It is an unusually warm day in March, and so we are meeting outside, along the railroad tracks near Ijams Nature Center. We are sitting on the loading platform of a long-abandoned cement company, which fed off the quarry behind us. The enormous kilns are rusted, the walls are crumbling and overrun with vines. We are here to talk about Quebec.
There are eight of us—seven young Knoxvillians, most of them University of Tennessee students, and myself. I'm here because I'm curious. I read about demonstrations in Seattle a couple of years ago at a meeting of the World Trade Organization, and then again in Washington, D.C. last year. And again in Philadelphia at the Republican Convention. And in Prague. And in D.C. once more during George W. Bush's inauguration. Thousands of people in the streets, hundreds arrested, windows smashed at Starbucks and McDonald's. It was hard to piece together much from the scattershot media coverage, but it sounded like something was going on. I started asking around.
Today's small meeting by the tracks is led by Erick Haaby, known to everyone but his parents as "Hobbes" (after Thomas Hobbes, partly, but Erick, who has created his own major at UT in modern European philosophy, is quick to point out that he's not that impressed with his namesake's work). Hobbes is willowy and almost pixieish, with floppy brown hair and a predilection for black tights and a white thermal undershirt with holes ripped in the sleeves. He's 23 years old. Last summer, he spent four nights in the Philadelphia city lock-up after being grabbed in a police sweep of a warehouse where demonstrators were making giant puppets and other protest materials. The charges were dismissed, but it was a miserable and frightening experience. "I don't want to go to jail again," he says.
He starts the discussion with a half-joking caveat: "We're probably not going to transform the nature and scope of international economic policy by going to Quebec."
He's referring to the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, scheduled for April 20. Heads of state from the entire Western Hemisphere are expected to attend.
A 20-year-old to his left named David Welch speaks up. "I see certain problems where it wouldn't take many people to get a big reaction," he says. "There's a lot of widespread discontent with things."
As the conversation goes around the circle, some of those "things" become more specific. "Sort of generally speaking, you could say we're concerned about human rights, which covers all the wage and working conditions, and then we're concerned about protection of the environment," a dark-haired guy named Andrew offers. "Then after you get to those two areas, you say it's important to have a vision, and to know another world is possible."
"I don't have a solution," confesses Gabe Crowell, a Pellissippi State history instructor from Buffalo, N.Y. who speaks with measured deliberation. "I'm inspired by pranks, like the Merry Pranksters, I guess. I put bumper stickers on SUVS that say, 'My car is a waste of gas.'"
Talk eventually turns to the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement, which is on the agenda for the Quebec City summit. "It seems like we're sort of at a pivotal crossroads and we're about to hand over a whole bunch of power that we maybe didn't even know we had, and we're handing it over to corporations," Gabe says. "I don't think the corporations we're dealing with are immoral. I think they're amoral."
Soon, the role of violence enters the discussion. If they're going to protest, what's the best way? If the police strike out at them, is it O.K. to strike back? Is breaking a window a violent act? "Do you think aggressively protesting things is an act of violence?" asks John, whose anti-flag-burning T-shirt is presumably intended ironically.
"It's a question of whether using violence is retaliating against oppression," offers a dark-haired young woman named Shinara Taylor, who's been listening quietly but intently up to now. "And whether that resolves anything or contributes to it."
And so it goes. Other issues surface—racism, overconsumption, the trademarking of America in general and the University of Tennessee in particular ("In 30 or 40 years, it's not going to be a school," David predicts. "There'll just be different conglomerates that'll take over different things. Like Monsanto will be teaching us chemistry").
Last one around the circle is a young woman named Jennifer, who is dressed like a Catholic punk rocker in a blouse and skirt and tattered black nylons. Hobbes looks to her. "I agree with everything that's been said, to varying degrees," she says, and pauses. "But I'm more interested on a personal level in not being so alienated all the time."
2 P.M., TUESDAY, APRIL 17
It is an unusually cold day when we leave Knoxville. Quebec City is 1,300 miles away. I'm in the back seat of a car with Hobbes in the front passenger seat and his father, Gary Haaby, at the wheel. Gary is 55, a semi-retired school principal and teacher and an inveterate road-tripper. He has driven himself and his family all over the United States, Canada and Europe. He's full of stories about the time the VW van broke down in the Midwest, or the time border officials questioned a 9-year-old Hobbes about whether Gary was kidnapping him. He's coming along out of curiosity, for some father-son bonding, and maybe just in case something bad happens to Hobbes again.
