Popular Power: "Fuck the Elections," Night 101, Montreal (re: Night 100)
By Cindy Milstein at Aug 03, 2012
Everything about night demo 100 in Montreal felt enormous.
There were the numbers of people -- so many that when we were on long hilly streets, all you could see were people all the way back and people all the way forward for blocks and blocks; so many that when we reached a late-night, outdoor fashion show festival and thus a busy area, and hence the riot cops appeared to disperse us, it seemed as if every which way you looked, up and down different intersections, we still tightly crowded the streets; so many that it was impossible to guess how many, which means thousands and thousands, or ten thousand or more. This in contrast to recent night demos, where on the last one, we were lucky if we reached the "magic" number of over 49 to put us squarely in the illegality of special law 78. It felt, as one of my friends said, "Like the old days," by which he meant the night demos of week 1, 2, or 3, way back when it was still assuredly Maple Spring, not the red-hot August 1 of last night.
There were, speaking of red, giant amounts of that too -- more than usual, both in terms of mass quantity and dimensional size. It may not be clear from the red flag "100" pictured above, but it was gigantic -- many times taller than the person carrying it -- and backed up by several equally gigantic plain red-square flags.
There was a huge contingent of drummers, all dressed in red, and it in turn was backed up by red-bedecked popular neighborhood assembly banners and an enormous three-dimensional fabric red square (on loan, I'm nearly certain, from the École de la Montagne Rouge [School of the Red Mountain] art collective -- and the whole brilliant-red group was part of the ever-larger and also extremely red rolling wave of popular neighborhood assemblies and casseroles that started way north of downtown about two hours early and fused with each other as they met at multiple appointed intersections to then continue on together, ever larger and ever louder.
Most momentous, though, was the accidental line in the sand of this 5.5-month Quebec student strike: night 100 of the illegal manifestations and Premier Jean Charest setting the election date -- September 4 -- starting on August 1 too. For my non-Canadian friends, within certain parameters, elections are called by the party in power, and that can be used as a political chip in their favor if played well. Once called, candidates have five weeks to go all-out with promotion, and at the stroke of midnight as July 30 turned to August 1, I saw Québec solidaire (QS), a social-democratic and sovereigntist political party that includes candidate Amir Khadir, who got arrested this past June in a casserole while protesting special law 78, already busy putting up posters, including ones highlighting that QS stands for "free education."
But the elections are already not playing well, at least not to the "audience" that poured unexpectedly by the thousands into the streets on this first illegal night march of August, turning the now-familiar "fuck law 78" chant into a revised "fuck the elections." As the majority student association CLASSE so well articulated in its manifesto, printed in the French-language paper Le Devoir the same day when rumors flew recently of Charest's intent to call the elections, there is a grand divide right now between two worldviews -- one represented by this night 100 versus day 1 of electoral campaigning:
"The way we see it, direct democracy should be experienced, every moment of every day. Our own voices ought to be heard in assemblies in schools, at work, in our neighborhoods. Our concept of democracy places the people in permanent charge of politics, and by 'the people,' we mean those of us at the base of the pyramid -- the foundation of political legitimacy. . . . Each time we take to the streets and set up picket lines, it is this kind of democracy that at last breathes free. . . . Democracy, as viewed by the other side, is tagged as 'representative' -- and we wonder just what it represents. While elections come and go, decisions remain unchanged, serving the same interests: those of leaders who prefer the murmurs of lobbyists to the clanging of pots and pans. Each time the people raises its voice in discontent, on comes the answer: emergency laws, with riot sticks, pepper spray, tear gas. When the elite feels threatened, no principle is sacred, not even those principles they preach: for them, democracy works only when we, the people keep our mouths shut." (http://linchpin.ca/English/Share-Our-Future-%E2%80%93-CLASSE-Manifesto)
The first of August also signaled the calendar leap into the impending rolling wave of striking schools that are supposed to open soon -- 13 of them, for instance, between August 13 and 17 -- based on whether the impending rolling wave of student assemblies decide autonomously, school by striking school, whether they want to continue to keep their college closed. These highly participatory and/or outright directly democratic assemblies are an infrastructural legacy of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, as I've mentioned before, and a long-lived practice within many of the now-striking schools. Students may have taken a break the past few weeks -- and a well-deserved one, so as to rest up -- but they are ready to jump back into their assemblies, where they already know how to make strike, blockade, direct action, solidarity, mutual aid, and other decisions about aims, strategies, and tactics. And starting next week, students will begin voting in their general assemblies as to whether they should continue the strike (see the schedule here, http://www.bloquonslahausse.com/2012/08/calendrier-de-la-rentree-des-grevistes/, along with a call for a convergence in Montreal to support the students from August 13 to 17, http://bloquonslarentree.com/node/12).
