Montral, QC–Despite a weather forecast calling for rain all day, the drops held off until just as the last section of the Mile-End neighborhood’s Dans la rue pour la grève sociale / In the street for social strike was being cleaned up and taken away. The folding tables from a nearby collective house/space were being wheeled away on a handcart along with the Outremont Popular Autonomous Assembly’s banner, which our next-door neighborhood friends had accidentally left behind. The disassembled pieces from the outdoor station for silk screening (sérigraphies) were on their way home too, and someone had probably already recycled the sign for it, as part of meticulously collecting any garbage in the trash bags we’d brought along. It was about 4:00 p.m.
At 9:30 a.m. earlier on this same Friday, August 10, a bunch of us from the Assemblée populaire autonome de Quartier (APAQ) met at “our” pocket park (private property, as a sign on the building next to it notes) at the intersection of Waverly and the main Mile-End commercial drag, St-Viateur. It’s where our orchestrole convenes every Wednesday — every Wednesday as of five weeks ago, that is — and where the casserole met before that earlier in the summer. The people living in the apartments above this “park” are clearly sympathetic to the Quebec student strike, since there are large red squares and anti-law-78 banners hanging from several balconies plus some cookware, in homage to the casseroles, dangling from a string. The French-language bookstore on the ground level, inside the building on the other side of a powerful political mural that abuts the park outside, is sympathetic too; someone mentioned that this small business is struggling to survive, as Mile-End gentrifies and moves increasingly toward English-language speakers.
When we decided about three weeks ago to do this street takeover, inspired by a “call” from the St-Henri APAQ for all APAQs to do some sort of festive and unpermitted “day of action” in their own neighborhoods on August 10 in solidarity with the student strike as it nears the crucial August 13 onward “forced reentry” couple of weeks, numerous good ideas and much enthusiasm filled our weekly three-hour mobilization working group meetings and additional three hours of weekly assembly, not to mention discussions on the street corner after the weekly orchestrole and the daily barrage of emails. We had a growing list of things we wanted to offer for free (teach-ins, music, food, hands-on art, performance, literature, and more), things we thought were crucial as infrastructure (bilingual posters, flyers, and other promotion and thus translation work, press release and getting CUTV to livestream, safety logistics and supplies, water, electricity, tables, chairs, and a laundry list of other materials), and things we had to discuss as dilemmas (whether and when to inform the businesses on the street, say, and what to do when the city bus wanted to come through our “social strike” area). We figured all the other APAQs would follow suit, and that we had plenty of time and people for all the details. But only two other neighborhoods signed on, both doing something later in the day. And thus we also agreed at the last minute to coordinate and host an all-APAQ press conference in addition to our block appropriation — during it — so that the assemblies could all voice their support for the student strikers even if they weren’t doing anything on August 10.
As of about a week ago, many of our ideas still seemed just that: concepts, filling up an ever-expanding bilingual Google Doc and filling out a bilingual Facebook events announcement, of what we aspired to do, publicly and illegally:
“On August 10th, the Mile End Popular Assembly (APAQ Mile End) is blocking a street in order to raise awareness about the strike, the effects of neoliberalism in Quebec, and the importance of collective action. A block party with food, music, art, workshops/teach-ins, performances, screen printing, and lots and lots of talking — all in the form of a mobilization around a social strike — disrupting society’s business as usual by taking over the street for an afternoon to start the mobilization toward real autonomous change! Come fill the street with us, and add your voice and your body to the movement!”
Yet when push came to shove, it all congealed, thanks to a remarkable — as in noteworthy but also extraordinary — feature of the Mile-End APAQ. All of its regulars in this approximately two-month-old directly democratic body and even many of the occasional participants are go-getters, full of energy and imagination and follow-through. Folks are self-motivated, and possess great ingenuity in making something from nothing. Everyone pitched in wholeheartedly, concentrating on what they were particularly passionate about doing, but also willingly pitching in when others needed assistance. It became a nonstop whirlwind of activity, but something that clearly all of us were loving. At somewhere between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. on the early, early morning of August 10, for instance, several of us were busily “liking” each other’s Facebook posts promoting our Dans la rue pour la grève sociale, and just as glad to see each other in person a few hours later.
