Montreal, QC–On August 10, I posted a photo on my Facebook page of a delicate red square with the caption “[the] fragility & sweetness of social struggle.” Little could I have guessed, however, just how fragile the Quebec student strike movement would prove to be only three days later. On August 13, in hugely attended general assemblies, students at three cégeps (pre-university/vocational schools, part of the legacy of free and accessible education won in the 1960s’ Quiet Revolution) voted away their own collective social power and political bargaining chip: the strike. Within hours, the students went from having the offensive and creating a crisis for the government to letting the government’s scare tactics of provincial elections/repressive law work their magic and gain the upper hand again. It’s been the same story every day this week.
Two courageous cégep general assemblies, against all the odds and intensity, held firm to the strike. After that vote, a small group of “anti-strike” students who lost used a procedural mechanism versus the good faith within the assembly structure to petition for re-votes at both those cégeps tomorrow morning: Vieux-Montreal and Saint-Laurent. The school administrations then heaped on additional pressure to not only support the re-vote but overturn the strike (word is that the admin at Vieux-Montreal has even threatened students with failing them completely if the strike goes forward).
There are moments, I’m discovering more than ever, of profound crossroads in social movements, when momentum swings in one direction or the other, and moreover, when it’s important for people to stand up in solidarity with those who feel scared or pressured to back down. How people view what’s happening at such a critical juncture matters in terms of sustaining a social movement . There are still tens of thousands — upward of a hundred thousand or more even — students still under strike votes at various schools, including the colleges and universities that start later this month and into September. There is still a huge social movement, and still many students who support the strike but voted, often out of fear, to end or supposedly delay it for a bit (by and large, the state’s psychological warfare worked). Many people (including many students) are now calling the cégeps’ votes to end the strike “a truce,” hoping that students will pick up the strike again after this short “extra” semester — added because of the strike and lost class time. But a truce implies two camps both equally making ceasefire concessions; in this case, the provincial government has bludgeoned the student strike to near death. And it’s not so easy to simply restart a widespread strike, much less a social movement.
All to say, what happens now matters a great deal in terms of this strike and social movement, not only here, but also as inspiration and hard-learned lessons for other struggles globally. It matters a great deal what those many tens and hundreds of thousands who are part of this social movement do at this point — students, teachers, staff, neighbors, workers, and so many others — after six long months of resisting in all sorts of imaginative, strong, and bold ways.
Those many students still holding collectively to the strike tactic — not just for themselves but also for notions like free education for everyone and forms of self-organization, and so intimately tied into a larger austerity struggle — need our solidarity, strength, and love right now. In particular, Vieux-Montreal students favoring the strike are asking for a large show of folks and support outside their school tomorrow morning, Friday, August 17, at 8:00 a.m. (Ontario and Sanguinet in Montreal), standing with them in whatever way they ask of us. Here’s the Facebook page for the assembly itself: http://www.facebook.com/events/142331402574320/. It’s unclear whether Saint-Laurent wants supporters there or not — out of a concern that nonstudents there might be seen as meddling in a difficult moment for the Saint-Laurent students — but there is one Facebook event asking for a demonstration at 9:00 a.m. (http://www.facebook.com/events/258521384265430/).
I’ve been in numerous conversations this week about what the votes this week mean, what happened, and what next, among so many other discussions, speculations, and critiques, but also what solidarity looks like right now. At the same time, I and thousands of others have also been experiencing tumultuous waves of emotions, ranging from denial to anger to depression — all summed up, for me, as “heartbreak.” I’ve tried writing something about all of the above and more this week, ever since Monday, but every time I start, I end up staring at my computer screen, immobilized by a heavy sorrow that won’t let words flow easily. That’s a strange feeling for me. Usually words are what help me process difficult times and hard emotions. I’m not alone; nearly ever time I run into someone engaged in this student and social movement, there’s this bleak look in their eyes. It’s been a long, long, long and hard week here in Montreal.
Yet again I’m back to what feels like “lost in translation” even trying to explain it. The power — the social power — of this movement was the greatest I and many of my friends and acquaintances here have ever experienced. You come so damned close to what might just start tipping the scales toward a better world, closer than you ever dreamed possible, and in a matter of a few hours on a Monday earlier this week, it suddenly seems as if it all vanished into thin air. So many of us walked together on that illegal night demo on Monday evening, processing ad nauseam, until I think we all managed to convince ourselves again of spit and fire and hope. That we shouldn’t give up so easily. That now, more than ever, the social side of this movement had to step up, both in terms of what it is doing organizationally and to make its solidarity clear, so those still-striking students would know they have allies. Because if they vote to remain on strike, the state and police will certainly exert renewed and likely harsher force.
Which brings me around to tomorrow morning, soon. I don’t know if this is the right decision or not. I don’t quite know the right answer about what solidarity should look like in relation to the students — who started their own movement, and in turn birthed a substantive and far-reaching social movement that is now both dependent on the students and larger then them. Those in the social movement who aren’t students are definitely feeling the weight of that position this week. Many argue that we should thank the students for all they’ve done, understand their tricky situation, and not “take sides” tomorrow when we stand outside those one or two general assemblies, and perhaps that is the right view. After all, the autonomy and self-governance of each school (and often departments within each school) has been a touchstone principle and key to the organizational strength/growth of the strike as well as movement.
Still, I keep coming back to decisive moments, those quick and fragile instances when all is won or lost. Not crisis; rather, crossroads. And I keep asking myself, “Where do I stand?” Two days ago, a friend in Europe asked me to write 120 words about why I’m an anarchist for a German newspaper that’s doing a feature on anarchism and wants several of these anarcho-blurbs as sidebars. I joked that rather than sending him what amounted to a tweet or fortune-cookie insert, maybe I should just contribute one word: “freedom.” This evening, after the first-ever stressful autonomous popular assembly meeting in my summertime neighborhood (due, in large part, to the collective stress and heartache everyone is feeling), I think that I have my own answer to where I stand — always, always, on the side of freedom, even if that isn’t exactly solidarity or the popular thing to do come 8:00 a.m.
I’ll be at Vieux-Montreal tomorrow morning, not to disrupt the general assembly or scream at students I don’t agree with, but also not to neutrally be there merely to offer a general thanks. I’ll stand by the side of those students who want to continue to stand for the strike and all it’s come to symbolize, against all the psychological and physical warfare that’s been thrown at them to get them to back down.
