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Listen, You Can Hear the Sound of Direct Democracy, or Orchestroles, Montreal, Night 72


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 – Among the many things to remark on here in Montreal in relation to the remarkable student strike and the maple movement it has engendered is that people don’t seem to beat tactics to death. When new tactics have strategic uses that are underpinned by solid aims, and crucially, when they exhibit a bit of novelty or flair, they stay in play. On the other hand, when tactics appear to have outlasted their usefulness and especially their vibrancy, they are abandoned, reworked, or take another enlivening form.

It’s still unclear exactly how this happens. Ideas are put out there — on Facebook, posters, or the streets, and especially at student and neighborhood assemblies — and clearly, strategic and tactical decisions are made as well as implemented. Directly democratic along with highly participatory forms of decision making have long been institutionalized at many of the schools on strike, and several members of the student coalitional association CLASSE have mentioned that this self-governance was pivotal to planning, organizing, and mobilizing this strike. Or more strongly, that the strike couldn’t have happened without those bodies.

But there’s also this curious way in which a sort of “general will” or popular consensus — outside any formal process, and more like a gravitational pull — makes it apparent that a particular tactic has people’s enthusiasm and participation, or not. And not in a cynical or mean-spirited way; people on the ground seem to somehow, inexplicably, concur that something feels right to do.

The key point is: there’s a palpable and (compared to contemporary movements in the United States) profound lack of tactical, not to mention strategic, staleness.

So it is with the casseroles.

Nearly as quickly as they burst on to the scene in Montreal some six weeks ago, swelling in numbers and locations and volume, the casseroles diminished to the occasional few folks at an intersection for about fifteen minutes. They were magical while they lasted, and made their point, plus helped to kick off popular assemblies in various neighborhoods here, and offered an easy solidarity tool for folks in other cities and countries, such as the “Canada casseroles night” every Wednesday. And probably a sizable number of Montreal households now have a thoroughly dented pan as proud symbol of this struggle.

Then, the Saturday before last, various Montreal popular assemblies decided they would pull those battered pots into battle again, and head downtown to add strength to the nightly illegal demos. They each started casseroles on particular corners in their own neighborhoods, at staggered times, and then walked from neighborhood to neighborhood toward downtown, picking up people until a hefty contingent of casserolers with banners for each popular assembly converged at the usual meeting spot next to UQAM for the (second) illegal evening march, and everyone strolled out again together. There was also a flash mob on the way that swooped into a bookstore chain that had supposedly fired an employee for wearing a red square; inside, for several exuberant minutes, people banged on pots and waved red-covered books.

Meanwhile, a small group of diehards in the Mile-End neighborhood had apparently been bringing their cookware out on Wednesdays to two “hot spot” intersections at 8 p.m. At last Thursday’s Mile-End popular assembly, in the six-person breakout group on culture and arts, two enthusiastic guys — part of an enthusiastic collective space in the neighborhood — said they wanted to add an orchestra and bring it out into the streets at this Wednesday’s tiny casseroles, or our own neighborhood version of Montreal’s Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble, “born May 27th 2006 during the ‘Status For All’ march/demo in Montreal” (http://chaoticinsurrectionensemble.org/). Maybe it was another one of those “lost in translation” moments for me, but I could have sworn they said they didn’t want to promote it; just spread the idea via word of mouth, which is what happened. The breakout group ran the idea by the reconvened assembly, or what was left at it some three hours into our popular gathering in a public park. Everyone affirmed that it sounded good, and away we all went into the night last week.

At 8:10 p.m. this evening, at the appointed Waverly and St.-Viateur intersection, it was me and maybe three or four other folks with pots and pans. I started banging on my saucepan, filled with homemade red felt squares and safety pins in each (to give out when — or if — we really got going), and the rest of the cookware crew joined me, along with a couple dogs that started barking. At about 8:15 p.m., one of the two enthusiastic guys marched over to us with his drum, quadrupling (or more) our noise level. At 8:20 p.m., now with maybe six casseroles on pots and ladles, he asked me if I thought we should give up on the plan. He wondered if it had been promoted, though I reminded him that he and his friend been opposed to that last week. He then wondered if maybe we should just call it quits for this week, and promote it for the next one.

