Quebec City:
Gas Against Democracy

— Betsy Esch

AS WAVES OF teargas rained down on demonstrators in Quebec City, as people scrambled to help one another while they were pummelled backward with blasts of water from cannons aimed by riot police to “protect” the perimeter fence that encircled the meeting place of George Bush and thirty-three other heads of American states, it became more and more clear to more and more people there that what we were chanting was true:

“This is what democracy looks like, that is what hypocrisy looks like,” and “They’ve got the guns but we’ve got the numbers.”

These became not just rallying cries of protest but statements of moral and political certainty. On the first day of demonstrations, when activists successfully pulled down one section of the 3.8 kilometer fence, the police made it absolutely clear: The wall might be down but no one is crossing it.

Gassing protestors and blasting them back with water cannons was not merely a tactic but the entire strategy of the police that day and for the nights and days following, when few activists were arrested but thousands were poisoned repeatedly and at least two people shot with rubber bullets.

Even those well outside the perimeter wall were subject to intense gassing. At one point riot police surrounded a street theater being conducted in an intersection, dispersing the crowd with gas. When the group returned to the intersection to restart the theater a helicopter hovered overhead, making it impossible for anyone to hear the play.

With the humor and self-assurance that defines so many of the activists in this movement, people started chanting “Whose skies? Our skies!”

In spite of the viciousness of the police response, protestors kept returning to the perimeter wall, and more kept coming. By Saturday afternoon close to 10,000 young people filled the streets of old Quebec, having broken away from the huge labor march which kept its distance from the wall.

While a haze of gas hung in the air, helicopters and surveillance cameras circled us, and many walked around in shock, the creativity and humanity of this movement was still not stifled. Activists wrote on their shirts beautiful messages like: “Tear gas hurts;” “I am a barrier to trade;” and simply “priceless.”

Small bands of drummers appeared around every corner, singing and dancing, and everywhere you turned people were helping one another survive the gas.

Our global justice movement is advancing beyond semi-protectionism toward solidarity. Even though we might not know exactly where this struggle is going, it’s clear that “open the borders” is a better slogan than “close the borders.”

The Summit of the Americas ended on schedule, with Bush and others signing an agreement to extend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to what is now being called a “region” of the world. Yet the accomplishments of those who demonstrated not just in Quebec, but at virtually every border crossing in North America and in cities around the world, should not be underestimated – even if the real victories may be far into the future.

ATC 92, May–June 2001