And when my heart is feeling a tiny bit better, soon, likely after seeing these brave students tomorrow try to do what’s right, I’ll be ready to share a lot more about this bittersweet week.
* * *
Dedicated, in solidarity and with admiration, to those students at cégeps Vieux-Montreal and Saint-Laurent who vote to hold firm to their strike during the re-vote at their general assemblies tomorrow morning.
Photos by Cindy Milstein, from the walls of Montreal, summer 2012.
Montreal, QC–Late this afternoon — after slogging near brain-dead through the thick humidity all day — I almost decided not to schlep the five kilometers eastward for the Pique-Nique Rouge (“Red Picnic”) hosted by the Assemblée Populaire Autonome de Quartier (APAQ) de Rosemont-Petite-Patrie. What was supposed to be a short walk to grab a short-hop BIXI (public transit bikes) yielded only empty station after empty station, meaning a long walk in the blazing sun, drenching me in sweat. Fortunately, a flash of blazing red on a third-floor balcony distracted me: a red square, with the picturesque coincidence of sliced red tomatoes baking themselves underneath. I had to snap a photo, and then of course, I glimpsed another red square a half-block away, so onward I trudged, almost forgetting I was barely able to breath for the heaviness in the air — an added bonus of my obsession/passion for “Seeing Red” (http://seeingredmontreal.tumblr.com/). A bunch more photos later and at last a BIXI got me to Parc Molson.
I walked into the lush green of the park, and found several hundred people wearing red squares lounging in chatty small groups on the grass, a bandstand covered in red-fabric squares and red-highlighted signs explaining such things as “What is an APAQ?” and “social strike,” several big red APAQ and anticapitalist banners strung between trees plus various red artwork, kids running around with little red squares painted on their faces, bunches of red balloons hanging everywhere, and red-and-white checked clothes covering picnic tables filled with by-donation food as well as free red literature and a bag full of free red-felt squares.
It’s hard not to get obsessed/passionate about the red square in this context, especially when only minutes after I arrived, someone announced that the pan-APAQ assembly was about to begin, and everyone gladly formed into a huge three-quarters circle to share strategies decided on by the popular autonomous assemblies of various Montreal neighborhoods about blocking the reentry to schools starting in a little over a week. That is a longer story, and one that I’ll hopefully write up tomorrow, when it cools down a bit and I can begin to think again.
For now, an anecdote about Maple Spring in the midst of a red-hot August.
As we were shifting into assembly mode, I sat down next to a longtime Montreal anticapitalist organizer who I’ve known a good while, and he mentioned a piece I’d written 40 days ago, on night 63, titled “Lost in Translation: Maple Spring”, where I talked about various ways I stumbled on to meanings about that phrase supposedly capturing this movement. His key point was: a lot of people here don’t like that term.
For one, he told me, it didn’t emerge from the Quebec student strike. It was something that social democrats attached to it later. Implicit in his explanation was that social democrats were, in essence, trying to paper over or neutralize the highly participatory and often outright directly democratic structures of the student associations and assemblies that were crucial to organizing and sustaining the strike — still true to this day — and also move away from the language of grève (“strike”).
But second and perhaps more important, was what Printemps Érable (“Maple Spring”) implied in terms of another powerful movement globally. The first French word here means “spring.” But pronunciation adds a wordplay to the second term: one way of stressing the “É” in Érable means “maple”; the other means “Arab.” So this naming was intended to couple Maple Spring with Arab Spring.
As I wrote 40 days ago, “This maple spring is bound to the Arab spring, which in turn bound itself to the Capitol building occupation in Madison, which harkened soon to ‘occupy fall’ and then back around the world again to Spain, Greece, and so many other places. It is a solidarity that doesn’t know borders; it acknowledges instead our sense of deliciously sweet interconnectedness, mutual inspiration, and the shared project — notwithstanding all the very real contextual differences that make each uprising translatable and yet not translatable — of not only desiring but self-organizing toward new forms and contents of freedom.”
That’s certainly one reading, and I know there are many people who draw that connection. But today, under the still-stifling heat, this Montreal anarchist turned to two other radicals, asking them to tell me what that marriage of Maple to Arab springtimes meant to them. They responded in French, and he translated for me, but that likely means — his good translation notwithstanding — that yet again I’ve lost a lot in the translation. And no doubt there are still other nuances and political debates I’m missing, which is part of the problem that these three people have with the Maple Spring moniker: the movement here isn’t equivalent to the Arab Spring one. I’m interpreting loosely here, but basically, such snappy brandings do an injustice to critical contextual differences of all sorts. These three folks didn’t go into detail, because the pan-assembly was called to order, but I gathered that rather than Maple/Arab Spring providing solidarity and interconnectedness, one could argue that much gets erased — deeply lost in translation — to the benefit of a North American movement and the detriment of the Middle Eastern one. Maybe it’s too harsh (or maybe not) to call it, say, a colonizing relationship, a hierarchical one, or a Westernizing project, but there’s a sense that somehow it isn’t quite as reciprocal a pairing as one might imagine at first glance.
Before I darted off to resituate myself in the English whisper-translation section of the pan-assembly (basically, ridiculously, consisting of only me and my now-regular anarchist translator comrade), I got one more tidbit something along the lines of this: that “Americans” (like me) probably just think Maple Spring sounds cute, or don’t quite get it, because most of us don’t speak or understand French. And this student strike — veering toward a social strike, or an attempt at one, if this pan-assembly is any indication — is definitely Francophone-driven, for better and worse. Because besides the language and other divides between Anglo and Francophone, there’s divides between many formerly French-colonized peoples in Montreal, such as the largest Haitian community outside Haiti, and further divisions between Anglophones/Francophones and the many Middle Eastern and Muslim people living in Montreal, not to mention many Chinese- and Spanish-speaking people and others. One of the two people sitting next to my friend added, “It probably would have been more accurate to call it the ‘Fleurdelisé Spring,’” referring to the four white fleurs-de-lis on the Quebec flag that are symbols of purity, originally represented by the Virgin Mary, but gesturing toward the various sovereigntist sentiments that have been renewed through the student strike as well.