Fortunately, soon, our popular assembly banner arrived from one direction, and a definite scrappy DIY orchestra appeared in the other direction — horns, drums, tambourines, and perhaps the showpiece, a quiet bicycle with a big red-square banner. More on that in a minute.

Suddenly there were also more pots and pans, and more dogs, and some kids, and lots of red squares on bodies and instruments, and we set about “tuning up” our street-corner insurrection ensemble, and then . . . away we went, out into the unsanctioned streets as popular assembly marching band in solidarity with the student strike and social strike (because that’s been the clear sentiment at the first two assemblies). Or rather, out with our newly blended tactic: “Orchestroles”! Part instruments, musicians, and discernible songs; part cookware, neighbors, and clanging chaos.

Suffice it to say, the neighborhood came alive as we passed by in the streets, with people popping their heads out windows, doors, and balconies, and some zipping back inside to grab a pot and wooden spoon, and then join us. The musicians increasingly hit their stride, starting to really jam, and the sound of music — a mix of joyful and somber, mournful and celebratory — echoed off the buildings, wafting through the gentle night breeze, outward well beyond our numbers (maybe forty tops, but never the “true” illegal number spelled out in special law 78, which for about a minute, we chanted against with the usual “fuck you” slogan in French).

A casseroler had brought flyers about our next assembly, and she and I handed them out to curious onlookers, who leaned out open-air cafes to get a peek or stopped on their bicycles to savor the music. Mostly, I held out my saucepan full of freshly made red squares to people who seemed more than curious. They’d peek inside, a big grin would spread across their face, and more often than not, they’d exclaim their surprise at this gift. I could never hear what they said, due to the orchestroles’ overwhelming din, but expressions can speak louder than words sometimes. They’d eagerly grab one, pinning to their shirt or bag, again looking astonished at this gift that allowed them, too, to participate. I didn’t invent this tactic; it’s one I borrowed after seeing a few folks do it on previous casseroles. Several members of our orchestroles realized I had these red squares, and since they weren’t wearing one, they ran up to me to get a “loaner,” and soon I could see my saucepan was nearly empty. Then one of our popular assembly crew — a striking student — sidled up to me, asking if I needed more, and then pulled out a ziplock bag full of them. This student told me that they made them in batches to give out at their student association meetings. So voila! Refilled saucepan, ready to be emptied again!

We took the streets, our popular assembly banner at the head, musicians toward the front, cookware all around, and bicycle with banner at the rear, all of us illegal and self-directed, winding our way through quieter residential streets and busier commercial ones in Mile-End, nearly always against traffic, for about an hour. And just when we were nearly back at our starting point, which clearly (via that inexplicable general will) was going to be our ending point, suddenly one, then two, and then five cop cars with lights flashing decided they had to intervene — with the usual excuse of, as they told one of our orchestroles, “preventing an accident.” Their method to ensure our “safety” was to use the front of their cars to “nudge” several us off the street. When someone would “insist” on remaining in the street, they’d turn their cruiser toward them, brushing car against person’s body. Without any “fuck you cops” or confrontation, our orchestroles just stayed its course, in our streets, back to our beginning intersection, where we raised our pots and pans as the musicians raised the volume in a gorgeously insurrectionary finale, with smiles all around.

“Next week?” “Yes, next week!” “Hey, can’t we do an encore now?!”

We engaged in short and sweet schmoozing in the street instead, while the five cop cars sat ineffectually nearby. “Hey, we must have been successful tonight,” someone observed happily. “Look, they sent five police cars for less than fifty people!” At one point the police used a microphone to announce that we needed to get out of the streets and stop socializing, but like the bigger nightly demos, no one listened. The police aren’t who people listen to these days. We talk and listen to each other.

Which brings me back to the quiet bicycle with the big red-square banner, with one word (well, two, if you count the French and English versions): LISTEN.

LISTEN. That’s what direct democracy sounds like. A whole lot of listening, to each other, and what we need, desire, and feel good about doing. Maybe that goes a long way to explaining why neither tactics, strategies, or aspirations go stale. People here in Montreal, in building toward and moving forward with this student-social strike, have made use of and/or are creating deliberate spaces for listening, from assemblies to the wake-up calls of casseroles and now orchestroles.