The one thing we didn’t plan for, because none of us wanted to admit it was possible, was rain. At 7:00 a.m. when I heard a torrential downpour outside my window, I pulled the covers over my head to dampen the noise and tried to sleep.
Back to 9:30 a.m. at our park. I and other Mile-End APAQs trotted a line of orange chairs over from one of our assembly folk’s nearby homes; others had brought the chairs two blocks from the collective house/space the day before, to store in her backyard, taking care not to crush her plants. The plastic seats were wet from the rain earlier, and someone joked when we had them all stacked up in our pocket park that it looked like we were going to put on a Québec solidaire (QS) event, since orange is the color of this social democratic and sovereigntist political party, an underdog in the current provincial elections.
We scurried to grab additional red, the color of the Quebec student strike, as a counterbalance, such as balloons and fabric, even though many folks in the APAQ favor QS in the elections over Jean Charest’s neoliberal Parti libéral du Québec and the xenophobic sovereigntists of Parti Québécois. And even though a good chunk of the APAQers are Left-leaning or anarchist, it seems most are planning to vote, especially given the weight of this election in relation to the student strike. If nothing else, there’s the strong feeling that Charest has to go, symbolically, after all the outrage directed toward him by the movement (“fuck Charest” is always popular as chant and graffiti). Already there’s speculation about what will happen if he does get reelected on September 4 — riots that night? — or doesn’t — huge street parties? This isn’t just among my friends or people I know. Everyone seems to be talking politics since the elections were announced. At a farmers’ market today, for example, I was buying tomatoes, and the guy working the stand said something about my carre rouge (“red square”). I thought he was comparing the red of felt safety pinned to my shirt to the red of the tomatoes, but when I explained that I didn’t understand French well, he said in English this time, “I was thanking you for wearing the red square and supporting the strike. Me,” he continued, “I’m too scared to be around police so I stay in the background.” He looked to be traditional college age, but told me that he wasn’t in school, so anyway, it wasn’t really his issue, and besides, he really wanted Charest’s party to win again and was going to celebrate in the streets when that happened.
Our preparations for the street takeover continued. A couch appeared, with pillows labeled appropriately for our event, and tubs of vegan wraps and cake, along with red cardboard to mark our teach-in classroom space on the city street and a whiteboard to list the course schedule on, a bunch of red-felt squares and literature to give away, the folding tables, and so much more. Suddenly a couple dozen of us were scrambling to get everything set up in the park and on the sidewalk, hovering in wait for when we were going to pull it all into the street and grab one block of roadway between Waverly and St-Urbain, another corner often used as public space since the private church there has big steps to loiter on. We hung banners from various APAQs off the front of the church, as backdrop for the press conference, and set up a portable sound system there too.
Because of the looming gray clouds, it was clear that a tarp needed to be hung over what was going to be the on-site silk-screening station, so one APAQ person raced up into the apartment building next to our park, knocked on the door of the second-floor apartment, and told the person who answered that she needed to cut through to their balcony. Whether because they were still just waking up or too surprised to object, this stranger instantly let her walk through their home, and she and several other folks rigged up a tarp with ropes off the balcony. Electricity was run from the bookstore, even though apparently our new second-floor apartment comrades offered up their electricity too. Water was brought in as well; clotheslines for drying prints were hung; and sérigraphy screens and materials, such as ink and big sheets of paper and cardboard to print on, were all put into place.