We're going to the international economic policy protests in a white Acura Integra.
When I mentioned to friends and acquaintances that I was going, I mostly got a collection of blank stares. Almost nobody, including the political junkies I know, was even aware of the summit, or of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. For the record, the FTAA is essentially an effort to extend the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the entire Western Hemisphere, all of North and South America. If ratified as planned, it would abolish most trade barriers and protections from Cape Horn to the Hudson Bay. President George W. Bush and the 33 other national leaders who gathered in Quebec City (the only one not invited was Fidel Castro) hope to have a treaty signed by 2005. Bush wants "fast track" authority from Congress, which would mean Congress could only vote the treaty up or down, not amend it in any way.
I am interested in this, but it's not why I am going to Quebec. What I really want to know is what combination of personal and political motives is bringing young people from the most prosperous generation in the most prosperous country in the history of the world out into the streets to protest. Or, as more than one person asked me before I went, "What's their problem?"
On the way up, we hit snow in Virginia and again in Pennsylvania. But in one of those weird spring jet-stream flukes, it actually gets a few degrees warmer as we head north. The ride settles into an easy rhythm, with Gary doing most of the driving and most of the talking. He is likable and easy-going and no stranger to political unrest. The son of a United Nations diplomat and University of Tennessee professor, he spent part of his adolescence in Chile and saw students and workers protest during extended strikes in Santiago in the early 1960s. As an undergraduate at UT, he was friends with some of the activist student leaders and walked in anti-Vietnam War marches on campus. One of his first professional jobs was as principal at a school in Richmond, Va. during the first year of forced busing in that district. He's a Bob Dylan fan, and he turns up the volume on a Dylan tribute album when "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" comes on.
"Now where have you been, my blue-eyed son," a singer rasps out. "And where have you been, my darling young one..."
"I think he writes like you do," Gary says to Hobbes.
Hobbes half-listens, nodding occasionally but mostly reading a thick book. I ask him what it is.
"Walter Benjamin," he says, pronouncing it precisely as ben-ya-meen. "He's sort of the grand old dude of the Frankfurt school—a radical materialist with quasi-Zionist, quasi-Marxist leanings." Hobbes talks like this a lot, in a self-conscious mishmash of slang and political philosophy. He's aware of it; he's even self-conscious about his self-consciousness. He talks at length about living in an era of "cynical ideology," when every experience comes pre-packaged for us, when irony is the knee-jerk reaction to any display of sincerity. That includes political protests.
He worries that the demonstrations he's been to in Seattle and Washington and Philadelphia have a fascist quality, "an anti-capitalist, anti-modernist veneration of youth and passion...You could almost think you were in Italy during the 1930s. I think there's a difference, but sometimes when you're out on the street, the difference gets blurred.
"In Seattle," he continues, "they had chants. 'Tonight/ We're going/ To fuck shit up!'" He frowns and then shrugs. "It's catchy."
After an overnight at a motel somewhere in the Pennsylvania mountains, we hit the road early, hoping to make Quebec City by nightfall.
As we close in on Canada, we start joking about the border crossing, a sign that we're all a little nervous. In the past week, we've read news stories about would-be demonstrators being detained and questioned and sometimes turned back, their belongings searched and political literature seized. We figure that between my press credentials, such as they are, and Gary's chaperoning, we shouldn't have much trouble. But Hobbes isn't taking any chances. Before we leave the hotel, he changes out of his tights into slacks with a shirt, tie and sweater. He combs his hair. His father laughs.
As it turns out, we have reason to worry. At the Plattsburg, N.Y. border checkpoint, a Canadian official directs us to a parking lot in front of the customs and immigration office. It takes an hour of questions and scrutiny of our IDs and police records before they let us pass. It strikes me, not for the first or last time this week, that all this talk of "open borders" is a relative thing. What saves us, I think, is that when a young but stern woman in the office asks where we're going, we say, "Quebec City." Her face softens. "You are the first ones today to tell me the truth," she says. "All day, everyone says, 'Oh, I'm going to Montreal, just to walk around.' I'm a little tired of being lied to. Is O.K. to go to Quebec, you know?"
In the car, across the border into brown prairie country punctuated by road signs full of words I halfway remember from college French classes, Hobbes mentions that he heard on the radio that the Canadian government had given border officers complete discretion this week. "They can turn back anyone who might be going to Quebec City with anything other than the purest of motives," he says.
Gary laughs, almost gleeful. "That's us," he says. "The purest of motives. That would be a good headline for your story."