All to say, the notion that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” doesn’t hold up even in one language, and it certainly gets even more complex and potentially more painful in two or more languages when things don’t simply translate equivalently, or because language itself is loaded with baggage. What we don’t understand about each other, from past historical wrongs of great magnitude to present-day complexities that can reinscribe such wrongs in new ways, only gets stickier for us to grapple with among ourselves the longer that our movements manage to stick around. That’s a good problem to have: breathing room within a movement for deliberative, contemplative spaces like this one — before we’re all called into action as August heats up even further soon. But often, as I’m finding, that entails being willing to revisit the stories we’ve heard and meanings we’ve assumed, again and again if necessary, and continually reevaluate our practices from there.
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Everything about night demo 100 in Montreal felt enormous.
There were the numbers of people — so many that when we were on long hilly streets, all you could see were people all the way back and people all the way forward for blocks and blocks; so many that when we reached a late-night, outdoor fashion show festival and thus a busy area, and hence the riot cops appeared to disperse us, it seemed as if every which way you looked, up and down different intersections, we still tightly crowded the streets; so many that it was impossible to guess how many, which means thousands and thousands, or ten thousand or more. This in contrast to recent night demos, where on the last one, we were lucky if we reached the “magic” number of over 49 to put us squarely in the illegality of special law 78. It felt, as one of my friends said, “Like the old days,” by which he meant the night demos of week 1, 2, or 3, way back when it was still assuredly Maple Spring, not the red-hot August 1 of last night.
There were, speaking of red, giant amounts of that too — more than usual, both in terms of mass quantity and dimensional size. It may not be clear from the red flag “100″ pictured above, but it was gigantic — many times taller than the person carrying it — and backed up by several equally gigantic plain red-square flags.
There was a huge contingent of drummers, all dressed in red, and it in turn was backed up by red-bedecked popular neighborhood assembly banners and an enormous three-dimensional fabric red square (on loan, I’m nearly certain, from the École de la Montagne Rouge [School of the Red Mountain] art collective — and the whole brilliant-red group was part of the ever-larger and also extremely red rolling wave of popular neighborhood assemblies and casseroles that started way north of downtown about two hours early and fused with each other as they met at multiple appointed intersections to then continue on together, ever larger and ever louder.
Most momentous, though, was the accidental line in the sand of this 5.5-month Quebec student strike: night 100 of the illegal manifestations and Premier Jean Charest setting the election date — September 4 — starting on August 1 too. For my non-Canadian friends, within certain parameters, elections are called by the party in power, and that can be used as a political chip in their favor if played well. Once called, candidates have five weeks to go all-out with promotion, and at the stroke of midnight as July 30 turned to August 1, I saw Québec solidaire (QS), a social-democratic and sovereigntist political party that includes candidate Amir Khadir, who got arrested this past June in a casserole while protesting special law 78, already busy putting up posters, including ones highlighting that QS stands for “free education.”
But the elections are already not playing well, at least not to the “audience” that poured unexpectedly by the thousands into the streets on this first illegal night march of August, turning the now-familiar “fuck law 78″ chant into a revised “fuck the elections.” As the majority student association CLASSE so well articulated in its manifesto, printed in the French-language paper Le Devoir the same day when rumors flew recently of Charest’s intent to call the elections, there is a grand divide right now between two worldviews — one represented by this night 100 versus day 1 of electoral campaigning:
“The way we see it, direct democracy should be experienced, every moment of every day. Our own voices ought to be heard in assemblies in schools, at work, in our neighborhoods. Our concept of democracy places the people in permanent charge of politics, and by ‘the people,’ we mean those of us at the base of the pyramid — the foundation of political legitimacy. . . . Each time we take to the streets and set up picket lines, it is this kind of democracy that at last breathes free. . . . Democracy, as viewed by the other side, is tagged as ‘representative’ — and we wonder just what it represents. While elections come and go, decisions remain unchanged, serving the same interests: those of leaders who prefer the murmurs of lobbyists to the clanging of pots and pans. Each time the people raises its voice in discontent, on comes the answer: emergency laws, with riot sticks, pepper spray, tear gas. When the elite feels threatened, no principle is sacred, not even those principles they preach: for them, democracy works only when we, the people keep our mouths shut.” (http://linchpin.ca/English/Share-Our-Future-%E2%80%93-CLASSE-Manifesto)
The first of August also signaled the calendar leap into the impending rolling wave of striking schools that are supposed to open soon — 13 of them, for instance, between August 13 and 17 — based on whether the impending rolling wave of student assemblies decide autonomously, school by striking school, whether they want to continue to keep their college closed. These highly participatory and/or outright directly democratic assemblies are an infrastructural legacy of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, as I’ve mentioned before, and a long-lived practice within many of the now-striking schools. Students may have taken a break the past few weeks — and a well-deserved one, so as to rest up — but they are ready to jump back into their assemblies, where they already know how to make strike, blockade, direct action, solidarity, mutual aid, and other decisions about aims, strategies, and tactics. And starting next week, students will begin voting in their general assemblies as to whether they should continue the strike (see the schedule here,http://www.bloquonslahausse.com/2012/08/calendrier-de-la-rentree-des-grevistes/, along with a call for a convergence in Montreal to support the students from August 13 to 17, http://bloquonslarentree.com/node/12).
But night demo 100 signaled another huge shift, potentially pivotal as well in relation to the elections: there are now numerous popular assemblies, begun over the past couple months. They weren’t there at the start of this student strike, nor at the start of the illegal night marches. Now, in many corners of the city, they meet weekly or every other week to talk about issues related to and springing out of the student strike, and many include students, parents, and teachers alongside other neighbor-allies. They also discuss steps toward a social strike (even if in small symbolic steps for now) and tangible aid for the upsurge soon in the student strike. Furthermore, the assemblies all use various forms of direct democracy. They share and borrow that from each other. For instance, the Mile-End popular assembly that I attend asked facilitators from another neighborhood assembly to come and facilitate our first couple assemblies (which they did), and we sent emissaries, supporters, and helpers to a new assembly started in the neighborhood just next door to Mile-End last week, in Outremont. We also did outreach for their first assembly during our weekly “orchestrole” (casserole plus marching band) on the Wednesday before their assembly, detouring into their neighborhood a bit to hand out flyers — ’cause lots of people come out to listen to loud music rambling down the night streets!