Our plan to take and hold the street was this first step of meeting at 9:30 a.m. to pile a good percentage of our materials for that day in this private-property park, right on the edge of the city street. We also wanted to take over parking spot after parking spot as cars left when their meters ran out, before our 12:00 noon start, so that we would really have the whole of street. Someone at an earlier assembly had also said that if worse came to worse, and the cops kicked us off the street proper, we legally could occupy the parking spots — that is, if we fed the meters. That was Plan B. Plan A was the whole street. So each time we saw a car pull away, we ran over with orange chairs, threaded string between them, and taped a hand-written sign reading “occupé” on the string. We managed to clear most of the spots, as someone else went to each business to inform them that we’d be using the street for three hours (the plan we settled on after much discussion about when or whether to tell businesses). Most were fine with it, or already knew, since we’d heavily wheatpasted/taped up posters around the neighborhood earlier in the week; one grumbled, “Do I have a choice?” Unfortunately, that grumbler was from one of the cornerstone businesses of Mile-End, Café Olimpico, right across from our staging area, and a favorite for Italian coffee and schmoozing outside on a patio. I noticed that a big SUV had pushed aside some of our chairs, and it turned out to be related to this cafe. Someone managed to talk them into moving, but as noon neared, the cafe owner-grouch brazenly pulled another SUV (this time a BMW) into the spot right next to our park, removing our orange chairs again, with a flourish of attitude. I’m not sure how someone else got him to move his SUV, but he did it slowly, and was yelling about hitting us with his car (and, I seem to recall, how crazy we were) as he careened away. He was yelling a lot, and for a while. Fortunately, he was our one problem of the day. And so our orange chairs ultimately managed to save all the parking spots for us, so we could then move them once we’d secured the whole area — or rather, let them be what they were: chairs for sitting on in our reclaimed street.
Other neighbors, passersby, and delivery people were chill during the lead up to our social strike. Most were just curious, asking what was happening, and many said they were excited to return later, which many did. One woman came up to me with a pot and spoon in her hand at about 11:30 a.m. “When it is going to start? I’m so glad to see you people back. Everything quieted down so much, but we can’t let the students down,” she remarked, even though she then had to wait a half hour or so to join the orchestrole/casserole that kicked off our street takeover. We obligingly moved several orange chairs at one point to make way for a big truck to do deliveries, and delayed our bloc(k) party by five minutes, so they could finish their drop-off. Meanwhile, the lead person on our safety team unveiled reflective yellow suspenders for volunteers to wear as they took turns, later, staffing the two ends of the street, both to welcome folks and ensure we kept the block to ourselves. Originally, we’d planned on running red rope fully across both ends of the street to block it off, and then hang big red squares, literature, and posters from it as further barricade and educational component, but some APAQers had concerns about the ability to quickly get an emergency vehicle such as an ambulance in, so we settled on utilizing bright-orange chairs and bright-yellow caution tape, but leaving gaps to walk through, since the chairs could easily be pushed aside. Our safety crew also put up signs on the surrounding streets, redirecting traffic — signs made on the backsides of Charest’s political posters, which somehow had been torn down by someone and somehow had then found their way into the garbage, and so could be repurposed as traffic signs.
At noon, everything stood ready — ready to be dashed into the street once we’d made it ours. But there clearly weren’t enough people. A few of us tried to rally everyone to one spot, so we’d at least have a solid crew, and some coordination. We realized, suddenly, that we didn’t have a plan for this moment. We decided, quickly, to wait for the delivery truck to leave and also wait a few minutes until we had more of a critical mass (which did indeed happen, filled in by folks who’d come to teach the workshops, sing songs, do performance-art dance, set up a knitting and see-through “make-your-own” red square art area, play their instruments or bang their cookware, be part of press conference and lend solidarity from other APAQs, hand out literature, and offer up food, and just a whole lot of neighbors of all types). Those of us getting it going thought that the orchestrole was going to start playing on the St-Viateur and Waverly side, but saw they’d begun at the other end for some reason, and that the orange chairs and caution tape popped out to block the street there. So several of us ran to the other end, and more orange chairs popped out, followed by a table covered in red cloth, then other tables, and then the classroom signs taped on the ground. Viola! In the street for social strike!