But night demo 100 signaled another huge shift, potentially pivotal as well in relation to the elections: there are now numerous popular assemblies, begun over the past couple months. They weren't there at the start of this student strike, nor at the start of the illegal night marches. Now, in many corners of the city, they meet weekly or every other week to talk about issues related to and springing out of the student strike, and many include students, parents, and teachers alongside other neighbor-allies. They also discuss steps toward a social strike (even if in small symbolic steps for now) and tangible aid for the upsurge soon in the student strike. Furthermore, the assemblies all use various forms of direct democracy. They share and borrow that from each other. For instance, the Mile-End popular assembly that I attend asked facilitators from another neighborhood assembly to come and facilitate our first couple assemblies (which they did), and we sent emissaries, supporters, and helpers to a new assembly started in the neighborhood just next door to Mile-End last week, in Outremont. We also did outreach for their first assembly during our weekly "orchestrole" (casserole plus marching band) on the Wednesday before their assembly, detouring into their neighborhood a bit to hand out flyers -- 'cause lots of people come out to listen to loud music rambling down the night streets!
The assemblies could be bigger, and certainly more reflective of various population groups in Montreal -- a problem not unique to the neighborhood assemblies, nor the student ones, nor those of Occupy (and on and on). As with other assembly experiments, those within them are aware of such shortcomings. And in this case, the assemblies seem to be particularly sensitive to two key things: first, they want their own autonomous identities, to grapple with the needs and issues of their parts of the city; and second, we're all also under this pressure-cooker schedule of having to ramp up quickly in order to offer real aid to the striking schools, real soon. In Mile-End, for instance, we've been having 3-plus-hour assemblies once a week, along with 3-plus-hour weekly mobilization/social strike working group meetings (and other working groups, but that's the one I've been going to), and our weekly evening orchestrole, a form of illegal demo, solidarity, celebration, and outreach. Oh, and they are also contending with the fact that in all likelihood, they too (like so much other dissent and organizing) are illegal in various ways under special law 78, and hence the sentiment of disobedience spelled out on the Villeray popular assembly banner:
Last Wednesday night, a week before August 1, back in Mile-End, at the end of our orchestrolling as some of us stood around in an intersection chatting, with 3 cop cars vainly trying to get us to go home, we discussed trying to get our assembly and neighbors to walk downtown as orchestrole/casserole and meet up with other neighborhood assemblies at various convergence points along the way. Several assemblies had done this several weeks ago for a night demo, and it was lovely. We figured: let's make a Facebook events page, do outreach via email to our various contacts with other assemblies, and hopefully the "casseroles march downtown" will happen again -- since that's pretty much all it took last time. Over the next few days and into early this past week, before August 1, suddenly it seemed that multiple assemblies had had the same idea, had also made Facebook event pages and even posters, and had also started doing outreach (there is no centralized popular assembly list, even a bottom-up version!). And absurdly enough, many of us had picked many different and conflicting convergence points, with no way to pull those puzzle pieces together. Organizational enthusiasm seemed to be creating mayhem, which sort of seemed a good problem to me in this case, since it at least emphasized the enthusiasm part. At our mobilization working group on July 30, we decided what the hell, it is too confusing. Let's just meet up at our orchestrole spot at 7:00 p.m. on August 1, since people are used to that in our neighborhood, and then do our best to find other neighborhoods. Of course, we hadn't actually mentioned this meeting point to anyone at that point, so we went home and started trying to spread the word around Mile-End.
