Listen, You Can Hear the Sound of Direct Democracy, or Orchestroles
Among the many things to remark on here in Montreal in relation to the remarkable student strike and the maple movement it has engendered is that people don’t seem to beat tactics to death. When new tactics have strategic uses that are underpinned by solid aims, and crucially, when they exhibit a bit of novelty or flair, they stay in play. On the other hand, when tactics appear to have outlasted their usefulness and especially their vibrancy, they are abandoned, reworked, or take another enlivening form.
It’s still unclear exactly how this happens. Ideas are put out there — on Facebook, posters, or the streets, and especially at student and neighborhood assemblies — and clearly, strategic and tactical decisions are made as well as implemented. Directly democratic along with highly participatory forms of decision making have long been institutionalized at many of the schools on strike, and several members of the student coalitional association CLASSE have mentioned that this self-governance was pivotal to planning, organizing, and mobilizing this strike. Or more strongly, that the strike couldn’t have happened without those bodies.
But there’s also this curious way in which a sort of “general will” or popular consensus — outside any formal process, and more like a gravitational pull — makes it apparent that a particular tactic has people’s enthusiasm and participation, or not. And not in a cynical or mean-spirited way; people on the ground seem to somehow, inexplicably, concur that something feels right to do.
The key point is: there’s a palpable and (compared to contemporary movements in the United States) profound lack of tactical, not to mention strategic, staleness.
So it is with the casseroles.
Nearly as quickly as they burst on to the scene in Montreal some six weeks ago, swelling in numbers and locations and volume, the casseroles diminished to the occasional few folks at an intersection for about fifteen minutes. They were magical while they lasted, and made their point, plus helped to kick off popular assemblies in various neighborhoods here, and offered an easy solidarity tool for folks in other cities and countries, such as the “Canada casseroles night” every Wednesday. And probably a sizable number of Montreal households now have a thoroughly dented pan as proud symbol of this struggle.
Then, the Saturday before last, various Montreal popular assemblies decided they would pull those battered pots into battle again, and head downtown to add strength to the nightly illegal demos. They each started casseroles on particular corners in their own neighborhoods, at staggered times, and then walked from neighborhood to neighborhood toward downtown, picking up people until a hefty contingent of casserolers with banners for each popular assembly converged at the usual meeting spot next to UQAM for the (second) illegal evening march, and everyone strolled out again together. There was also a flash mob on the way that swooped into a bookstore chain that had supposedly fired an employee for wearing a red square; inside, for several exuberant minutes, people banged on pots and waved red-covered books.
Meanwhile, a small group of diehards in the Mile-End neighborhood had apparently been bringing their cookware out on Wednesdays to two “hot spot” intersections at 8 p.m. At last Thursday’s Mile-End popular assembly, in the six-person breakout group on culture and arts, two enthusiastic guys — part of an enthusiastic collective space in the neighborhood — said they wanted to add an orchestra and bring it out into the streets at this Wednesday’s tiny casseroles, or our own neighborhood version of Montreal’s Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble, “born May 27th 2006 during the ‘Status For All’ march/demo in Montreal” (http://chaoticinsurrectionensemble.org/). Maybe it was another one of those “lost in translation” moments for me, but I could have sworn they said they didn’t want to promote it; just spread the idea via word of mouth, which is what happened. The breakout group ran the idea by the reconvened assembly, or what was left at it some three hours into our popular gathering in a public park. Everyone affirmed that it sounded good, and away we all went into the night last week.
At 8:10 p.m. this evening, at the appointed Waverly and St.-Viateur intersection, it was me and maybe three or four other folks with pots and pans. I started banging on my saucepan, filled with homemade red felt squares and safety pins in each (to give out when — or if — we really got going), and the rest of the cookware crew joined me, along with a couple dogs that started barking. At about 8:15 p.m., one of the two enthusiastic guys marched over to us with his drum, quadrupling (or more) our noise level. At 8:20 p.m., now with maybe six casseroles on pots and ladles, he asked me if I thought we should give up on the plan. He wondered if it had been promoted, though I reminded him that he and his friend been opposed to that last week. He then wondered if maybe we should just call it quits for this week, and promote it for the next one.
Fortunately, soon, our popular assembly banner arrived from one direction, and a definite scrappy DIY orchestra appeared in the other direction — horns, drums, tambourines, and perhaps the showpiece, a quiet bicycle with a big red-square banner. More on that in a minute.
Suddenly there were also more pots and pans, and more dogs, and some kids, and lots of red squares on bodies and instruments, and we set about “tuning up” our street-corner insurrection ensemble, and then . . . away we went, out into the unsanctioned streets as popular assembly marching band in solidarity with the student strike and social strike (because that’s been the clear sentiment at the first two assemblies). Or rather, out with our newly blended tactic: “Orchestroles”! Part instruments, musicians, and discernible songs; part cookware, neighbors, and clanging chaos.
Suffice it to say, the neighborhood came alive as we passed by in the streets, with people popping their heads out windows, doors, and balconies, and some zipping back inside to grab a pot and wooden spoon, and then join us. The musicians increasingly hit their stride, starting to really jam, and the sound of music — a mix of joyful and somber, mournful and celebratory — echoed off the buildings, wafting through the gentle night breeze, outward well beyond our numbers (maybe forty tops, but never the “true” illegal number spelled out in special law 78, which for about a minute, we chanted against with the usual “fuck you” slogan in French).