A few police cars had appeared at noon sharp, but had stayed in the background. They then parked on either end of the street — but only after we’d already closed it off completely. A cop asked one of our APAQ crew, “What is this?” And when he told her that it was “a social strike,” she asked, “What’s a social strike?” He explained, and she responded with something like “oh, that sounds cool,” and mentioned that the police had asked the twice-hourly bus to reroute from the street until we were ready for it to resume again, and then the police left us alone. Our plan for the bus was to escort it down our street, opening and closing our orange-chair barricade, but we originally thought it only came once an hour, and were worried when we discovered that morning that it came through twice an hour. One APAQ person later said that they were glad the police took care of the one thing that would have made a mess of our day: get the buses to steer clear of us. Whether related or not, one of the first chalkings on our street was this (almost-done) piece:
Then, with a whole block of city street as ours, we turned the pavement into a temporary social strike for three hours. Or rather, I should say not “we” but all those who meandered into this autonomous zone of redesigned civic space. I’ve just spent a lot of time — well, my words, and your time — portraying how we grabbed this space. I often think we forget to document our own histories of how we remake the world, even in little ways, or maybe especially in all these micro-experimental ways (a picket line at one school; professors coming to stand by their striking stands at another; parents forming a baby bloc at a demo; and on and on for these many months until there’s a full-fledged social movement). But I also lingered on the preparation because it illustrates that fine, magical line between what seems a given — that parking spots are for cars — and what is possible — that an official-looking orange chair can reclaim space for something far more enlivening.
It’s not always possible, of course. It helped that we only had one irate business owner bothering us, although his threats of hitting us with his car were somewhat triggering, since a bunch of us had been next to or directly part of the hit-and-run during a casserole a couple weeks ago (for my report of it, see http://cbmilstein.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/popular-power-fuck-the-elections-montreal-night-101/), along with several likely bored and near-invisible cops. It also helped that it was taking place in Mile-End, an increasingly upscaling space that’s also been home for a while to artists and musicians, radicals and progressives, queers, intellectuals, bohemians, and other hip and increasingly hipster types, many of whom have flexible and/or comfortable livelihoods, such as freelancers or professors. Then too, it helped even more that this whole thing was taking place in the context of a long-lasting and relatively popular social movement, at a time when everyone knows that this movement is heading into the August drama of provincial elections and multiple striking schools being forced to decide whether to keep striking or not. Indeed, day by day of late, there’s a mind-boggling calculus of student assemblies deciding to stay on strike, to stop striking, to remain on strike if twenty thousand other students stay on strike, and so on, with Monday, August 13 looming as the onset of blockade battle zones. People are thus aware of the “why” for our street event, often are in support of the student strike, and frequently want to show solidarity in various ways, and I think, right now, are in extra need of sociality, community, and enjoyment before the intensity of next week. And alongside this context, which is key to making other things possible, it helped that our APAQ has been determined to do tangible things for the striking students as well as the neighborhood in particular and society in general, even when we disagree with each other (we don’t use consensus, nor really ever vote, but rely on dialogue, the autonomy of working groups, and trust, built largely because APAQers really take the time to listen to and understand each other, truly taking concerns in account).
Possibility, however, is always there in different ways; it’s more a matter of recognizing those “it helps” parts that are specific to different experiential undertakings of resistance and reconstruction. Because as I highlighted in my previous blog piece, “Social Goodness & Austerity,” the Quebec student strike has cleverly blended the “against” and “for” into nearly every moment, breaking down an easy binary. So part of the reason I wanted to lay out some of the preparation time of our day was to show how we were trying to deal with bringing something festive to life that was, at once, illegal and potentially confrontational, even as it probably reveals the almost-mundane quality of just bringing people, ideas, and stuff into a space and doing something different, something that’s not the usual — for (a) change.