At 8:30 p.m., in the fresh darkness of early night, we cross the St. Lawrence River. Gary's already checked into a motel just outside town, somewhat to Hobbes' chagrin. Hobbes wants his father to get the full protest experience, which apparently includes not knowing where you're going to sleep until you get there. Gary's going to drop us off somewhere in downtown Quebec.
Quebec City is a strange place to hold a Summit of the Americas. It is one of the few French-speaking cities in the Western Hemisphere, and both in its architecture and its culture it feels European. With its long history of separatism, it is hardly a model for breaking down barriers. Along the main road into downtown, signs have been erected for the visiting diplomats. They say, "Welcome to the national capital." It is a deliberate political gesture by the territorial government; the capital of Canada is English-speaking Ottawa, 285 miles away.
Navigating the winding, narrow streets of downtown, we see sections of mesh steel fencing with concrete footers stacked along the sidewalks. They are pieces of "the fence," the 2.5-mile perimeter that the local and federal governments have decided to use to seal off the entire section of the city where the Summit is happening. During the Summit, no one will be able to enter or leave the security zone without authorization. But with the gathering two days off, the fence sections are just sitting there, waiting to be moved into place. The local press has dubbed the barrier "le mur du honte": the wall of shame.
Quebec City was founded on a cliff overlooking the river, for obvious reasons. You don't have to see the cannons still lining the ramparts to understand how easy the city was to defend against attack from either land or water. An 18th century wall still rings the "old town" at the top of the hill. It hasn't been used for actual security purposes in anyone's living memory, until now; the police have incorporated parts of it into the fence.
Down at the base of the cliff, along the city's inner harbor, we find a large white tent and a markethouse. This is the headquarters of the People's Summit, an "alternative" gathering of protest groups from across the Americas that's been holding seminars and forums all week on environmental, agricultural, social and industrial issues. There are dozens of tables piled with newsletters, press releases, manifestos, maps, and announcements of upcoming events. The crowd milling around the markethouse is older than I expected, mostly gray-haired and modestly dressed. Hobbes looks uncertain; this isn't exactly what he wanted. We ask a helpful man who looks to be in his 60s if there are any accommodations. He says he's heard that one of the nearby colleges is providing housing to "people like you, young people."
With smudgy photocopied maps in hand and heavy duffel bags on our backs, we head out into the dark city. It takes a good half-hour of tromping to get to the school the man indicated, and once we get there we find we've been misdirected—no housing. But a college-age guy working with a small group to assemble protest posters tells us we might find some help at the Horizon Centre, about eight blocks back the way we came. I'm exhausted and hungry and I can't remember the last time I reached 9:30 p.m. with literally no idea of where or when I would sleep that night. Hobbes seems excited.
His excitement turns to elation when we reach the Horizon Centre and find dozens of young people in jeans and surplus military jackets and hiking gear adorned with leftist political patches. "Oh yeah!" he says. We've found it—the check-in point for the younger, more radical protest community. And "community" it seems to be; within minutes of walking into the main hallway, we hear a woman's voice say, "Hobbes?" He turns and finds a short woman with close-cropped hair named Mary; she's a friend of a friend he met at the protests in Washington, D.C. last year. She and two companions have just arrived from Asheville. They're students at Warren Wilson College.
As Hobbes tries to secure a place to sleep, I realize there are two very different forms of protest going on in Quebec. The People's Summit, with its professionally designed brochures and website (peoplessummit.org) and facilities partly paid for by a grant from the Canadian government, is the "official" voice of dissent. It is organized and run by people who do this for a living—non-profit groups like Oxfam, labor organizations, international health groups. The Summit issues official press passes and provides a room full of telephones and computers for members of the mainstream media.
The Horizon Centre scene is something different; it's affiliated with less well-defined groups like Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes (Convergence of Anti-Capitalist Groups, universally referred to by its aggressive-sounding acronym CLAC) and the scrappy, activist IndyMedia collective (indymedia.org).
By the time we arrive on Wednesday, the People's Summit has already been meeting all week, drafting an 80-page alternative version of the FTAA treaty in polite parliamentary sessions translated into English, Spanish and French. The CLAC groups, in contrast, are just now assembling, rolling in by the busload and carload in anticipation of the real Summit and the street protests that will accompany it. There's some cross-over between the two camps, but they seem to regard each other with suspicion. I pick up a newsletter issued by "Les Anarchistes," which includes an article denouncing the People's Summit as a bunch of "reformists" who merely want to tweak the economic system rather than (as the anarchists prefer) tear it down and "build an egalitarian society on the ruins of the crushed old world."