The assemblies could be bigger, and certainly more reflective of various population groups in Montreal — a problem not unique to the neighborhood assemblies, nor the student ones, nor those of Occupy (and on and on). As with other assembly experiments, those within them are aware of such shortcomings. And in this case, the assemblies seem to be particularly sensitive to two key things: first, they want their own autonomous identities, to grapple with the needs and issues of their parts of the city; and second, we’re all also under this pressure-cooker schedule of having to ramp up quickly in order to offer real aid to the striking schools, real soon. In Mile-End, for instance, we’ve been having 3-plus-hour assemblies once a week, along with 3-plus-hour weekly mobilization/social strike working group meetings (and other working groups, but that’s the one I’ve been going to), and our weekly evening orchestrole, a form of illegal demo, solidarity, celebration, and outreach. Oh, and they are also contending with the fact that in all likelihood, they too (like so much other dissent and organizing) are illegal in various ways under special law 78, and hence the sentiment of disobedience spelled out on the Villeray popular assembly banner:
Last Wednesday night, a week before August 1, back in Mile-End, at the end of our orchestrolling as some of us stood around in an intersection chatting, with 3 cop cars vainly trying to get us to go home, we discussed trying to get our assembly and neighbors to walk downtown as orchestrole/casserole and meet up with other neighborhood assemblies at various convergence points along the way. Several assemblies had done this several weeks ago for a night demo, and it was lovely. We figured: let’s make a Facebook events page, do outreach via email to our various contacts with other assemblies, and hopefully the “casseroles march downtown” will happen again — since that’s pretty much all it took last time. Over the next few days and into early this past week, before August 1, suddenly it seemed that multiple assemblies had had the same idea, had also made Facebook event pages and even posters, and had also started doing outreach (there is no centralized popular assembly list, even a bottom-up version!). And absurdly enough, many of us had picked many different and conflicting convergence points, with no way to pull those puzzle pieces together. Organizational enthusiasm seemed to be creating mayhem, which sort of seemed a good problem to me in this case, since it at least emphasized the enthusiasm part. At our mobilization working group on July 30, we decided what the hell, it is too confusing. Let’s just meet up at our orchestrole spot at 7:00 p.m. on August 1, since people are used to that in our neighborhood, and then do our best to find other neighborhoods. Of course, we hadn’t actually mentioned this meeting point to anyone at that point, so we went home and started trying to spread the word around Mile-End.
At 7:00 p.m. on August 1, there were 3 regulars and me, with our banner, 1 pot & spoon, and a horn. Then 4 more people showed up, than 3 more, along with dogs and kids, and so on, until at around 7:15 p.m. we had maybe 3 dozen, and off we marched — growing as we headed toward Laurier and St. Denis, where we knew some Plateau folks were convening, and then growing and growing again as neighborhood stumbled on neighborhood in this surging wave of casseroles. We, along with our fellow popular assemblies, thus became another big reason that night 100 was so enormous, numbers and energy wise. Indeed, having gone to both the full “casseroles march downtown” walk and entirety of the illegal evening demo last night, it was clear that by the time all the many neighborhood assemblies and neighbors reached the already-large crowd waiting at the now-regular Gamelin Park meeting spot, arriving at 9:00 p.m., we by far outnumbered those patiently expecting us.
Beyond sheer numbers, there was something extra poignant about seeing popular autonomous assembly banner after banner streaming through the streets together, each with their unique character, but all articulating a contrasting vision of politics to the one that Charest and all his suddenly numerous riot cops (and politicians of any stripe) uphold. I think it’s never been more apparent that this isn’t “merely” the longest-running and perhaps now-largest student strike in North American history; it’s plainly a social movement with a deep and widespread social basis. And now, as July turns to August, the students know for sure that they have popular support(ers) far and wide outside their college doors — all, also, trying to practice direct democracy as the organizational grounding for this movement and all, also, attempting to experiment with another type of politics beyond statecraft (slow, embryonic, and painful as that is at times — “painful,” unlike Occupy at too many moments, not because people are awful toward each other but rather because sometimes, at least in Mile-End, people are too nice, and our meetings go on way too long so everyone can really be heard and respected, which is another nice problem to have, I suppose.
Of all the neighborhood banners, I think I was most touched by the Outremont one — both because unlike many other assemblies, it only convened this past weekend, as I mentioned above, and also because of its black cat and message of “popular power,” which seemed to so well capture the spirit of this evening where everyone knew so much is now at stake in the coming days of August: not provincial election so much as enormous social contestation.
This grand battle was captured for all to see — writ large on night 100, like everything else — in the form of an enormous projection on a building wall, just as we thousands and thousands rounded a corner at a big intersection. Ahead in front of me, I could see people turning backward to face the part of the demo I was in, but instead of looking at us, I could see people looking upward, fingers pointing upward, eyes lighting up, illuminated by the illumination of Nous Sommes Tous Art. Click on this link to see it for yourself (http://youtu.be/CIgnVSkXWWs), but it involved a series of repeating words, including our street slogan “fuck the elections,” but also decrying phenomena like racism, capitalism, and neoliberalism, and contrasting representative democracy to self-management. Its grand finale was the logo/slogan that’s now appearing as wheatpasted poster and elsewhere around Montreal: “August 13. The Strike Continues.” Rather than agitprop or empty street art, though, this wall of words reflects the on-the-ground reality of what everyone is preparing for — to hold the strike — using the very processes that offer a working alternative to electoralism (whether people take 30 seconds to try to vote Charest out or not in the privacy of a voting booth, since clearly ousting Charest is widely popular within this Maple Spring, if only symbolically).
So perhaps beyond the numbers, beyond the boundless joy and creativity and sea of red, beyond the newfound power of the neighborhood assemblies, and even outstripping the clear challenge of direct versus representative democracy — more enormous than all of this on illegal evening 100 was the tension hanging in the air, accentuated by the return of the helicopter hovering low overhead, even as Anarchopanda was right below, giving out hugs and sporting his own big red square pinned to his black-and-white fur. Back were the riot cops in large and aggressive numbers, along with sound grenades, reports rubber bullets and pepper spray, attempts at dispersal and kettling, and definitely some arrests. I ran into someone today with bruises on the side of their face, and they told me how police had chased them down, grabbed them, told them to lie on the ground so they could be arrested, but when they did, a cop then punched them in the head several times before carting them off to a night in jail.
