Posted on 12 June 2012.
Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elseware in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.
Montreal, QC – Capitalism, due to its own internal logic, is “compelled” to do increasingly horrible things to humans and other living creatures, ultimately turning us into dead matter. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that in moments of popular uprisings, everything comes quickly to life. Maybe the power of the Arab Spring last year and the Maple Spring this year is that bursting forth of life that comes in spring regardless of revolt, from frozen ground to the sudden intoxicating procession of crocus-daffodil-iris-lilac. But mix rebellion into the cherry blossoms and all hell can break loose. We, ourselves, can break loose.
And once we’re awakened, like people seem to be in Montreal, that accelerated return to life, from the deadening world of capitalism, spills into summer. How could it not? Especially in a place like Montreal, where winter is especially brutal (kind of like the police of late here) and so summer becomes especially precious–especially public–in a city architecturally scaled for public street, park, and balcony life. I’ve visited Montreal a lot in past summertimes, and it’s always had a particularly enchanting quality. But that quality now seems elevated to what I can only, perhaps still inadequately, call a feeling of “intimacy” in its most expansive sense. People are remembering what they are capable of, from solidarity to courage, from mutual aid to direct action, from collective illegality in the face of repression to sharing this moment–the many exquisite moments–with each other in so many intimate ways.
The other day, before the Grand Prix disruption on Friday, one of the CUTV guys kept telling me that this many months of maple spring blossoming into maple summer was about love, from the student strike to the social awakening. I’d run into him–a complete stranger–a couple weeks ago when he randomly asked me on the street if he could interview me on livestream (CUTV stops lots of folks to do interviews on the long nightly marches), and when he said he was from CUTV, I threw my arms around him without thinking, hugged him tight, and exclaimed, “I love CUTV!!” (For those of you who know me, I can be a pretty exuberant–overwhelming?–person.) I didn’t do an interview that night, mostly because after I’d hugged him, I felt embarrassed, especially when he kept urging me to say how much I loved CUTV on camera. When we ended up chatting the other day, it was the first time I’d seen him since that hug, and I reminded him of that moment on the street. He blinked for a second and then lit up; of course he remembered me! Then he leaped into a repetitive refrain, equally exuberant to our first encounter, tha basically went, “but this movement is about love! It’s always been about love!”
His comments, in turn, reminded me of OWS in its first weeks, when love seemed the strongest of symbols and motivations, and there were thousands of people similar to my CUTV friend, who retains that freshness that OWS and other occupies have lost, because we’re still in the spring that’s about to become the summer of the maple uprising. Because there’s an intimacy here that comes from seeing a tiny red square on someone’s hat or skirt, and knowing you can wink or smile at them, or share a knowing glance. Because there’s an intimacy, too, that comes from standing next to someone you didn’t know a few minutes ago and feeling tear gas constrict your throat, and pulling each other away from riot police–then running into them again at some random place like a cafe, as if you’re old friends.
There’s also this intimacy forged by hours and miles of walking illegally together, in what’s becoming a grand civic experiment in collective summer evening strolls (and perhaps a grand experiment in collective exercise). Or an intimacy in relatively tiny moments, like when we convened tonight by the hundreds, yet scattered in small knots, around the good-sized park, fringed as it always is by clumps of riot cops and bike cops, next to Berri-UQAM Metro for the 8:30 p.m. march.
Suddenly the police pulled out their loudspeakers from their “technology section” van to say (for some reason, now in French and English, perhaps for the benefit of summer tourists) that we needed to walk in the right direction or we’d be declared illegal. In a flash, people surged toward the police and their van, becoming a mass that seemed to swell to a thousand or more, and everyone stepped off the curb without hesitant, and with tons of noise, and briskly tried to go in the wrong direction together. In tonight’s case, the wrong direction was toward the International Economic Forum of the Americas conference meeting.
Today, I’ve had intimacy versus capitalism on the mind.
This past weekend and now this night 49, it’s so clear what–far more than who–the police are protecting: capital. On the weekend, they encircled $200,000 cars being shown off during the outdoor Grand Prix party area around St.-Catherine Street; tonight, they formed lines around key buildings in the financial district as we passed by them, such as the trade center, the stock exchange, the largest mainstream media producer, and bank offices.
But there’s also this odd way that capitalism, in its “mom-and-pop” form, is flagging the symbol–the threatening little red square–that increasingly links student tuition, austerity measures, and capitalism together, or the very undoing (if this revolt were to succeed) of the very basis of their business. One store in the neighborhood where I’m staying is offering 50 percent off on summer clothing if you wear a red square; when I asked why, one clerk pointed to another one–a young woman wearing a red square. “She wanted to do it,” he said, “in solidarity.”
More and more, I’m seeing store windows displaying red squares, often pinned to a mannequin’s clothing or for sale as red-square earrings. Some local shops forbid employees from wearing the square; others seem to encourage it, including as an incentive to tip those employees–wearing a red square, of course.