My second reason for focusing on the time before our social strike was to somewhat demystify the idea of a social strike, which is at once so powerful as a concept unto itself, so ubiquitous here in Montreal as a notion of the “what’s next?” and so simple in terms of what it might be — sort of. I’ve sat through many a consulta, assembly, or informal discussion about what the hell a social strike is, or engaged in conversations about it on the streets while in all the many types of illegal demos, and there’s both an incredible lack of agreement or clarity on its definition, on the one hand, and an incredible abundance of agreement that it should happen. In my Mile-End APAQ, for example, it’s been tossed around from the beginning with little contestation or even much dialogue about it, and when the notion of our “In the street for social strike” came up, everyone almost instantly thought it was a good idea.
When I say that a social strike is simple, I mean that it gets at the simple but hard fact of the contemporary social reality that capitalism shapes everyone’s lives, not just the worker’s life, or even the person or people who sans wages help to reproduce the worker. And conversely, the “simple” way to strike is by collectively not doing what you’re supposed to — business as usual — but throwing a wrench into the everyday of all of what we do, work, school, leisure, street life, urban space, and anything and everything else. Even if definitions disagree here in Montreal, people seem to concur that it isn’t just about disruption, though that’s essential, but what you do during that time of disruption to create something different. I haven’t heard it expressed this way, but it could be said that the idea is for people to “strike” in various ways, and while striking, give new meaning to “social” through the doing of it in new ways.
Remaking society for three hours is obviously a far cry from a long-running social strike that would, in turn, transform society such that we never have to go back to a hierarchical business as usual, but can continually play with better versions of communities from below. Still, there’s a way in which the concept of “social strike” opens up possibility, in the same way that a “general strike” has kind of a grinding-to-a-halt industrial feel about it, making it seem far less possible or, in my view, even desirable comparatively. The few times I’ve heard talk of a general strike here, it’s been to hold up the social strike as better and also more doable. That is, the general strike would involve trade unions, and by and large, those aren’t the most bold, daring, and dynamic sectors; most haven’t even been all that forthcoming in terms of solidarity with the student strike, unlike the newborn APAQs, say. There’s also a mafia here — a real, working one. The beauty of the social strike is that it can really happen anywhere — anywhere that there’s a collectivity of people who want to stop the routine and jump-start some potential.
Again, I don’t want to minimize the difficulty, typically, of shutting down a street even for three hours to do what you want in it with a bunch of other people, or way beyond that, moving toward what people call here, often, the “infinite” or “unlimited” social strike, with the added play on the French word for strike (grève) as holding within it also the word dream (rêve). That in itself captures the distinct beauty of a social strike over a general one: that there’s a dream inside the making and doing of it.
So what did we make and do for our three limited yet infinite hours of dreaming together in the newly liberated space of our one block? We socialized it. Communized it. Made it anarchistic. All in the lowercase senses. That is, between the cheerful orange chairs and happy red balloons could be found an egalitarian and generous spirit, valuing everyone for what they brought into it, from each according to their abilities and passions, to each according needs and desires, all self-organized and self-managed with intention and spontaneity, without compulsion, for a delight that can only be found when we manifest it ourselves, even if it took a lot of work (and even if, as one of my co-organizing APAQ folks mentioned today when I ran into her, she went to bed at 9:00 p.m. last night after it and woke up at 2:00 p.m. today, still exhausted — and still pleased, and also wearing the T-shirt that she’d gotten silk screened during our time in the streets).
Tangibly, what we did was nothing particularly special or even unique, and involved many of the activities that are merely the stuff of regular life: eating, talking, creating art, listening to music, educating and learning, relaxing, reading, making friends, setting up and cleaning up. Even the way that we did it was nothing special or unique in the countercultural circles I’m used to: everything followed a do-it-ourselves sensibility, as it does in collective projects on the antiauthoritarian Left. So I kept wandering up and down the street, focusing on keeping the twelve teach-ins on track and taking photos, among other organizational odds and ends, and thinking, “It’s going well, but so what?”