At 7:00 p.m. on August 1, there were 3 regulars and me, with our banner, 1 pot & spoon, and a horn. Then 4 more people showed up, than 3 more, along with dogs and kids, and so on, until at around 7:15 p.m. we had maybe 3 dozen, and off we marched -- growing as we headed toward Laurier and St. Denis, where we knew some Plateau folks were convening, and then growing and growing again as neighborhood stumbled on neighborhood in this surging wave of casseroles. We, along with our fellow popular assemblies, thus became another big reason that night 100 was so enormous, numbers and energy wise. Indeed, having gone to both the full "casseroles march downtown" walk and entirety of the illegal evening demo last night, it was clear that by the time all the many neighborhood assemblies and neighbors reached the already-large crowd waiting at the now-regular Gamelin Park meeting spot, arriving at 9:00 p.m., we by far outnumbered those patiently expecting us.
Beyond sheer numbers, there was something extra poignant about seeing popular autonomous assembly banner after banner streaming through the streets together, each with their unique character, but all articulating a contrasting vision of politics to the one that Charest and all his suddenly numerous riot cops (and politicians of any stripe) uphold. I think it's never been more apparent that this isn't "merely" the longest-running and perhaps now-largest student strike in North American history; it's plainly a social movement with a deep and widespread social basis. And now, as July turns to August, the students know for sure that they have popular support(ers) far and wide outside their college doors -- all, also, trying to practice direct democracy as the organizational grounding for this movement and all, also, attempting to experiment with another type of politics beyond statecraft (slow, embryonic, and painful as that is at times -- "painful," unlike Occupy at too many moments, not because people are awful toward each other but rather because sometimes, at least in Mile-End, people are too nice, and our meetings go on way too long so everyone can really be heard and respected, which is another nice problem to have, I suppose.
Of all the neighborhood banners, I think I was most touched by the Outremont one -- both because unlike many other assemblies, it only convened this past weekend, as I mentioned above, and also because of its black cat and message of "popular power," which seemed to so well capture the spirit of this evening where everyone knew so much is now at stake in the coming days of August: not provincial election so much as enormous social contestation.
This grand battle was captured for all to see -- writ large on night 100, like everything else -- in the form of an enormous projection on a building wall, just as we thousands and thousands rounded a corner at a big intersection. Ahead in front of me, I could see people turning backward to face the part of the demo I was in, but instead of looking at us, I could see people looking upward, fingers pointing upward, eyes lighting up, illuminated by the illumination of Nous Sommes Tous Art. Click on this link to see it for yourself (http://youtu.be/CIgnVSkXWWs), but it involved a series of repeating words, including our street slogan "fuck the elections," but also decrying phenomena like racism, capitalism, and neoliberalism, and contrasting representative democracy to self-management. Its grand finale was the logo/slogan that's now appearing as wheatpasted poster and elsewhere around Montreal: "August 13. The Strike Continues." Rather than agitprop or empty street art, though, this wall of words reflects the on-the-ground reality of what everyone is preparing for -- to hold the strike -- using the very processes that offer a working alternative to electoralism (whether people take 30 seconds to try to vote Charest out or not in the privacy of a voting booth, since clearly ousting Charest is widely popular within this Maple Spring, if only symbolically).
So perhaps beyond the numbers, beyond the boundless joy and creativity and sea of red, beyond the newfound power of the neighborhood assemblies, and even outstripping the clear challenge of direct versus representative democracy -- more enormous than all of this on illegal evening 100 was the tension hanging in the air, accentuated by the return of the helicopter hovering low overhead, even as Anarchopanda was right below, giving out hugs and sporting his own big red square pinned to his black-and-white fur. Back were the riot cops in large and aggressive numbers, along with sound grenades, reports rubber bullets and pepper spray, attempts at dispersal and kettling, and definitely some arrests. I ran into someone today with bruises on the side of their face, and they told me how police had chased them down, grabbed them, told them to lie on the ground so they could be arrested, but when they did, a cop then punched them in the head several times before carting them off to a night in jail.
Yet all that wasn't so unusual in the course of this long student strike. And in fact, much of the tension that riot cops usually create seemed neutralized, precisely because people have now lived through it and gotten used to it. As many people commented, nearly everyone on the street displayed a remarkable lack of fear around the police, replaced by a militancy in the sense of not backing down. That meant different things for different people, including the police, who often ignored things like a bank window being broken (apparently a coop bank, so everyone in the vicinity laughed "Why not a real bank?" as some random guy calmly used the ATM next to the smashed window, causing the second amused & proud comment from the illegal night marchers: "Only in Montreal!"), and when the police encountered a dumpster barricade at one point, the ones on horses trotted through to follow the enormous demo from behind, but the cop cars behind the horses simply turned around and went a different way, leaving the dumpsters to hang out on their own on a now-quieted formerly busy street -- with both disobedients and police gone.