A casseroler had brought flyers about our next assembly, and she and I handed them out to curious onlookers, who leaned out open-air cafes to get a peek or stopped on their bicycles to savor the music. Mostly, I held out my saucepan full of freshly made red squares to people who seemed more than curious. They’d peek inside, a big grin would spread across their face, and more often than not, they’d exclaim their surprise at this gift. I could never hear what they said, due to the orchestroles’ overwhelming din, but expressions can speak louder than words sometimes. They’d eagerly grab one, pinning to their shirt or bag, again looking astonished at this gift that allowed them, too, to participate. I didn’t invent this tactic; it’s one I borrowed after seeing a few folks do it on previous casseroles. Several members of our orchestroles realized I had these red squares, and since they weren’t wearing one, they ran up to me to get a “loaner,” and soon I could see my saucepan was nearly empty. Then one of our popular assembly crew — a striking student — sidled up to me, asking if I needed more, and then pulled out a ziplock bag full of them. This student told me that they made them in batches to give out at their student association meetings. So voila! Refilled saucepan, ready to be emptied again!
We took the streets, our popular assembly banner at the head, musicians toward the front, cookware all around, and bicycle with banner at the rear, all of us illegal and self-directed, winding our way through quieter residential streets and busier commercial ones in Mile-End, nearly always against traffic, for about an hour. And just when we were nearly back at our starting point, which clearly (via that inexplicable general will) was going to be our ending point, suddenly one, then two, and then five cop cars with lights flashing decided they had to intervene — with the usual excuse of, as they told one of our orchestroles, “preventing an accident.” Their method to ensure our “safety” was to use the front of their cars to “nudge” several us off the street. When someone would “insist” on remaining in the street, they’d turn their cruiser toward them, brushing car against person’s body. Without any “fuck you cops” or confrontation, our orchestroles just stayed its course, in our streets, back to our beginning intersection, where we raised our pots and pans as the musicians raised the volume in a gorgeously insurrectionary finale, with smiles all around.
“Next week?” “Yes, next week!” “Hey, can’t we do an encore now?!”
We engaged in short and sweet schmoozing in the street instead, while the five cop cars sat ineffectually nearby. “Hey, we must have been successful tonight,” someone observed happily. “Look, they sent five police cars for less than fifty people!” At one point the police used a microphone to announce that we needed to get out of the streets and stop socializing, but like the bigger nightly demos, no one listened. The police aren’t who people listen to these days. We talk and listen to each other.
Which brings me back to the quiet bicycle with the big red-square banner, with one word (well, two, if you count the French and English versions): LISTEN.
LISTEN. That’s what direct democracy sounds like. A whole lot of listening, to each other, and what we need, desire, and feel good about doing. Maybe that goes a long way to explaining why neither tactics, strategies, or aspirations go stale. People here in Montreal, in building toward and moving forward with this student-social strike, have made use of and/or are creating deliberate spaces for listening, from assemblies to the wake-up calls of casseroles and now orchestroles.
Which brings me to an anecdote about a different kind of interaction this evening.
At one point in handing out my homemade red felt squares, a woman who looked to be in her early twenties, waved me over to her front door. When I held out my saucepan, she said in perfect English, with not a moment’s hesitation about whether I would understand or not (coincidence or not, this is something that’s always been my experience at demos, when someone wants to complain about the strike, which is heavily Francophone inflected and organized), “Don’t you think you’ve protested enough? You’ve already lost, no one agrees with you, and the government isn’t going to give you what you want.” Her initial smile turned to hostility, and her voice got an angry edge. “But look around you. Can’t you see that there’s lots of support, right here on your block?” I responded, because hoards of people all around us had come outside to wave and cheer the orchestroles on, and even start participating too.
She dived, agitatedly, into the tired and misguided line that the students were spoiled, they had it better than students elsewhere, and so on. I dived, calmly, into the idea that everyone should have cheap or free education, and maybe health care and housing too. “Like you do,” I said, because I was looking right into her lovely home, its front door wide open.
She started pointing a finger at me, about to yell, and I quietly pointed my finger at her T-shirt, which sported a big heart made out of hundreds of little versions of the word love. Even more calmly, I said, “Isn’t that what love is about? Love in the most expansive sense, as a love of humanity? That we believe that each of us — you, me, and everyone around us — is deserving of what they need and want?” She stopped, looked at me, less sure of herself. I could hear her listening, maybe not to me, but to something inside her head, like she was now forced to have an internal dialogue because she’d listened to that word love — a word that she herself was wearing, perhaps without even thinking hard about its meaning before.
LISTEN. Nightly and daily here, for the time being at least, you can hear the faint but growing sound of things changing.
Cindy Milstein is a board member of the Institute for Anarchist Studies–focused on projects such as the new Lexicon pamphlet series, the IAS/AK Anarchist Interventions book series, and curating anarchist theory tracks–and author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations(IAS/AK Press, 2010) and the forthcoming collaboration with Erik Ruin Paths toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations of Everyday Anarchism (PM Press, 2012). She has been overly engaged in numerous collective projects aimed at creating autonomous spaces of resistance, reconstruction, and education, including most recently, Occupy Philly, Station 40 in San Francisco, and before that, Black Sheep Books in Montpelier, Vermont. She also taught at the “anarchist summer school” called the Institute for Social Ecology, and has long been involved in community organizing and social/political movements from below. Her essays appear in several anthologies, including Realizing the Impossible: Art against Authority and Globalize Liberation. When not at home, she travels (frequently) to do public speaking and popular education around topics related to anarchism, direct democracy, anticapitalism, and other political interventions, to encourage critical thought and prefigurative politics, and to do indie media as a sort of anarchist political correspondent/commentator, such as right now in relation to the maple spring in Montreal. More of her writing can be found at her blog, Outside the Circle.