I'm guessing another difference is that the People's Summit people are staying in hotels for upwards of $80 a night. We, on the other hand, find ourselves paying $5 for a patch of floor in a health club called the Extreme Gym. Hobbes and I throw our sleeping bags down in the aerobics room with about 30 other travelers. Over the next two days, the club will become increasingly crowded. By Friday night, we will be lying on concrete in the gym's large boxing room with hundreds of other protesters (the lucky ones get to sleep on the canvas of the boxing ring).
The normal rules don't apply. Mary from Asheville and her friends bed down next to us. "We have got to find somewhere else," Mary says. "I can't afford to pay $5 a night."
The statement sounds a little absurd; this is $5 in Canadian money, about $3.60 in U.S. cash. The only way our rooming could be cheaper is if it were free. But that's the point. Hobbes has already told me not to expect to pay for any food during our stay here; someone, somewhere will be giving it away.
And so I'm introduced to another fact and facet of these protests: they are not merely demonstrations against something; they are demonstrations of something. One of the most common phrases I see on banners, stickers and fliers in Quebec is "Another world is possible." And in their brief convergence here, many of the participants seem to be trying to manifest that world—a place where food and shelter is available to those who need it, where you are invited and also expected to contribute something to the community, where you take care of yourself and each other without the blessing or supervision of any outside authority.
On Thursday morning, Hobbes and I find the free food. It takes a while, because the map we have shows the dining spot to be somewhere that at first appears to be completely cluttered with highway on- and off-ramps. But underneath the arcing swaths of asphalt, between the massive concrete pillars that support the elevated roadways, there's a gravel plain strewn with wood and metal sculptures, vivid galleries of psychedelic graffiti art splashed across every available surface, and a makeshift nomad's kitchen erected under a banner that says "The PedAler's Feast." The "A" in "PedAler's" is an anarchist logo, like so: A. The insignia is kind of the Nike swoosh of the young protest crowd (except of course that it's not trademarked—unlike the "Fuck Le Sommet" T-shirts I see some protesters wearing, which have tags identifying them as Fruit of the Loom products manufactured in El Salvador).
Breakfast consists of bran muffins and gummy oatmeal gruel. There's a plastic jug for donations, but no money is required. You do have to clean your own dishes, though, in cold soapy water provided at a washing station. I talk to the guy who seems to be in charge, a tall young man with long blonde hair and a bristly beard who looks like he should be named Thor and, in fact, is ("My mother's Icelandic," he explains). He's from Winnipeg, where he's a member of a group called the Free Kitchen. He says he's here to support the protesters and also to provide a model of non-profit commodity exchange. "In a lot of the countries that are involved in the discussions, a lot of their lands are taken up growing single crops for export," he says. He mentions coffee and bananas. "When they should be growing food for their own people to eat." In Quebec this week, even the oatmeal is ideological.
I find a patch of scrub grass and plop down to eat. I listen in on a group next to me talking about the next day's protests. A bleach-blond girl in a black sweatshirt with a woman-power emblem on it says to her friends, "O.K., so if one of us gets arrested, are we just gonna pile on top of each other?"
The CLAC "spokescouncil" is not exactly open to the press, but it isn't closed either. If you know where and when it is—the Université Laval, 3 p.m. Thursday—you can go. And since this is posted on a handwritten placard in the information room of the Horizon Centre, I don't feel like I'm violating any rules by attending. (Well, maybe the one that says "MEDIA must be accompanied by a designated media delegate AT ALL TIMES," but who's counting?)
I get there about an hour late and find the meeting well under way. It's in a large atrium of a college building. There are probably 150 people seated on the floor or watching from balconies one and two stories above. It's a young and scruffy crowd, the kind you'd expect to see at an indie rock show—lots of patchwork clothes and tousled hair, with political buttons and patches much in evidence on jackets and backpacks.
There's a big red CLAC banner on the wall, and the earnest, dark-skinned young man with the microphone seems to be a CLAC representative. He's moderating a discussion about tactics for tomorrow's protests. A few groups are planning to hold peaceful roadblocks to shut down traffic on three of the city's main avenues. They can't decide whether to do this early in hopes of actually blocking some delegates from reaching the Summit or to wait until after a planned march at noon.