The anxiety that the riot cops produced was not on this night 100 per se. Rather, it was what their larger presence signaled in terms of what's to come. Everyone seems to be bracing themselves for the worst. But because neither cops nor let up on night 100, and because more candidate signs went up even as we marched, night 100 only seemed to add to the intensity of "What will happen?" in the next couple weeks.
For me, more than anything, night 100 illustrated the stark contrast between two types of "popular power" -- liberatory versus mean-spirited. This is the power between citizens and neighbors, where people self-organize out of goodness and generosity toward all, or hatred, fear, and stinginess. And both are there. On the streets. It was illustrated in one potentially murderous act at the start of night 100, underscoring just how nerve-wracking a moment this is -- when electoralism and riot police converge with student strike and neighborhood assemblies converge with aspirations for free education, social strike, and so much more, and all that converges with strong popular sentiments on all side, with all of it coming to a head in this already-hot August.
If last night's marker of consecutive evenings of illegal marches ever since the passage of special law 78, a governmental tactic to try to quash the Quebec student strike, was a magnificent display of the strength and power of this social movement, it also revealed the social tensions brewing underneath, fueled by the machinations of the province/state because of the social crisis it clearly faces.
Early on in the evening, at 7:00 p.m., a bunch of us from the Mile-End popular assembly and other neighbors met up at our usual Wednesday night casserole/orchestrole spot, as I described above. We then boisterously walked over with our banner, pots & pans, horns, red squares, and whistles to greet the "Quartier Rouge" Plateau neighborhood folks around 7:30 p.m. and some several hundred of us were all joyfully reclaiming a busy intersection, waiting for our Villeray, Rosemont, and other neighborhood assembly comrades to meet up with us for the march downtown. It's hard to explain the beauty of casseroles meeting each other from various directions, but add to that the pride of neighborhood assemblies, and when one neighbor starts marching toward another a block or two away, it feels like triumphant freedom fighters returning from hard-won battles into each other's arms, which in a way, is what's happening, as people struggle toward a wholly different version of the world, perhaps far ahead of us, that's neither austere nor hierarchical.
Suddenly, within a group of hundreds in our intersection, all dancing and prancing around, I saw the front of a car coming toward me, with adults, kids, and dogs (most of them my comrades from the Mile-End popular assembly) "bouncing" off the hood, nearly being crushed under tires and hit by other parts of the automobile. It seemed so surreal that someone would simply intentionally drive into hundreds of people that I could barely register it at first. It had that slow-motion sense alongside horror. I and others leaped to help, and many folks threw pots and pans at the hit-and-run driver as they sped away; people ran after the car to try to get the license plate. There were lots of shaken folks who'd been brushed or hit by the car, including a kid who got hit in the knee, and one person seriously hurt (pictured below). Someone called an ambulance, and folks formed a circle around the wounded person, trying as best they could to medic. About five minutes later (despite police obviously lurking on the edges of our casserole), paramedics arrived. When I look at this picture, in hindsight, I realize that half the faces of those doing the caretaking are my neighbors in Mile-End and my comrades in the assembly.
The "silver lining" was how good everyone was to each other, and how it was clear no one wanted to let this stop night 100 from growing larger and larger, and us marching downtown. But many folks commented on how such willful brutality by other "neighbors" highlights that even if this really is a popular and widespread social movement, which it is, there are those who vehemently disagree and are willing to do almost anything (in this case, absurdly, purposefully try to injure or even kill) those struggling toward a better world for everyone, probably even including this hit-and-run drive, if I know some of my popular assembly mates.