Then one of my friends who I’d asked to do a teach-in came up to me, after his workshop had ended. He’s an anarchist too, and I figured from the look on his face that he also thought it was a sweet day, but nothing special; we’re used to participatory endeavors and unpermitted undertakings. Then he launched into an enthusiastic depiction of his teach-in, underscoring how distinctly different it felt to be engaged in free and popular education, literally in the streets, centered on issues directly related to this social movement, and offering a vision of what education might be like if the social movement has some success. A few minutes later, someone else found me to offer thanks for my friend’s teach-in, since they knew I’d asked him to do it, saying how smart he was, how he could and should be a teacher, how much they learned, and how different — in a good way — it felt to be sharing in learning with others. “We need to bring him back again,” they exclaimed, “for a lot longer conversation, for us and others.”
I refocused my own lens on how I was seeing these few hours, and started really looking at what was going on. Groups of people sat circled close together on the grungy concrete, conversely intently and eagerly on topics like “Understanding and Fighting Austerity and Crisis in Montreal,” “Solidarity across Borders,” “Why the Student Strike Matters: Tuition, Debt, and Neoliberalism,” “Bodies/Protest/Public Space,” and “Four Points about Neoliberalism and Its Impact on the Common Good.” Many of the “teachers” had moved their “classrooms” to more personally agreeable spots on the streets by simply picking up their red-square sign and taping it down elsewhere, and took initiate to gather a group of “students.” A lawyer who’s also part of our APAQ was going to do a teach-in on special law 78, but only a few people came to sit by her red-square classroom sign. One of them was a military person who had served a tour of duty, and on their return home, had received a couple citations under law 78, so her teach-in ended up doing a close reading of this real-live case; the military person had never heard of the law nor knew much about the student strike before. The person leading the “Making Our Movement Green and Red” teach-in had brought his own butcher-block paper, markers, and an easel, but ended up using the giant chalk we’d contributed for the day to create a participatory mapping of his topic on the street itself.
The Alternative University Project and CUTV (live broadcasters for the Quebec Spring) were on hand to lead teach-ins, but seemed to end up more informally sharing ideas or, perhaps better yet, showing by doing. CUTV, for instance, taped the press conference, where various folks from different APAQs met each other for the first time, and chatted about future ways to collaborate and lend solidarity to each other, even as they explained the genesis of the APAQs, how they were demonstrating wider social support for this movement, and why they would stand behind the striking students. Displaying solidarity too, Anarchopanda had kindly agreed to show up for the first fifteen minutes or so to draw crowds and ward off police, and thus help us hold down the street, but the person inside the animal suit must have been enjoying himself. He joined in the teach-ins, socialized, and stayed for nearly the whole time — fulfilling his light-hearted comment to me on Facebook (when I asked him to offer a philosophy course, his specialty) that he was coming to learn from others.
An area filled with red yarn, red fabric, red-berry muffins, and red translucent “paper” — courtesy of Le Milieu, which concentrates on dialogue, popular learning, and empowerment while supporting creative processes — became a hands-on learning lab as people shared knitting skills, a center of solidarity as people jotted down their thoughts for the students and movement on the see-through red squares, and a subversion of our decision not to put rope across the street for safety reasons — proving that the best-laid DIY plans will thankfully be rethought by others who have a better idea. That’s how red squares filled with words came to dance merrily on the breeze above people’s heads, as nearby participants munched gladly on the the vegan wraps and vegan cake that the Midnight Kitchen –a volunteer collective striving to provide working alternative to current market-based systems of food collection and distribution — had made in quantity the day before along with folks from our assembly and others as part of a big cooking day for us but also a bunch of other educational events and actions over the weekend.