The conversation is all in reasonable, matter-of-fact tones, and the microphone is open to anyone who wants it. Volunteers patiently translate every statement from French to English or English to French ("anti-globalization" hardly seems a fair label for such an international assortment of groups). There are nearly equal numbers of males and females, and women actually seem to speak a little more often than men. Hobbes had told me about the open, participative nature of the councils; he didn't tell me about the "twinkling." Instead of applauding when a speaker says something they like, people are supposed to wave their open palms so they twinkle like stars.
The earnestness and even cuteness of the whole proceeding becomes increasingly surreal as talk turns to expectations of more direct confrontation. One young bearded guy in a knit cap (there are a lot of knit caps) stands and identifies himself as being from a "hard-yellow group" in the U.S. Midwest. (From what I can tell, "green" groups are completely peaceful; yellow groups believe in civil disobedience, including the possibility of being arrested; red groups believe in more assertive action, including physical confrontation.)
"Nobody's saying much about red groups, for obvious reasons," the knit-cap guy begins. "But the fence will be penetrated, probably in several places, and when it happens, we are pledging to be there to support the red groups. We will go in behind them. I don't have to say more than that; just know when and where it's going to happen and be there." There is much twinkling.
The fence is up.
After the spokescouncil, I had to choose between a press conference at the People's Summit, a free dinner nine blocks away hosted by a group called the People's Potato ("vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free," the flier promises), or trying to find Hobbes for the beginning of a candlelight march. I decided to go look at the fence instead.
On the way up the hill along Rue St. Jean, a quaint touristy strip that's a likely scene of major "activities" tomorrow, many of the stores have their precautions in place. Plywood sheets cover some doors and windows; others have opted for chicken wire. A bookstore called the Librarie Partout may have the best protection of all: a prominent window display of leftist political books with titles like "The Globalization of Poverty." Most stylish are McDonald's and The Gap, which are both smart enough to know they're symbols of international corporate hegemony. McDonald's has even removed the raised letters from its facade, leaving its name spelled in a ghostly outline on the concrete. The restaurant has decorated its wooden window covers with cheerful daisies and fluffy white clouds in blue skies. The Gap's placards have been painted to match the sleek trim on the surrounding woodwork.
At the fence itself, an equal mixture of tourists and prospective protesters mingles (and for the moment, you can't really tell them apart). It's already adorned with banners, most in French, saying things like "A police state—is this what you want?" and "Life before profits." There are ribbons and cut-paper flowers and one entire section strung with dozens and dozens of brassieres. Some of the graffiti is overtly political, including a handful of pro-Cuba and pro-Castro slogans. But much of it is broader: "Free and accessible education for everyone," "Violence solves nothing," "It is necessary to be polite in life." The most poignant thing I find is a letter written as a poem:
Dans ma tête
la plus belle ville au monde.
Dommage vous ne pourrez pas
Messieurs les Presidents.
("To my mind, this is the most beautiful city in the world. It is too bad you won't be able to discover it, Mssrs. Presidents.")
SOME THOUGHTS ON ANARCHISTS
I've never met any real anarchists before. None of the Knoxville protesters identify themselves as such. And even in Quebec, they're a small minority. But they're here. It's probably not fair to label everyone dressed in black as an anarchist, but that is their preferred attire. In costume, with bandannas pulled up over their noses, they look menacing, like ninja shock troops. But before they put on the masks, they strike me as a bunch of goofy kids, a college Science Club gone haywire.
At a bus stop Friday morning, as Hobbes and I are waiting for a ride out to the Université where the protest march will begin, three guys and a girl walk up. They're all in black. The girl asks if we went to "the meeting at 10 o'clock." When we look at her blankly, she quickly says, "Oh, never mind." They're busy strapping styrofoam chestplates and arm guards under their clothes, obviously anticipating some action.
The anarchist newsletter I have, published by the Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists, states their goal as "a classless and non-hierarchical society." The four at the bus stop chatter excitedly to each other, joking and laughing. The girl looks at her watch and sighs heavily. "This," she says with annoyance, "is the least organized thing I've ever been to."
THE NORMAL RULES DON'T APPLY.
I'm sitting on the steps of a bank in a neat middle-class neighborhood along the Boulevard René-Lévesque. My feet hurt from walking and so I'm taking a break to watch the parade go by. It occurs to me that the bank is not in a great location for a "Carnival Against Capitalism," as CLAC has billed this march. Even as I think this, a woman wrapped in a rainbow of silk scarves runs out of the parade and up the steps next to me. She has a spray can with her, and as I watch, she sprays a big red "R" in a circle on the bank's plastic sign. Then she runs back into the crowd. I don't know what the "R" means—Revolution? Resistance? Somewhere in my brain, I realize that if I had seen something similar happen in a different setting—say, downtown Knoxville on a weekday—it would seem strange and even threatening. Here, it's just part of the pageantry.