My cynical perspective on this, and likely there’s some truth to it, is that capital co-opts everything, and adores turning rebellion into trendy commodity. The state and politicians do similar things. For instance, a Montreal anarchist friend who I walked with in the nightly march for about an hour this eve told me that today, a Facebook page announced that some self-appointed organizers–mostly from political parties–for this Wednesday’s “Casseroles across Canada” in Montreal had shared the “illegal” route with the police. Apparently Montreal anarchists commented, a lot, on this plan via Facebook in return, but in a persuasive way, explaining that the whole point of the evening marches was that they were intended as an illegal direct defiance of special law 78. The electorally minded folks recanted, saying there would be a new route and they wouldn’t tell the police about it. Key to this example, for now, is that only 25 people had “joined” this Wednesday night Facebook invite–hence the politicians haven’t managed to crush the flowers of this spring (yet). My friend told me this as we marched past the Economic Forum meetings, with now thousands of other friends, acquaintances, and new comrades–all illegal.
Maybe that’s why the CUTV guy still has this joyfully innocent outlook about love and this uprising, because it’s still in the romantic spring/summer phase of its head-over-heels new love of its own collective and civic power. Maybe that’s why I can’t sleep, and why nearly each and every interaction of more than an hour or so that I have with people on the rosy-red streets elicits feelings of intimacy and love in the CUTV sense–where I’d hug a CUTV person at first sight simply because I so appreciate all they are giving and gifting through livestreaming each evening, unstopped by neither rain nor heat nor pepper spray. And if I spend more than a hour with you, watch out! But it isn’t just me; I see this intimacy, profoundly so, on the faces of the 17- to 21-year-old college students, or rather the striking college students, who are probably addicted to the love of what they’ve created and each other, for creating it. Probably they can’t sleep either, which is why maybe the end of tonight’s march seemed to consist mostly of me and 17-year-olds.
Maybe those employees wearing red squares and their “mom-and-pop” bosses are still in this “in love” moment where they aren’t posting or promoting red squares in order to boost their sales but because they believe in the magic too. Maybe they also have come alive, and don’t see the relation (yet) between capitalism calculation and this sappy-maple awakening. I’d like to think that we could stay in this suspended time of simple comaraderie. But as long as capitalism is still around, it will manufacture its own red squares to all-too-soon sell our revolutions back to us–taxidermied May 1968s, as corpses in our mouths.
My friend Alex–someone I already feel close to precisely because we met on the streets right after law 78 passed and barricades were being built by new & old rebels, then torn apart by police, then rebuilt, then torn again, until someone opened up a fire hydrant and St.-Denis became a revolutionary water park, a mix of anger and empowerment–recently pulled out her well-worn and marked-up copy of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations. She opened it to his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” where in section xv he speaks of “the awareness that they [those in the French Revolution] are about to make the continuum of history explode.” And so “in the July revolution an incident occurred. . . . On the first evening of the fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris.” An eyewitness, Benjamin goes on to note, wrote that they “fired at the dials in order to stop the day.”
Pablo Neruda’s beautiful words “They can cut all the flowers, but cannot stop the spring,” which have been lovingly overlaid on movements this 2012 spring season, seems to me to have another meaning, as I walk hours and miles through the maple spring. Maybe we want to stop the spring ourselves, so as to savor it and hold it dear, so as to hug it tight like new and old rebel friends on the street. Maybe we want to fire on the clocks that wake us for work, that time us for a paycheck, that tick away the minutes until summer becomes fall and then a cold, brutal winter again–that measure our deaths under capitalism, and have no time at all for intimacy.
So on this night 49, filled with the warm radiant heat of a summer night, made hotter still by so many people continuing to turn out illegally to march, and the warmth of the bonds we feel when we do so, I’m overcome by the actually existing fact that people can and do act along the lines of an “economy” of gifting and mutual aid and solidarity, backed by the intimacy and love created in our spring uprisings, despite all that capitalism does to beat the life out of us.
Tonight, when I walked the half hour from temporarily gifted home to illegally reclaimed streets, I kept hearing the now-familiar sound of casseroles every couple blocks. Each time, from the sound of it, I thought I’d see 50 or 100 or more people, banging on. But each time, there was only 4 or 5 people, and often only 2 or 3. They stood at the intersection of their quiet residential streets, lined with spring-summer flowers (oddly, coincidentally, often red ones), and put their heart into their pot banging, which sounded so loud from a distance because it echoed off the houses. I’d left my pot and spoon at home, so each time I passed one of these casseroles, I clapped along with their beat. And for a minute–each time, a long and luxuriously minute that we stole for ourselves–it was as if their noise was the sound of clocks being fired on, so that we had time to offer knowing glances of solidarity, nods of intimate acknowledgment that we’re all in this together, that each person matters, that every pot holds a person who’s awakened themselves from the hibernation of winter to plant their own spring.
I fear that my lack of sleep and the dreamy quality of this red city cloud my judgment in these blogs. That maybe it really doesn’t feel this way right now. But tonight, I ran into five anarchist(ic) acquaintances from the United States in the evening’s illegal stroll. Yesterday evening they crossed the border that lets capital in so freely and keeps so many people unfree on both sides, and instantly landed themselves alongside the night 48 and riot cops, who was extra unfriendly last night after a Grand Prix weekend out of their control. As we started out on night 49, stretching across multiple lanes for several blocks, one of them–someone I’ve barely only met once–walked up to me and we chatted as if old comrades. She had this look in her eye, like falling in love at first sight. My tempered side, the side that doesn’t want to lose each and every ounce of intimacy I’m experiencing, and wants to start protecting my heart now, says: that will diminish, of course. Yet through her eyes, I could see the freshness that still hasn’t been lost in this groundswell of popular power, as she said something like, “I didn’t think it would really be like this, but you really can feel maple spring in the air.”