Yet all that wasn’t so unusual in the course of this long student strike. And in fact, much of the tension that riot cops usually create seemed neutralized, precisely because people have now lived through it and gotten used to it. As many people commented, nearly everyone on the street displayed a remarkable lack of fear around the police, replaced by a militancy in the sense of not backing down. That meant different things for different people, including the police, who often ignored things like a bank window being broken (apparently a coop bank, so everyone in the vicinity laughed “Why not a real bank?” as some random guy calmly used the ATM next to the smashed window, causing the second amused & proud comment from the illegal night marchers: “Only in Montreal!”), and when the police encountered a dumpster barricade at one point, the ones on horses trotted through to follow the enormous demo from behind, but the cop cars behind the horses simply turned around and went a different way, leaving the dumpsters to hang out on their own on a now-quieted formerly busy street — with both disobedients and police gone.
The anxiety that the riot cops produced was not on this night 100 per se. Rather, it was what their larger presence signaled in terms of what’s to come. Everyone seems to be bracing themselves for the worst. But because neither cops nor let up on night 100, and because more candidate signs went up even as we marched, night 100 only seemed to add to the intensity of “What will happen?” in the next couple weeks.
For me, more than anything, night 100 illustrated the stark contrast between two types of “popular power” — liberatory versus mean-spirited. This is the power between citizens and neighbors, where people self-organize out of goodness and generosity toward all, or hatred, fear, and stinginess. And both are there. On the streets. It was illustrated in one potentially murderous act at the start of night 100, underscoring just how nerve-wracking a moment this is — when electoralism and riot police converge with student strike and neighborhood assemblies converge with aspirations for free education, social strike, and so much more, and all that converges with strong popular sentiments on all side, with all of it coming to a head in this already-hot August.
If last night’s marker of consecutive evenings of illegal marches ever since the passage of special law 78, a governmental tactic to try to quash the Quebec student strike, was a magnificent display of the strength and power of this social movement, it also revealed the social tensions brewing underneath, fueled by the machinations of the province/state because of the social crisis it clearly faces.
Early on in the evening, at 7:00 p.m., a bunch of us from the Mile-End popular assembly and other neighbors met up at our usual Wednesday night casserole/orchestrole spot, as I described above. We then boisterously walked over with our banner, pots & pans, horns, red squares, and whistles to greet the “Quartier Rouge” Plateau neighborhood folks around 7:30 p.m. and some several hundred of us were all joyfully reclaiming a busy intersection, waiting for our Villeray, Rosemont, and other neighborhood assembly comrades to meet up with us for the march downtown. It’s hard to explain the beauty of casseroles meeting each other from various directions, but add to that the pride of neighborhood assemblies, and when one neighbor starts marching toward another a block or two away, it feels like triumphant freedom fighters returning from hard-won battles into each other’s arms, which in a way, is what’s happening, as people struggle toward a wholly different version of the world, perhaps far ahead of us, that’s neither austere nor hierarchical.
Suddenly, within a group of hundreds in our intersection, all dancing and prancing around, I saw the front of a car coming toward me, with adults, kids, and dogs (most of them my comrades from the Mile-End popular assembly) “bouncing” off the hood, nearly being crushed under tires and hit by other parts of the automobile. It seemed so surreal that someone would simply intentionally drive into hundreds of people that I could barely register it at first. It had that slow-motion sense alongside horror. I and others leaped to help, and many folks threw pots and pans at the hit-and-run driver as they sped away; people ran after the car to try to get the license plate. There were lots of shaken folks who’d been brushed or hit by the car, including a kid who got hit in the knee, and one person seriously hurt (pictured below). Someone called an ambulance, and folks formed a circle around the wounded person, trying as best they could to medic. About five minutes later (despite police obviously lurking on the edges of our casserole), paramedics arrived. When I look at this picture, in hindsight, I realize that half the faces of those doing the caretaking are my neighbors in Mile-End and my comrades in the assembly.
The “silver lining” was how good everyone was to each other, and how it was clear no one wanted to let this stop night 100 from growing larger and larger, and us marching downtown. But many folks commented on how such willful brutality by other “neighbors” highlights that even if this really is a popular and widespread social movement, which it is, there are those who vehemently disagree and are willing to do almost anything (in this case, absurdly, purposefully try to injure or even kill) those struggling toward a better world for everyone, probably even including this hit-and-run drive, if I know some of my popular assembly mates.
At tonight’s Mile-End Popular Assembly (night 101), those of us who were there talked about this terrible incident, and I got this general update (hopefully accurate, since it was whisper translated to me in French): one of our assembly folks went to the hospital with the person who sustained the worst injuries to keep them company and help out. Apparently they had only arrived at our casserole convergence about 5 minutes before this hit-and-run and almost decided to stay home that night; at a previous night demo, they’d been kettled and arrested along with a whole bunch of other folks. Last night, they were hit in two places, but nothing was broken, and it seems like they’ll recover; they are just in a lot of pain now. People at the scene got the license plate number of the car, and they decided to give it to the police, who as of this evening somehow still hadn’t been able to locate the hit-and-run driver. Kids, dogs, and other casserolers are all OK, other than being upset by the experience. We processed that for a bit, and then returned to our assembly agenda, including working toward an August 10 “Mile-End: Dans la rue pour la grève sociale / In the street for social strike” event (http://www.facebook.com/events/408559369180806/), where starting at noon SHARP on St. Viateur and Waverly, we need lots of people, including you, to help us create an outdoor red-square street full of free education, food, music, art, and a couple hours of social striking, to also bolster ourselves and others for the coming August 13 to 17 week of resistance and solidarity. And likely, an enormous amount of a whole bunch of things, including popular power and social tension.
The enormity of night 100, when all was said and done, is that everyone recognized its enormity. That’s why the streets were filled, with people, politicians, media, and riot cops. That’s why so many indie photographers took so many gorgeous pictures, a few of which are here, and why CUTV livestream reporters seemed to be around every turn, chatting with as many people as they could cajole to talk on air. That’s why so many people walked miles from their neighborhoods and then kept going, kilometers more, with heavy banners and/or heavy instruments in tow. That in itself was the portrait of popular power: the populace showed up in droves, on foot and bikes and wheelchairs, or leaning out windows and balconies to wave — as always — as we marched by.
As most of this blog post notes, night 100 was a marker forward, to what’s ahead and what’s now at stake, thanks to a student strike that has unleashed a host of crises, anxieties, possibilities, and difficulties. But the students who had the foresight to start organizing this strike some two years ago, whether they knew it fully or not, were also unleashing a bunch of small yet perhaps, cumulatively, pretty great victories. Maybe not the victory of stopping the tuition increase or ousting Charest, nor transforming electoral politics as usual into a self-governing society. Nor ending capitalism. Some or all of that might be lost, or just might take a longer horizon to achieve. But there are other ways of understanding our victories, perhaps by accounting for those things we hadn’t intended that happen along the way of what really is a social (and a sociable) movement, stretching in this case from night 1 to night 100.