Soon I, too, rejoin the throng and wind my way from the back to the front. There's a group of Latino marchers in sarapes chanting, in both Spanish and English, "The people/ United/ Will never be defeated" (it sounds better in Spanish). There is a black-clad anarchist drum section, pounding out syncopated beats. There are two girls and a guy pulling pink cardboard tanks on leashes; the tanks have big cartoon eyes and smiley faces. There is a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty who walks the entire parade route on stilts. There are songs and chants and more costumes than I can count: bowlers against free trade, a soccer team with the name "John Doe" stitched onto every shirt, men dressed as mad cows. My favorites are the Radical Cheerleaders, dressed in matching red-and-black skirts and sweaters and doing choreographed dance routines to chants like, "Riot! Don't diet! Get up get up and try it," and "Hey NAFTA, hey NAFTA, we know what you're afta!"
Estimates in the paper the next day will put the crowd in this parade at about 4,000. It takes a good 10 minutes to pass any given block, shutting off traffic from all sides in the interim. There is no police escort; oncoming cars merely turn onto side streets. Local residents of neatly maintained middle-class neighborhoods come out to their front lawns to watch. I approach one man who's standing with his young son. His name is Paul LeMieux. I ask what he thinks of the spectacle. "As long as it's done peacefully," he says, "I think it's important that people are here from all over the world. I think it's good that people express their opinion." I ask what he'd think if his son wanted to join a protest some years from now. He shrugs. "If he wants to, I think he should," he says. "He must have his own ideas." I notice that none of the spectators is harassing the marchers, and many wave and cheer them on.
A few blocks from the fence, one of the CLAC organizers is talking through a bullhorn. "If you don't want to get arrested, turn left and follow us," he says. "If you want to go on to the fence, go straight." I very much don't want to get arrested, but I've come this far and I want to see what happens. I get to the fence ahead of the parade and station myself along the side of it. There are only about 10 police standing behind the perimeter, all in bulky olive-green riot gear. They're members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but they in no way conform to Dudley Do-Right stereotypes. They look ready for combat.
The first protesters who reach the fence don't know what to do. One or two climb to the top to take pictures or just hang there for a moment, but they scramble down quickly. After about 15 minutes, though, there's a critical mass of several hundred pushing against the barrier. They start throwing things over it: rolls of toilet paper at first, then empty plastic bottles. Then come the golf balls and hockey pucks, most landing before they hit the police but a few balls pinging off their helmets.
There's still a festive air, but there's also rising tension. A few people next to me throw peanuts at the police and make monkey noises. A short guy with a beard and a red rubber clown nose climbs a spindly tree and throws two whipped-cream pies in the direction of the troops. Further back in the crowd, a homemade wooden catapult hurls an array of stuffed animals over the fence. But now there are chunks of pavement too, landing near the police with threatening clatters and skipping across the asphalt. Then I see a glass bottle come flying over and smash in a fiery gasoline puddle on the ground: a molotov cocktail. Another one lands near an officer's leg and appears to singe his pants; several of his colleagues leap in with extinguishers and hose him down. And then the fence starts rocking.
About five protesters dressed all in black are on one section, pulling it backward. It goes with surprisingly little resistance. In less than a minute, there's a breach in the wall. At first, no one seems to know what to do. Then a handful of protesters slips through. The police stand their ground about 40 feet away. More people come through the fence, and more sections of it start to fall. Objects are still flying through the air, and there's smoke coming from somewhere. A second squad of police arrives and charges forward at the protesters. They're avoiding physical contact, relying on intimidation to push people back. It works for a few minutes until a more aggressive group of black-clad demonstrators (apparently members of the Black Bloc, a secretive anarchist group) rushes forward pushing a metal street barrier before them. The police fall back. But then a third squad of Mounties arrives. Several of them are carrying guns that I recognize as gas cartridge launchers. I wasn't sure things would go this far. I'm not sure what to do. I'm in jeans and a sweater, not really dressed for this sort of thing. I keep taking pictures. Then the gas hits.
