandated spokespeople, from careful and long-term organizing to sheer spontaneity.

There are also frayed and fraying edges to coalitions, ignored undercurrents and historical injustices, and a host of incredibly difficult questions that face this movement in the days ahead. Those dilemmas include, for instance, how to deal with (or not) provincial elections, if likely called; what a “win” would look like; how to build something capable of continuing to not merely hold the offensive but also to start prefiguring a workable basis for social self-organization to meet people’s needs/desires; how to address issues of austerity and the devastation of capitalism; exploring not just the Francophone/Anglophone, Quebec/Canada, immigrant/citizen divisions along with the “sovereignty/succession” question but also qualitatively struggling toward a “no Montreal (or Quebec or Canada or…) on Stolen Native Lands” — something, as someone pointedly pointed out to me after my last blog post, that I’ve failed to mention, which in turn is a reflection of the fact that I’ve barely heard anyone else mention it in the context of the student strike. (On my long walk this evening, I passed by the huge mural on the side of the building that houses the anarchist bookstore on St. Laurent here in Montreal; it’s a visual reminder of the powerful “No Olympics on Stolen Native Lands” campaign of two-plus years ago in Coast Salish Territory.)

Tiredness usually breeds cynicism within movements of resistance and reconstruction, or maybe that’s my own exhaustion (and the influence of U.S. anarcho-cynicalist circles) speaking. The organizers of the small demo related to political prisoners seemed quite pleased at the result of their efforts both right after the march, when they thanked us all, and later in electronic “thanks” on the Facebook invite page. Those in the illegal evening march by and large looked enthused. Both demos were filled with boisterious chants (fortunately including some “a-anti-anticapitalista” types alongside the Quebec nationalist ones). And as I hit the very edge of the neighborhood I’m temporarily calling home for much of this summer in Montreal, I saw dozens and dozens of a freshly hung bilingual poster promoting tomorrow’s neighborhood assembly. Some 15 minutes later, as I neared my place, I ran into a new friend, and she mentioned that she’d just run into two folks from our assembly — still putting up posters at 11:00 p.m. After all, the very first assembly last week in this neighborhood had resulted in a hand-painted banner being made that same night, a contingent in the “Casseroles Are Going Downtown” two days later, and an outreach table at a street fair the next day.

Maybe rest and relaxation is relative — and can be pleasantly revolutionary — when you’re a well-paced rebel in Montreal.

-Cindy Milstein-

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Lost in Translation: Maple Spring, Montreal, Night 63


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

Montreal, QC – If it’s not self-evident from my writing over these past few weeks — for those who have been following it — I’m not Canadian, and I don’t call Montreal my home, much as I’m increasingly falling in love with this city-island and wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time here on a regular basis. Nor do I speak, read, write, or understand (save for a rudimentary understanding) the French language. For that matter, because my home base is in the United States, like most “Americans,” I have only the most rudimentary understanding of Canada and its history, economics, politics, culture, and so on, not to mention that of the various provinces. That means I’m on this accelerated learning curve here on multiple fronts — accelerated thanks to the longest student strike in North American history. Each day, thanks to the wisdom and sharing of the accelerated amounts of people I’m getting closer to and also newly meeting, I discover new extraordinary pieces of an ever-enlarging puzzle.

Increasingly, that means I’m able to see the trees for the forest. Because when one first arrives here from the United States, especially with the hindsight of occupy participation, the forest is mesmerizing, like peak-foliage weekend in Vermont’s Green Mountains, which are suddenly blazing with near-hallucinatory reds. But a hike through that autumn splendor reveals infinite variety on a branch-by-branch basis, until one is dizzy with the confusion of which leaf should be saved and pressed, enjoyed for the moment, has a blight, isn’t quite as stunning on closer look, or exhibits promise for further coloration — meaning more hikes.