So even though I posted it yesterday as a separate blog offering, I’m going to end with it again here: “100 Red Nights,” a gift of 100 little victories (words by me) set to 100 little images of the 100 red nights, offered as a collaborative labor of love by myself and Thien V Qn (who took the photos), just one of the talented crew of new friends I seem to be running with on the red streets these nights: http://100-nuits-rouges.tumblr.com/.
After looking at our “100 Red Nights” piece during day 100, another of our talented friends, Amy Darwish, remarked to me last night as she and I started out on our long night of strolling at 7:00 p.m., basically this: “It figures that you and Thien would create such a gift. You’re the two romantics of this movement.” Romantic yes, because it’s hard as hell not to be when you dive into the spectacular beauty and innovation of this student strike. At one and the same time, though, I hope you’ll see that some of the victories contained in our “100 Nuits Rouges” are actually dilemmas, implicit critique, or as-yet only partial promise, which to me are indeed victories, because we’re making them visible and hence available for dialogue and deliberation, as something for the increasingly long agendas of the many self-governing bodies within this movement.
(Photo credits: red flags, red marching band, giant red square, Villeray and Rosemont banners, and red-brick building by Thien V Qn,http://quelquesnotes.wordpress.com/; big crowd scene by Martin Martel,http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151960346950062.871472.666270061&type=1; QS sign, Outremont banner and outdoor project, and dumpsters by Cindy Milstein; aftermath of hit-and-run driver by Jesse Rosenfeld,https://twitter.com/kissmykishkas/status/230813774976794624/photo/1; and final romantic night 100 shot by another of my talented new friends, Kevin Lo,http://lokidesign.net/2356/2012/08/100th-night-demo/).
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Montreal, QC–It’s a bit after midnight, and I just got home from a perfectly curated musical fund-raiser in the Mile-End neighborhood of Montreal titled carré rouge sonore (“red square sound”) organized by HOWL! arts collective. HOWL! was also largely responsible for dreaming up the Rêve général illimité (“unlimited general dreams/strike”), an unpermitted creative intervention during the Jazz Festival and hopefully another version will take place before the start/nonstart of schools here in Montreal on August 13. From what I’ve seen so far, HOWL! doesn’t sit back quietly but instead tries to use the language of cultural creation to voice political aspirations for a new world, as tiny as those voices might be right now or even for a long while to come. Social change is hard work. So conversely, it should be pleasurable hard work — or at least that seems to be part of the unspoken aim of HOWL! This arts collective doesn’t ask permission from arts councils or cops; rather, it imagines what music, say, might sound like in an altogether different form of social organization — one premised on what’s been facilitating and sustaining this student strike: direct democracy in various forms. (For those of you agitating just south of here, in that place still called the United States, and maybe even folks outside this Francophone province, please take heed: if anything is key to this strike, it’s the long-lived legacy, infrastructure, and practice of face-to-face decision making — not easily replicated quickly, but necessary nonetheless.)
For example, the École de la Montagne Rouge crew, made up of still-striking students who are still making posters and other brilliant (and often brilliant red) visuals for asocial movement instead of sitting quietly in rows of chairs in a classroom, brought their own collective envisioning of red squares to this musical fund-raiser by designing the logo (http://www.flickr.com/photos/stefanchristoff/7625011812/).
Such infinite dreams, of course, are largely circumscribed by the present culture industry, but nights like tonight show that a few stray notes that can’t quite be captured by the capitalist logic manage to slip through to a few eager ears and open minds — many of them opened by the student strike itself. At the “red square sound” event, I ran into still-striking students who are busy taking gorgeous photos and writing indie news accounts for this social movement, or further discovering anarchism by recently taking a road trip to the Anarchist People of Color convergence in New Orleans; there were teachers there, also strike allies, and Mile-End popular assembly folks who are busy organizing a “casseroles and orchestrole” go downtown to illegal night demo 100 this coming Wednesday, August 1 (http://www.facebook.com/events/408425942526577/), and an August 10 “Mile-End Bloc(k) Party: Toward a Social Strike” (http://www.facebook.com/events/408559369180806/) — basically, hopefully, a large (perhaps red) square of street turned into an open-air classroom to illustrate what free education looks like, via a festive direct action in disobedience of special law 78, and to let the students know that the neighborhood assemblies are behind their strike, just ahead of the start/nonstart of their schools. It, in turn, emerged out of a call from the St. Henri popular assembly for a “day of action” in neighborhoods on August 10, building toward the notion of social strike in complement to student strike and, again, also just making visible popular support for the students, so they don’t feel alone. So they aren’t alone. Although if CLASSE has anything to do with it, its also-August 10 evening gear-up for the August 13 week “class or no class” — Nous sommes avenir (approximately, “We are the future”), http://www.facebook.com/events/422915807747262/ — will draw hundreds or thousands together to make that plain for all to see.
If the major student association, and the most radical and bottom-up one, CLASSE, has anything to do with it, its August 10 evening gear-up for the August 13 week “class or no class” — Nous sommes avenir (approximately, “We are the future”), http://www.facebook.com/events/422915807747262/ — will draw hundreds or thousands together to make that plain for all to see. Oh yeah, and then there’s the callout for an international convergence in Montreal to support the Quebec student strike during the week of August 13 to 17 (http://bloquonslarentree.com/node/12). [Update: I could start adding a lengthy string of student and social strike organizing here, often starting to overlap in people’s enthusiasm to organize, which is a good “problem” to have in a social movement if one thinks about it. Indeed, as of the afternoon after I wrote this piece, there are now three separate calls for neighborhood casseroles and orchestroles to converge at the night 100 demo, and a 6 p.m. call by Anarchopanda to also do a solidarity demo in front of the Russian Consultate for the Riot Pussy women in jail. Somehow I imagine it’ll all work out, since after all, it’s great that there’s such widespread popular support for what’s called a “social” or “popular” struggle, and the point was to demonstrate to the students and greater public that neighborhoods, too, are behind the strike!]