SOME THOUGHTS ON TEAR GAS:
It's not really a gas at all, for one thing. It's a spray of solid and liquid chemical compounds, often of the bromine family. It was first widely used during World War I, but keepers of the peace couldn't help noticing that its effects—temporary incapacitation with no lingering consequences—made it perfect for, as my dictionary says, "dispelling mobs." Its use is so common, and its name so benign, that it doesn't register much in news articles. I had heard of it plenty of times and never given it much thought.
So imagine this: one moment you are standing there, face to the fence, watching police and demonstrators move closer to each other, each side advancing and retreating cautiously. The next moment there is a spurt of white cloud and immediately your face is on fire. The burning starts on your cheeks and even as you turn away and try to hold your breath it spreads into your eyes and nose and throat. You blink and gasp and a man yelling in French gets your attention; he's waving his hands and pointing at his eyes and it's enough to remind you that you're not supposed to rub your pupils the way you're instinctively tempted to. It will just spread the burning, and anyway the spray's on your hands too. So you stumble down a hill toward fresh air, clutching a notebook and camera, eyes and nose streaming with assorted unstoppable fluids, which mix with the chemicals on your skin and intensify the acid-bath corrosion on your face. A woman rushes by carrying a baby, its eyes flowing with tears and its red mouth squirming around the nipple of a bottle.
It will be five minutes before you can talk, 20 minutes before your shocked brain can think well enough to make sense of a map, a half-hour and a painful cold-water scrubbing before your face doesn't hurt. This is tear gas. When you smell it again that night on the clothes of an excited protester who has just come in from the streets, the acrid bite in the air is enough to compel you to wash your face and brush your teeth all over again.
Still dazed, I wander down to the People's Summit. Outside the markethouse, two graying men are joking about the street battles happening just a few blocks away. "Ah, the smell of tear gas in the air," one of them says. He sounds nostalgic.
Inside, a press conference is about to begin. It's in French, with no translator on such short notice, so I follow along as best I can. Two middle-aged women do most of the talking. One of them refers delicately to "this somewhat special afternoon," and then issues the official response of the "reformists" to the tactics of the "anarchists": "Indignation, yes, a thousand times yes; but violence, no." She goes on to note that it was "a very small group that decided to agitate," and blames "the creation of a sort of collective paranoia" brought on by the erection of the fence and the heavy police presence.
Several reporters from French and Canadian newspapers ask what the consequences will be for the People's Summit's planned protest march the next day. One of the women responds, with a half-smile, that that will be partly up to the media. If you choose to focus on the battles and not the other elements of the protest, she says, that is all the rest of the world will know.
On TV sets in the media tent, it's clear that question is already settled. All the major Canadian networks are showing live or taped footage of police and protesters clashing and tear gas canisters flying. In a televised press conference, the Quebec City police chief, a bald man in a uniform who looks like a militarized Humpty Dumpty, is assuring the public the situation is under control.
I find Hobbes back under the interstate, along with hundreds of other protesters. He has located the rest of the Knoxville party, who arrived last night. Gabe and Shinara and David are there, along with a diminutive young woman named Laurel and an affable blond-haired guy who says his name is Crack. Laurel is a student and a bookstore employee. Crack, it turns out, is homeless. I ask him what he does. He smiles and shrugs and says, "Drink and fuck shit up. But usually in Knoxville. Shinara and Laurel know I'm homeless and I don't have much to do, so they said, 'We're going to Canada. Wanna come?'"
They all have watery eyes and crimson cheeks, as do most of the people I see on the street. Exposure to tear gas quickly becomes a mark of battle, a red-eyed badge of courage. "It almost became a game," Hobbes says. "Like, how many times could you stand being tear gassed?"
We talk about going out to that evening's planned spokescouncil meeting, but it's a long ride. We settle for finding more free food (bean salad and soup) and then a neighborhood bar. Over pitchers of bad beer and a surreptitious flask of Jack Daniels, we hash out the day's events. Shinara is equal parts excited and ambivalent; it was all very dramatic, more so than marching in Washington, D.C. last year. Maybe too dramatic, almost theatrical. She says she kept a narrative running in her own head even as the action was happening. "I kept thinking, if I was writing about it, how would I write it?"
I can't help wondering how much the protest was against the fence and the FTAA and unrestricted global trade, and how much it was a way to build and feed on the community spirit of the protesters—a coming together that required an adversary to give it focus.
Other veterans of the day's fights congregate at tables around us. A squad of Radical Cheerleaders wanders by and does a series of routines on the sidewalk. A man with a goatee walks up carrying a hammer-and-sickle flag, and a large group of protesters at a patio table rises, fists in the air, and sings a beery rendition of the Internationale.