With each step on the illegal hikes I’ve been taking here through maple spring, literally and figuratively, a new vista unfolds ahead, and often a thunderstorm or two. If I thought anything seemed “simply beautiful” on arrival — like the deceptively simple phrase “maple spring” — walking deeper into understanding with each day and night pretty much means finding out I’m always wrong. Nearly everything is far more complex and, often, far more nuanced. And in many cases, contrary to my experience of wandering ever deeper into occupy, that complexity and subtlety (or frequently, double or triple meanings, particular in relation to the French language) only makes maple spring all that more remarkable.

Thus, if it’s also not self-evident from my writings, I’m on a journey of discovery here — as an “American” anarchist in a Francophone-driven (actual) social movement in Quebec Province (details that all matter). I’m hoping that my words, from that vantage point — like autumn leaves raked into a higher and higher pile — are offering a better view of what’s going on, as I get better and richer understandings of it. All of it, from its history and context, to its organizational keys and dilemmas, to (perhaps most important of all for those of us who want to see wholesale liberatory social transformation) what’s “translatable” or what will get “lost in translation” if tried elsewhere — or lost in translation from me, as I try to translate its meaning to you via these blog posts.

There’s much I’d like to explore in that regard — what can and can’t be shared — but that’s too big a topic for one night. So I’ll focus on a single red leaf: the maple.

Months ago, via Facebook, I read that longtime Montreal organizer and anarchist Jaggi Singh had come up a simple though sweet phrase to describe the already-powerful student strike: “maple spring.” Jaggi has been (and still is) involved in so many innovative moments within the recent past of antiauthoritarian struggles in Canada that I didn’t initially doubt that claim — made not by Jaggi, but rather sourced by me from a Facebook “Friend” I don’t even know. I actually still have zero idea who came up with that phrase, but I tend to suspect it’s one of those things that no one will, or should, be able to copyright or assert authorship over.

About five weeks ago, when I first stepped foot into maple spring — happily, I’ve been to Montreal many times before this — that term seemed so apt, in large part, through my starstruck eyes, because it seemed so clear and unambiguous.

That view really was in the simplistic spring, for me, of this maple spring. As May turned to June, and I stuck around to start experiencing and writing about what’s becoming a stickier and likely hotter maple summer, I’ve realized how much more is bundled up in those two words. In fact, I discovered yet another bit of depth only yesterday — from a real-life Montreal friend (who is, not surprisingly, also a Facebook friend) while we were hanging out on a leisurely Sunday morning at a leftie neighborhood cafe whose staff was alternately cooking us yummy breakfasts and setting up an indoor yard sale of their old stuff for cheap. Just one more reason that I’m falling in love with Montreal, if you’ll pardon the digression.

So here’s what I learned yesterday.

Even though I was a Vermonter for years and always will be, whether there in person or spirit, I never heard the phrase “maple spring,” but my friend said that it refers to a spring in which the sap is running well. That is, a good maple season, when things maple or movement are pouring out in abundance.

My friend also mentioned, however, that the initial use of the “maple leaf” symbol, literally or figuratively, in the phrase “maple spring” felt for some like a clear reference to Canada.

Two “lessons” here for those U.S. folks in particular who may not know much about things Canada.

First, maybe this goes without saying, but the maple leaf is the symbol on the Canada flag. The flag is, in fact, known as the “Maple Leaf,” in the same way that people in the United States say “Stars and Stripes” as a name for the U.S. flag. Furthermore, the color of that maple leaf on the Maple Leaf flag is red. Red as in the Canadian state’s maple leaf; red, now in the context of the student strike, as in red square, meaning “squarely in the red” (in debt).

Second, and again maybe this is common knowledge, but Quebec Province has a troubled relation to Canada. There is the related troubled relations between First Nations peoples and Canada along with its various provinces. But for the purposes of this “lost in translation” tale on the “maple spring” term (until I’m corrected or learn more!), the crucial point here is, a maple leaf signals the Canadian nation; this student strike evolved from and is evoking struggles over, questions about, and aspirations for sovereignty — that is, Quebec secession. That takes many flavors, and has a much more complex history than a simple “antistatism” covers. It can carry everything from racist and xenophobic overtones all the way to liberation struggle, with many shades of tensions and complexities, too, between “British” and “French,” or Anglophone and Francophone.