Tonight’s sounds of the red square displayed a preview of this togetherness. It included the music of resistance, from jazz to the first-ever indoor orchestrole (with loaner cookware on hand, so others could join in, loudly and boisterously) to hip-hop to protest chant in between, amid a room full of red squares and rabble-rousers. Despite the forecast of rain, it turned out to be a lovely evening here in Montreal to raise legal funds for the Quebec striking students. Those funds are signaled by another graphic play on the red square in the logo of the legal helpers je donne à nous, a group that’s still gladly taking contributions for the coming storm of riot police and, as rumor has it, actual implementation of special law 78 when school soon starts/doesn’t start come August 13 onward.
The benefit was held in a neighborhood collective space, which felt both part homey, part social center. It was only a block or so from where the autonomous popular assembly of Mile-End met earlier tonight, in a local cafe that itself features local musicians all day until closing time at 6 p.m. Due to the potential of wet weather, the cafe folks loaned their space for this fledgling experiment in neighborhood direct democracy. There, in week 6 of so of our assembly, old faces and new ones heard a presentation by one assembly participant — also a lawyer — on special law 78. We’d decided this at last week’s assembly after doing a go-around of the some 45 or so people in attendance at our usual outdoor park spot about how we, as a popular assembly, wanted to lend support to the likely still-striking students when they likely will try to keep their schools shut during the increasingly key week of August 13-17, when some 13 schools are supposed to open by law — backed by the force of this new special law 78 that seemingly makes any kind of dissent criminal, including probably all neighborhood assemblies. We offered our views on comfort levels around “green, yellow, and red” zones, or levels of potential risk of arrest, and then seemed to concur that such designations would more likely be up to the police, not us. Banging a saucepan, for example, could flare into “red” in cop’s eyes. Wearing a red square that week could fuel the same overreaction on the police’s part. But despite varying degrees of worry over risk and the law, our go-round last week showed strong support for us tangibly supporting the students, though it’s unclear what that will look like other than, for now, remaining open and flexible, and creating as many links and lines of communication as we can between other neighborhood and student assemblies.
It’s not that we can’t start imagining various things we could do; rather, it’s because everything and everyone has to wait on the individual schools (and sometimes individual departments within schools) to hold their own student assemblies to decide whether to continue the strike or not, and if so, how. In what’s becoming a nail-biter moment for this social movement, student assemblies largely don’t convene until the few days before the start/nonstart of schools that August 13 week.
This nervous anticipation translates into low-grade inklings of what’s to come. For example, one of my friends who organized tonight’s fund-raiser said he got stopped by a cop yesterday for allegedly jaywalking some “three blocks away,” when clearly the cop couldn’t possibly see that far to spy the alleged infraction of the social order. When my friend asked if he was actually being stopped because he was wearing the red square, the cop’s face pretty much confirmed it. But it’s not just the cop versus people tension that emerging right now; it’s also the clock ticking away toward August, and how much needs to be decided, directly, before those school doors are supposed to open (or not) for classes. If Facebook is any indication of anything, student-strike-related invites are piling up and indeed overlapping for all things rebel red starting August 1, that pivotal day 100 of illegal contestation night after night in Montreal’s streets — a small count, relatively, compared to the soon six-month-old student strike.
Earlier this afternoon, I got a feel for the weight on the shoulders of these students, many of whom are probably pretty new to politics and also likely now have become fast learners and incredibly savvy at striking. Most of them have blocked many a door, seen many a riot cop up close, and gone miles on many an illegal demo, not to mention gotten really good at self-governance — or better than average, at least. I went and sat in on today’s UQAM strike council of some 75 people, give or take, mostly students (though most students are still away on break) in a lifeless UQAM lecture hall, but the room was brought to liveliness by the discussion — a bit slowly, though, since no one seemed to step up to facilitate what was clearly an informal direct democracy today. Brainstorming about everything from how to block classes to what logistics are needed to organizing solidarity demos, it suddenly became clear that this was an enormous puzzle given all the schools meeting as assemblies to decide whether to stay strong on their strike and then opening/not opening their schools within a tiny window of time in mid-August. The brainstorm also showed that nearly every school, for various reasons, thinks it is deserving of extra support, which of course is probably true.
Someone suggested they create a giant “calendar” on the chalkboard, which only underscored the incredibly complex communications and organizational task ahead. For instance, 4 schools open on August 13, and many of the schools are nowhere near each other geographically. How to communicate what all the student assemblies decide (including one that is supposed to meet the same day that the students are supposed to return to their classes at that school) to all the other schools, and all the students, and all the neighborhood assemblies, teachers, parents, allies, media, and the list went on. After some 45 minutes of trying to even begin to figure out a calendar, the task of doing so seemed to be abandoned in favor of trying to talk about the communications and organizational quagmire. I had to leave to get back for the Mile-End popular assembly, but the council meeting reminded me that, first, this strike is remarkable in that given all this complexity, the students have so far figured it out and stayed on strike, using these face-to-face decision-making structures; and second, as this sidewalk stencil from Mile-End urges, there’s a need to: “Prepare for August!”
Or better still, as this poster around Montreal proclaims: “On August 13. The Strike Continues.”
Or rather, both are true: there’s the need to prepare, and near impossibility of truly preparing given all the variables (elections, student assemblies, popular assemblies, police, special law, public opinion and especially material support, and the list goes on), and yes, it looks highly probably that the strike will continue nonetheless.
For now, as July draws to a close, so much radical subversion is being debated, imagined, and enacted through collectives and assemblies — the imperfect practice of what created a strike, what might let it go forward, and what might be its historical contribution more than anything else.
And likewise, so much of this radical subversion is being read through the tiny little red square. Sometimes, like in the photo below from much earlier today, taken on my walk to the UQAM strike council, all the eye thinks it sees is the pleasurable aesthetic of intended square converging with an accidental one, or the randomly lovely visual of this symbol in all sorts of places and spaces across the urban landscape, so quiet now during the two-week summer holiday that hits Montreal at the end of July. (In fact, there’s basically a voluntary “social strike” of sorts already going on, since many businesses simply close altogether for these two weeks and go on holiday too — making it maybe a little easier for folks to perhaps imagine what a social strike would look or feel like: leisurely noncompulsion, for starters, so as to do what one wants instead.)
Somehow, though, in the context of the building drama toward the opening/nonopening of school in mid-August, every scrap of red feels fraught with organizational and strategic difficulties, and yet ever so revolutionary.
(For more “Seeing Red” snapshots beyond those sprinkled through this piece, take a peek at my ever-growing archival record of red squares in Montreal and on Montrealers at http://seeingredmontreal.tumblr.com/.)