Which brings me to an anecdote about a different kind of interaction this evening.

At one point in handing out my homemade red felt squares, a woman who looked to be in her early twenties, waved me over to her front door. When I held out my saucepan, she said in perfect English, with not a moment’s hesitation about whether I would understand or not (coincidence or not, this is something that’s always been my experience at demos, when someone wants to complain about the strike, which is heavily Francophone inflected and organized), “Don’t you think you’ve protested enough? You’ve already lost, no one agrees with you, and the government isn’t going to give you what you want.” Her initial smile turned to hostility, and her voice got an angry edge. “But look around you. Can’t you see that there’s lots of support, right here on your block?” I responded, because hoards of people all around us had come outside to wave and cheer the orchestroles on, and even start participating too.

She dived, agitatedly, into the tired and misguided line that the students were spoiled, they had it better than students elsewhere, and so on. I dived, calmly, into the idea that everyone should have cheap or free education, and maybe health care and housing too. “Like you do,” I said, because I was looking right into her lovely home, its front door wide open.

She started pointing a finger at me, about to yell, and I quietly pointed my finger at her T-shirt, which sported a big heart made out of hundreds of little versions of the wordlove. Even more calmly, I said, “Isn’t that what love is about? Love in the most expansive sense, as a love of humanity? That we believe that each of us — you, me, and everyone around us — is deserving of what they need and want?” She stopped, looked at me, less sure of herself. I could hear her listening, maybe not to me, but to something inside her head, like she was now forced to have an internal dialogue because she’d listened to that word love — a word that she herself was wearing, perhaps without even thinking hard about its meaning before.

LISTEN. Nightly and daily here, for the time being at least, you can hear the faint but growing sound of things changing.

-Cindy Milstein- 

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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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“A-Anti-Anticapitalista,” Montreal, Night 51


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 – This past weekend in Montreal’s unfolding maple-spring saga pitted the Grand Prix’s blatant display of wealth and sexism against the brave display of disruption and solidarity. Many of the always-illegal marches were a collaborative call from CLAC, an anarchist organization that’s at least 10 years old and probably more like 12 or so, and CLASSE, the most radical of the student associations, including many anarcho-syndicalists in particular from what I hear. The success of the unrelenting, principled, and courageous crashing of the Grand Prix party for 4 days and especially nights did much to underscore what a police state Montreal has become (I rarely use such rhetoric, but in this case, between coming on 120 days of student strike and 51 nights of illegal marches, the unrelenting, unprincipled, and dangerous cop presence is indeed a police state). It also seems to have solidified an (antiauthoritarian) “a-anti-anticapitalista” turn as maple spring heads into the summer. More on that later, probably in another post another night–although I can’t resist inserting just one photo from today’s (on day/night 51) rally in front of the International Economic Forum conference meetings that soon, after I shot this photo, turned into a large anarchist breakaway march that disrupted the busy lunchtime downtown by snaking the wrong way through traffic.

 

That breakaway march, by the way, seemed completely spontaneous, catching the police off-guard, and so it actually was able to be one step ahead of the police–that is, get entangled in the oncoming traffic, bringing it to a halt. Yet again, a good percentage of the drivers stalled in their cars and cabs were either supportive or at least not annoyed. The breakaway also seemed to be largely initiated and kicked off by what I’d call, with admiration, a cute merging of a “baby bloc” and “black bloc”: teens in black hoodies, and lots of ‘em.

I ran into one of the CLASSE anarchist organizers during this illegal daytime demo, and they told me that it wasn’t spontaneous at all. It was an orchestrated agreement of sorts between the critical-of-capitalism folks who did the noontime rally today outside the Economic Forum and more direct actionista anticapitalists. Apparently, the CLASSE person told me, part of the disaster at Victoriaville demo, where police shot out one demonstrator’s eye, was that rally and direct action folks didn’t respect each other’s tactics.