At tonight's Mile-End Popular Assembly (night 101), those of us who were there talked about this terrible incident, and I got this general update (hopefully accurate, since it was whisper translated to me in French): one of our assembly folks went to the hospital with the person who sustained the worst injuries to keep them company and help out. Apparently they had only arrived at our casserole convergence about 5 minutes before this hit-and-run and almost decided to stay home that night; at a previous night demo, they'd been kettled and arrested along with a whole bunch of other folks. Last night, they were hit in two places, but nothing was broken, and it seems like they'll recover; they are just in a lot of pain now. People at the scene got the license plate number of the car, and they decided to give it to the police, who as of this evening somehow still hadn't been able to locate the hit-and-run driver. Kids, dogs, and other casserolers are all OK, other than being upset by the experience. We processed that for a bit, and then returned to our assembly agenda, including working toward an August 10 "Mile-End: Dans la rue pour la grève sociale / In the street for social strike" event (http://www.facebook.com/events/408559369180806/), where starting at noon SHARP on St. Viateur and Waverly, we need lots of people, including you, to help us create an outdoor red-square street full of free education, food, music, art, and a couple hours of social striking, to also bolster ourselves and others for the coming August 13 to 17 week of resistance and solidarity. And likely, an enormous amount of a whole bunch of things, including popular power and social tension.
The enormity of night 100, when all was said and done, is that everyone recognized its enormity. That's why the streets were filled, with people, politicians, media, and riot cops. That's why so many indie photographers took so many gorgeous pictures, a few of which are here, and why CUTV livestream reporters seemed to be around every turn, chatting with as many people as they could cajole to talk on air. That's why so many people walked miles from their neighborhoods and then kept going, kilometers more, with heavy banners and/or heavy instruments in tow. That in itself was the portrait of popular power: the populace showed up in droves, on foot and bikes and wheelchairs, or leaning out windows and balconies to wave -- as always -- as we marched by.
As most of this blog post notes, night 100 was a marker forward, to what's ahead and what's now at stake, thanks to a student strike that has unleashed a host of crises, anxieties, possibilities, and difficulties. But the students who had the foresight to start organizing this strike some two years ago, whether they knew it fully or not, were also unleashing a bunch of small yet perhaps, cumulatively, pretty great victories. Maybe not the victory of stopping the tuition increase or ousting Charest, nor transforming electoral politics as usual into a self-governing society. Nor ending capitalism. Some or all of that might be lost, or just might take a longer horizon to achieve. But there are other ways of understanding our victories, perhaps by accounting for those things we hadn't intended that happen along the way of what really is a social (and a sociable) movement, stretching in this case from night 1 to night 100.
So even though I posted it yesterday as a separate blog offering, I'm going to end with it again here: "100 Red Nights," a gift of 100 little victories (words by me) set to 100 little images of the 100 red nights, offered as a collaborative labor of love by myself and Thien V Qn (who took the photos), just one of the talented crew of new friends I seem to be running with on the red streets these nights: http://100-nuits-rouges.tumblr.com/.
After looking at our "100 Red Nights" piece during day 100, another of our talented friends, Amy Darwish, remarked to me last night as she and I started out on our long night of strolling at 7:00 p.m., basically this: "It figures that you and Thien would create such a gift. You're the two romantics of this movement." Romantic yes, because it's hard as hell not to be when you dive into the spectacular beauty and innovation of this student strike. At one and the same time, though, I hope you'll see that some of the victories contained in our "100 Nuits Rouges" are actually dilemmas, implicit critique, or as-yet only partial promise, which to me are indeed victories, because we're making them visible and hence available for dialogue and deliberation, as something for the increasingly long agendas of the many self-governing bodies within this movement.
(Photo credits: red flags, red marching band, giant red square, Villeray and Rosemont banners, and red-brick building by Thien V Qn, http://quelquesnotes.wordpress.com/; big crowd scene by Martin Martel, http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151960346950062.871472.666270061&type=1; QS sign, Outremont banner and outdoor project, and dumpsters by Cindy Milstein; aftermath of hit-and-run driver by Jesse Rosenfeld, https://twitter.com/kissmykishkas/status/230813774976794624/photo/1; and final romantic night 100 shot by another of my talented new friends, Kevin Lo, http://lokidesign.net/2356/2012/08/100th-night-demo/).
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If you stumbled across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, please excuse the typos/grammatical errors (it’s a blog, after all), and note that you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com/. Share, enjoy, and repost–as long as it’s free, as in “free beer” and “freedom.