– Cindy Milstein –]]>
Montreal, QC–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 –]]>
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.
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.
Below is a list of first-person accounts from the manifencours/casseroles actions in Quebec, and protests held in solidarity elsewhere. This page will be updated as we receive new stories, so check back often. Don’t let the corporate media speak for you; if you are in Quebec or working in solidarity, tell us what you’re seeing. Submit your story.
Montreal, QC — Fragility & Heartbreak, Montreal, Night 115 Within hours, the students went from having the offensive to letting the government’s scare tactics gain the upper hand again.
Montreal, QC — “In the Street for Social Strike,” Night 110 In Mile End, a three-hour-long mini social strike springs up to mobilize for August 13.
Montreal, QC — A Sticky “Maple Spring,” Night 103 At an assembly, Cindy meets a longtime organizer, and the two discuss language and branding for the strike.
Montreal, QC — Popular Power: “Fuck the Elections,” Night 101 The casseroles gain momentum again after the 100th night, and one demonstration is met with violence not by the police, but a rogue civilian.
Montreal, QC — 100 Red Nights / 100 Victories, Night 100 A gift of one love letter per night, for each of the one hundred nights that so many tens of thousands shared the streets of Montreal together.
Montreal, QC — Revving up for August, Night 94 As August draws quickly near, people in Montreal assemble to strategize the probable re-openings of schools.
Montreal, QC — Pieces from Orchestrole 4, Night 93 The fourth orchestrole march in Montreal takes the streets and passes through an upscale row of restaurants to meet the dining crowd.
Montreal, QC — A Small Red-Square Story, Night 87 After 3 weeks of the Mile-End Orchestrole, Cindy hands out red squares as outreach to a very receptive crowd.
Montreal, QC — Exile & Austerity, Night 86 Cindy Milstein discusses home, community, and exile in the context of the Maple Spring.
Montreal, QC — Lost (& Found) in Translation: Social Solidarity, Night 82 Cindy considers different acts and moments of solidarity personally experienced so far during the Maple Spring.
Montreal, QC — Making Our Own Revolutionary Dates, Montreal, Nights 75 & 78As August approaches, Montreal’s demos wane in participation but not in pace as the new term approaches.
Montreal, QC — Listen, You Can Hear the Sound of Direct Democracy, or Orchestroles, Night 72 One of the incredible things about the Maple Spring has been it’s ability to evolve tactics quickly and effectively.
Montreal, QC — Manifest Your Dreams, Prelude to Night 73 (in C minor) The student-and-social strikes are self-generative via the doing of imagination—as opposed to passive consumption of “imagination.”
Montreal, QC — “No School[,] But Learning,” Night 68: In a time of transformation everywhere, Cindy realizes the need to think critically in all matters.
Montreal, QC — The (Street) Art of Stirring Things Up, Night 66: In the midst of protests in Montreal, anti-authoritarian street art crops up and provokes its audience.
Montreal, QC — Even Rebels Need to Rest, Night 65: After a smaller than usual demo, Cindy Milstein reflects on the arc of the movement sweeping Montreal and the importance of reflection and rest.
Montreal, QC — Lost in Translation: Maple Spring, Night 63: ” I’m on a journey of discovery here — as an “American” anarchist in a Francophone-driven social movement in Quebec Province”
Montreal, QC — Casseroles & Anticapitalism, Montreal, Night 61: The casseroles march pauses for a brief direct action, but keeps on the move ahead of police.
Montreal, QC — “Queer & Feminista! Anticapitalista!” Montreal, Nights 53 & 60: The queer pink bloc march exhibits a fierce defiance against the police in Montreal.
Montreal, QC — A Little Bit of Direct Democracy (for Now): Montreal, Day 55: The CLASSE Congress demonstrates a great example of direct democracy that puts others to shame.
Montreal, QC — Photos: June 10, Metro Profiling at the Grand Prix: Protesters are profiled entering the Grand Prix, causing many pre-emptive arrests without explanation.
Montreal, QC — Photos: June 9th, Anti-Sexism and Nighttime Mayhem: Scenes from an anti-sexism protest that unravels into police action and arrests.
Montreal, QC–I forgot to mention this in my latest blog post, in which among other things, I conjectured that the illegalista evening demos are basically a grand experiment in collective dérives, but another argument in favor of the dérive notion is the way I’ve personally been “unschooled” and/or “reschooled” through the experience of walking as contingent, random, joyful re-encounters with civic space and other people. I seem to have forgotten that traffic lights, oncoming cars, police vehicles, fancy bar or shopping districts, expensive festivals, and other assorted forms of funneling us through commodified and controlled cities exist.
Last week, I made a friend quite anxious walking, by block after block, without stopping at jaywalk after crosswalk, or various combinations thereof. She suddenly reminded me after about a half hour and multiple near misses at me (or her) getting hit by a car, bike, pedestrian, or motorcycle that it might be nice to at least pause and look both ways at that transition known as a sidewalk and then a busy street. Beyond her admonition, though, I also realize that I’ve kind forgotten about walking on sidewalks at all. It seems much more “natural” to use the much wider and more expansive streets.
All to say, it’s kind of amazing that I even noticed this stencil on an actual sidewalk, because I was not only on the sidewalk today when I glanced this “street” art but I was also trying to re-remember that I need to slow down my brisk dérive pace for traffic lights so that there’s time to for them to change from green to red and me to avoid serious bodily harm.
Still, I somehow think that what people deem as necessary common senses of civic life — such as crosswalks or cops on motorcycles — would probably become unnecessary and senseless if we started to remember more and more that our dériveshave made evening strolls feel much safer ways to inhabit the cityscape, guided by a certain social solidarity, in which, for instance, cab drivers more often than not smile and wave when delayed by the night demos, and cars more often than not stop when they simply see people in front of them, and we cross where we know we can and want to, because we’re watching each other’s backs.
Maybe this sidewalk stencil’s irony won’t even make sense if these dérives keep up for another month or two, because like me, maybe a bunch of tens of thousands of people will have forgotten to remember to follow imposed orders of how to traverse their city, and people, cars, bikes, buses, skateboards, dogs, scooters, etc., will get better and better at working it out through consensual common sense (thanks to visiting new friends from Brooklyn for reminding me of something that I’ve almost, but not completely, forgotten in over a month here: it’s pretty damned magical out there in the casseroles/illegal manifestation streets!)
– Cindy Milstein –]]>