Today, what can only be described as respectful “diversity of tactics” in practice on the streets lead to a diversity of participants, greater solidarity, and both a better rally and better direct action, opening up the space for everyone to feel safer doing what they wanted to do. And, I might add, allowing “anticapitalism” as a sentiment to connect the two, as happened in Quebec City over a decade ago, when anarchists in Canada experimented with this notion in the first place (see my “Something Did Start in Quebec City: North America’s Revolutionary Anticapitalist Movement” essay, written at the time, athttp://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/something-did-start-in-quebec-city-north-americas-revolutionary-anticapitalist-movement/). It worked like this: unions, student associations, and community groups held a rally outside the Economic Forum, decrying capitalism from various angles, and holding up their various banners. There were lots of police all around, and lots of folks listening, including those baby black bloc folks. Here are some photos:

When the rally ended, the groups carefully rolled and folded up their banners. They moved out of the way. Then they turned on some music. It seemed, to me, that the rally was dispersing and that was the end of the noontime demo. A few minutes later, anarchist flags in the air and cries to move forward, and we took the streets, marching briskly into the busy downtown streets. The music, said the CLASSE person, who the cue that the rally folks were ready for the direct action folks to start the march. Sweet solidarity. And everyone left (or stayed) happy.

Anyway, back to this past weekend. Besides a more explicit focus on capitalism, the weekend also kicked off–as nearly everything seems to do here–a new tactic. As near riots and perhaps some outright rioting occurred for those 4 nights, I suddenly noticed that the bixi bikes–banks of rental bikes scattered liberally around Montreal, at least its core–had experienced a bit of culture jamming. As I wrote in an earlier piece, scores of the bikes with an advertisement for RioTintoAlcan, a huge mining company, suddenly read: “RioT.”

Now, 3 days after the Grand Prix, and 3 days into the International Economic Forum, a bunch of these bikes at their self-service stands exhibit various student strike/social strike makeovers. I walked by some 25 or 30 of these self-service stations tonight, first on my couple-mile walk to illegal demo night 51, and then on my couple-mile walk home again. So below are some photos of the same of the newly decorated bikes, sans their egregarious advertisements for “resource” extraction or banks. In between photographing bikes, and walking to and from night 51, there were a bunch more miles and 1,000-plus person march that featured many more little blocs of anarchists with flags–see below–many more anticapitalist/antistatist chants, and what turned into an impromptu CLAC/CLASSE crew at the tail end, including me and some other out-of-town anarchists, with all of us at the end because we were so busy yapping about politics we forgot to keep up the nearly always-brisk pace of these monster marches.

OK, I can’t resist again. Another anticapitalist digression.

At night 51′s illegal demo, I asked a Francophone (pictured below) who barely spoke English if I could take a picture of his arms, all covered w/English-language anticapitalist chants. Then a beautiful French chant arose from unusually large anarchist bloc I was in tonight–before I stumbled on the temporary CLAC/CLASSE affinity group this evening. I could only make out the last two terms: “democracy direct, autogestion.” So I asked him what the four other phrases in the chant were, and he told me, first in perfect French and then in broken English. I can’t repeat, much less write, the French words–not even broken French for me, alas–but here’s what he told me the English version is (which doesn’t sound nearly as beautiful in English, mind you):

“No gods, no masters, no states, no bosses; direct democracy, self-management.”

[Late-breaking update, with thanks to Tim Powell, who kindly posted the French chant on my Facebook page: “Ni dieu, ni maitre, ni état, ni patron; démocratie directe, auto-gestion!”]

This arm, and its companion, also covered with red (always red here!) English-language anticapitalist chants, reminds me of another story–another digression. At the start of today’s breakaway march after the rally, I ran into a longtime anarchist comrade I haven’t seen yet in my time here; they are with CLAC and other projects, and we were trading stories from the Grand Prix party disruptions and how the police, so tired and so outnumbered, were especially stupid and dangerous. My comrade pulled up their long sleeve, gesturing down to their arm with their head, and I saw a huge bruise. How? I asked. They had “mouthed off” at a cop when the cop was rude to a passerby, then smack, a baton came down hard on my friend’s arm.

Anyway, back to the bikes–bikes as the new city walls, as palettes for wheatpasting.