So as my friend was explaining, the image of a pretty little red maple leaf within the “maple spring” phraseology conjured up, for some, battles between national and provincial, not to mention the sovereignty question. Those aren’t merely word games; this all underlines the intricate fabric and conundrums of this growing social movement/strike/crisis.

My friend also noted that any major worry that “maple spring” would read as Canadian nationalism were quieted with the reminder that Quebec Province is far and away the premier (only?) maple producer across Canada. So the term for this uprising suddenly took a positive spin, stressing what’s exceptional about Quebec, not what’s statist about Canada. Nearly everyone I talk to, no matter what their stance on the sovereignty question, observes that Quebec is a distinctly different province from all the rest. Indeed, part of the mainstream media’s, politicians’, and other detractors’ trope against the student strike has been: Quebec “kids” are spoiled because they already have vastly cheaper tuition than any other province, so why complain. That’s a whole other blog piece, but the rejoinder, as 18- and 20-year-old students keep reminding me, is: “This isn’t about us. The hikes won’t even apply for a few years, and we’ll have graduated. It’s about free education as a promise of the Quiet Revolution of forty years ago. It’s about future generations.” And many add: “Everyone all across Canada and elsewhere should get free [or cheap] education too.” Yet equally, every student and every other actor in this grand social grievance mentions, also, that Quebec isn’t like the rest of Canada.

As yet another aside before I move into the last bit of depth, so far, on the deceptively simple “maple spring” phrase is this: Canada’s flag is made up of two colors: red and white. Many here are adding other squares of colors to the red squares, to signal particular political stances. For example, some add a blue square, referencing the blue of the Quebec provincial flag (i.e., sovereignty). Since special law 78 passed, many have added a blue square, signaling the end of a democracy society because the law basically criminalizes dissent, free speech, and free assembly. Anarchists turn their red and black into their own version of that combo: the end of statist politics. A white square often gets added to the red square to signal “pacificism.” No one has mentioned this to me, but after my real-life friend noted that tension of nationalism versus sovereignty, I started thinking about how the national red-white national flag’s color combination has been thwarted (or maybe not?) by the tiny red-white squares on people’s shirts here.

Finally, at least for this evening, night 63 of rebellious Montrealers defying the emergency law to take to the streets, or until I learn more, there’s something I think I mentioned in an early blog post, but regardless, bears repeating here. I thoroughly missed the lovely wordplay — or rather pronunciation play — in the French-language version of “maple spring” (probably the first version, since Francophone students are at the forefront of this movment): Printemps Érable.

The first word means “spring”; the second means “maple.” Clearly enough, I thought, when I ran it through an online French-English translator program soon after my arrival, after seeing the two words on lots of posters and T-shirts, and wondering what the hell it meant. Duh, I thought. How could I have not known that?

But the École de la Montagne Rouge (School of the Red Mountain) artist collective, when I first toured their studio probably almost a month ago, pronounced it for me — twice: one way of stressing the “É” means “maple”; the other means “Arab.”

As divisions, debates, and dilemmas rage over the sovereignty question in this maplest of springs into summer, and hopefully on into autumn, the way “maple spring” slips off the tongue sends solidarity outward. 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.

It’s like hanging around the sugar shack, after the sap has run and been collected in buckets, after it’s been boiled down into a thick maple syrup, when people gather together to hold maple festivals and share treats like “sugar on snow” or maple candy. They get this collective high — the fruits of their labor suddenly tasting extra poignant.

Even though I know it’s not, as day after day here makes evident, maybe “maple spring” is pretty damned simple after all.

-Cindy Milstein-

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