Saturday morning, the Quebec and Montreal papers are full of coverage of the protests. Hobbes is amused to find his face in a crowd shot at the fence. The papers report that the unrest delayed the opening ceremonies at the Summit of the Americas by a half-hour and forced the dignitaries (including Laura Bush) to close their windows to keep out tear gas.
We meet up with Gary at the Horizon Centre. Neither Hobbes nor I has seen him since he dropped us off Wednesday night, but he's been making his own forays. He spent Thursday wandering the city and talking to the locals. He reports that none of them liked the fence. "It's like Berlin," one old man told him. Friday, Gary stationed himself on a hill near the fence to watch the action. Three boys, 10 or 11 years old, rode up on bikes. Gary's schoolteacher side came out. "I asked them if they spoke English. They said, 'A little.' I said, this is a lesson. See how easy it is for them to shut down your city? And even if you think they're doing the right thing, what if it was being done by people who you didn't agree with?" He stayed into the afternoon, until the fence started to go down. He saw the first tear gas fired and started to worry about his car, parked on a nearby street. The last straw was an errant golf ball that clipped the side of his head. "Whoever was throwing golf balls, I want his ass," he growls.
Because of domestic complications, Gary has to leave Saturday afternoon. I ride out with him. Hobbes has decided to stay behind, to help with "clean-up" after the summit. Gary doesn't try to talk his son out of it; he gives him $40 in Canadian currency and a credit card to buy a train or bus ticket home. He makes a good show of seeming nonchalant, but once we're in the car, Gary sighs. "I hope he's going to be OK," he says.
On the way out of the city, we pass buses still arriving from Montreal and Toronto, and a city park rapidly filling with protesters for what will be the most vocal day of demonstration. It will culminate with a frenzy of tear-gas and water-cannon attacks by police and the arrests of nearly 500 protesters. Hobbes and the rest of the Knoxville crowd will manage to avoid jail and will end the day back under the autoroute, dancing with hundreds of others around a huge bonfire, while police watch from the overpass.
Back in Knoxville a week later, I hold debriefing sessions with Shinara and David and Hobbes and Gabe. I start by asking again why they went. Again the talk turns to alienation from the political system and, more broadly, from the values of a consumer society.
Shinara, an art student who constructs evocative sculptural installations, talks about the last presidential election. "I didn't feel that Bush or Gore represented me," she says. "The people that are supposed to speak for us are so far removed from us. It's so distant."
"Your voice can never mean anything compared to the people who are putting down thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars," David says. "If they're failing you, then to me the proper thing to do is to go out in the street and speak for yourself."
"What I saw in Quebec City," Shinara says, "all the people that were coming together and all the creative things they were inspiring was to me so much more flavorful... I don't like the whole air of corporations, the kind of monoculture they push."
"They surround us," David says, gesturing at a passing KAT bus with advertisements on the side. "They go by on cars, it's on billboards, it's on your shoes. It's so hard to live every day in it and not participate in it. When you go to a big protest like this, it's your biggest chance to say, 'We know we're involved in this, but we don't agree with it.'"
"I get the sense that there wasn't as much media attention as there was in Seattle," says Hobbes, the only one who was at both protests. "But I felt [Quebec] was a lot more important in a lot of ways than Seattle as a sort of group-building process. I got this real sense of belonging, around the campfires and in the streets."
Gabe agrees. "You could see it as a hodge-podge," he acknowledges of the disparate groups and messages at the protests. "But you could also see it as a coming together, a phantasmagoria."
Among other things, Hobbes found a freedom that he envied in some of the other protesters. They didn't have his American hang-ups about mixing passion with their politics. "Talking to a lot of Francophone folks, they seem really comfortable being passionate," he says. "And I'm not. And I'd like to be."
"We grew up in a very cynical age," Gabe says.
"I've had a hard time believing in anything," Hobbes says, nodding.
"Our larger goals were all complete failures," David says, sitting in the sunshine on the porch of the 11th Street Expresso House. "I think Bush will get fast-track, I think the FTAA will be created, I think we didn't have any real impact on that at all. But I think in a lot of intangible, spiritual ways, that it was really a wild success. I got the sense, for the first time in my short activist life, that we are going to win. The fact that we were all there dancing around a bonfire..."
"I got this wonderful sense of strength," Shinara says. "It was rather tribal. It felt strongly connected to that innate sense, that thing in ourselves that we've been trained to turn so much against."
"That massive embrace of life," David says.
Shinara nods. "That deep voice," she says.