Here’s what the front of these bixi bikes usually looks like, with advertisement intact:

And here’s what the whole bike looks like, in its stall. If you look closely, you’ll already see the front advertisement in an altered form:

Or better yet, here’s a closer view of this bike, with its ad gone and a black square instead. The black square, by and large, is meant to signal opposition to special law 78 outlawing dissent of pretty much any kind and also an affirmation of “democracy” as in representative or parliamentary democracy. People often wear a black square with their red square pinned to their shirt (or wherever!). More and more, though, I’m seeing clearly anarchist versions of this red-black combo. At the same time, it’s intriguing that “red” has lost its authoritarian communism connotation, and black, alas, can be misleading if you think you’re suddenly seeing anarchism everywhere.

Not to be outdone by a tame black square, another bike sported a violent red square, as claimed by Quebec Minister of Culture and Communications Christine St-Pierre, who just a day or two ago affirmed “the right to wear the red square, ‘but us, we know what the red square means, it means intimidation, violence” (seehttp://www.quebecprotest.com/post/25027080608/violence-and-red-squares-artists-outraged-by-minister). This red square even bears the scars of, one presumes, various street battles!

In contrast, here’s an itty-bitty red square, still a peaceful youth, but probably already aspiring to grow up to be as intimidating as the bigger red squares. At least it’s taking on “the largest cooperative financial group in Canada”!

And here’s a bunch more photos of various “this bike is a poster” revisions. Sorry, it’s too damned late in the early hours of this morning for me to attempt (stress on the word “attempt”) to translate French to English, so get out your dictionary or online translator, if needed.

And finally, harking back to when some anonymous direct actionistas covered all 5,500 bixi bike advertisements in one night (some say in just under 2 hours!) with stickers of some dozen different poetic quotes (and they covered 2 ads per bike, for a total of 11,000 stickers!), I saw at least 2 bikes tonight with another literary reference: George Orwell. You might want to read this related story first, although the headline kind of says it all–”My Trip to Jail for Reading 1984″–and then you’ll see why this was an especially apropos bike ad alteration: http://www.quebecprotest.com/post/25026837169/my-trip-to-jail-for-reading-1984-on-the-metro.

OK, so many stories, so little sleep. It’s 3:00 a.m., and this anticapitalist needs some noncommodified rest. Well, after one more photo–of posters that appeared on numerous street posts today, as “a-anti-anticapitalista” just seems to be spreading and spreading.

-Cindy Milstein- 

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What Really Happened at the Montréal May Day Protest


Editors note: This story was originally published at The Portland Occupier.

Montréal, Cananda – On May 1, 2012, thousands of students and other protesters took to the streets for the Anti-Capitalist rally in downtown Montréal. I attended the protest with a couple friends, and having read the “news” emanating from the “stenographers of power” (the mainstream media), it’s important to set the record straight about what happened here in Montréal.

The Montreal Gazette reported the events with the headline, “Police respond as May Day anti-capitalist protesters turn violent in Montreal.” This exact story and headline were carried across the English-speaking media fresh for the morning’s papers: with the Vancouver Sun, the Province, the Calgary Herald, the Regina Leader-Post, the Edmonton Journal, and the Ottawa Citizen.

The story, as they tell it, goes like this: it started peacefully just after 5 p.m. (this part is true!), and then it “was declared illegal by police at two minutes after 6 p.m. following violent clashes.” A police spokesperson (who apparently is the only person the media chose to interview for their article) said that, “injuries to a citizen, police officers and vandalism on cars and property were the reasons for declaring the march illegal.” The article then blamed “black-clad youth [who] were seen hurling rocks at store windows,” after which the police began to launch flash grenades, and the riot police moved in after 6 p.m. “using batons to disperse the crowd.” At 7:10 p.m., “a full hour after declaring the demonstration illegal, police announced that anyone who refused to leave would be arrested.”

The CBC went with the headline, “More than 100 arrests in Montreal May Day riot.” CTV reported that of the 100+ arrests that took place, “75 were for unlawful assembly, while the remaining 34 were for criminal acts.”

  The first sign of trouble

So, arrested for “unlawful assembly”: what does that mean? It means that when the police unilaterally declare a protest to be “illegal,” everyone who is there is “unlawfully assembling,” and thus, mass and indiscriminate arrests can be made. In Part 1, Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is stated that “[e]veryone has the following fundamental freedoms”: conscience, religion, thought, belief, expression, media, communication, association, and “freedom of peaceful assembly.”

Having been at the protest from its beginning, I can say that it was a peaceful march. While there were individual acts of vandalism (the worst I saw was drawing on a bank’s window with a black marker), if police action were to be taken, it should be to arrest the specific vandal. Instead, they implemented collective punishment for exercising our “fundamental freedoms.”

The protest began in the Old Port of the city of Montréal, and made it’s way down rue Notre-Dame, up St-Laurent, and down to the financial district. The mood was good, people were in high spirits, with music, drums, the occasional fire cracker, young and old alike.

As we entered the financial district, the presence of the riot police became more apparent. When the protest made it to McGill College Ave. – crossing a wide intersection – as the march continued in its consistently peaceful path, the riot police quickly assembled alone the street below us. The crowd quickly became nervous as the protest was declared “illegal.” Before I could even take a photo of the police down the street in a long line, they began charging the crowd. Protesters dropped their signs and began up the street toward McGill University, while another section branched off along the intended direction, and others scattered.

   The charge

The march had been successfully split, and the small factions were then being isolated and surrounded. Suddenly, riot police were everywhere, marching up the street like storm troopers, police cars, vans, horses, motorcycles, and trucks were flying by. As one faction of the protest continued down another street, the riot police followed behind, while another massive onslaught of riot police went around to block off the protesters from the other side. When the police first charged, I had lost one of my friends simply by looking away for a moment. After having found each other up the street, we watched as the protest which descended down the street was surrounded by police from nearly every side. It was then that we saw flash grenades and tear gas being launched at the crowd of people. There was a notable smell that filled the air.

As we stood, shocked and disturbed by what had just happened, we made our way toward McGill to see where other protesters were headed when we saw a group of riot police “escort” three young protesters whom they had arrested behind a police barricade at the HSBC (protecting the banks, of course!).

Up the street, and across from McGill, one protester who had run to get on the bus was chased down by several riot police who then threw him face-first onto the pavement, and as a crowd quickly gathered around (of both protesters and pedestrian onlookers), the police formed a circle around the man and told everyone to “get back!” and then they began marching toward us, forcing the crowd of onlookers to scatter as well. The police then took the young man over to where the other protesters were being “collected” at the HSBC.

  Young man thrown to the ground

There was one young girl, with the notable red square patch on her jacket (the symbol of the Québec student movement) who had to be taken away on a stretcher into an ambulance. We don’t know what happened to her.

  Girl taken away on a stretcher

As more and more police gathered, we decided it was time to leave, walking down the street through which the police had chased the protesters, remnants of signs, red patches, and other debris spilled across the streets; the remains of a peaceful protest ended with police violence.

This has become all too common in Montréal and across Québec, as the student protest enters its twelfth week, having had over 160 protests, an average of 2-3 per day. As the demonstrations take place, the police have used obscure and unconstitutional city by-laws in both Montréal and Québec City which are so vague in their descriptions that any peaceful assembly or march can be declared illegal. Those who are indiscriminately arrested are fined $500, and if arrested again, are charged between $3,500 and $10,500.

It is clear that the State has decided – unilaterally – that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly do not confirm to their specific “by-laws,” and are clamping down on students and protesters in order to quiet and crush the student strike and the emerging social movement which is being referred to as the ‘Maple Spring’. The national media, for its part, has decided to demonize the students, the protesters, and the people; taking the word of a “police spokesperson” over everyone else. Having been at the protest, however, I must question whether these so-called “journalists” were at the same event, because we witnessed two entirely different scenarios.

We entered the march in good spirits, and the police ended it in violence and repression, leaving us standing still, scattered, and disturbed; but our spirits are not crushed, our resolve is only growing stronger, and for each act of violence the police and State impose upon the people, we begin to see them for what they truly are, and thus, what is truly at stake: our very freedom, itself!

-Andrew Gavin Marshall-

Editors note: read all our May Day coverage here.

 

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