You hear just one at first, a clanging noise echoing down an otherwise quiet residential street. Then another joins it, another wooden or perhaps metal spoon banging against another pot. Maybe it’s across the street, or coming from a balcony or an open kitchen window.
Then as you start walking, marching really, banging on your own pot or pan, you see them coming toward you. Your neighbors, maybe people you’ve never spoken to before, and it’s hard to speak to them now so you simply smile. Or maybe you dance a bit, together. Your neighborhood is ringing.
And then you march — more and more people coming out to join you, until there are hundreds and the streets are yours. Everyone is banging, a few are chanting, but the sound you hear most of all is the cacophony of the pots and pans. They can be bizarrely calming, as all your anger flows into striking your pan and the ringing drowns out the thoughts in your head. Amateur musicians all, people try to keep in time with one another, but one part of the march is on one rhythm and the next one on another. When the police cars pass everyone raises their pots and pans above their heads and hits them extra hard, extra loud. When the march moves down streets that haven’t been totally cleared, drivers of cars stuck in traffic greet the manif with their own pots and pans, kept in the car for just such an opportunity.
It is not uncommon for bits of wooden spoons to splinter off. Pans are dented beyond recognition.
The casseroles have taken over Quebec. Like the red fabric square pinned to one’s clothing (symbolizing the debt the students are being forced to take on for their education), they are inclusive and dramatic, both easy to take part in and risky to join. Quebec has outlawed spontaneous mass protest — groups of more than fifty people are required to submit a marching plan in advance and submit to any revision of it that the cops might want to make — but all that did was bring the protests to the masses. What better symbol of the masses than a pot and pan?
The idea came from Chile, but it has taken on a new life in Quebec as an expression of anger but also of joy, of disobedience but also of solidarity, built in the moments between the ringing. It is, in a way, the People’s LRAD, fusing the group communication of the Occupy movement’s People’s Mic with the weaponized sound of the Long-Range Acoustic Device used to brutalize activists in Pittsburgh during the G20 in 2009 and to threaten marchers in Chicago a couple of weeks ago at anti-NATO protests.
The noise of the casseroles is communication, a nonverbal message of support for the student strikers explicitly targeted by Law 78. It serves as an announcement that a march, which has to remain unplanned to retain its purpose as civil disobedience, is coming. It spreads the word through the neighborhood — we are together, come out and join us. The more people who join it, the stronger it is, hundreds or even thousands of voices made louder by clanging. It is community building. As the marches wind through residential areas, people lean out their windows or come out to stand on the sidelines to join in, with children thrilled to be allowed to make as much noise as they want. In commercial districts, patrons of cafes and bars with doors open wide to a Montreal spring bang their water glasses or just clap and cheer. It turns anger and fear into celebration.
Like the People’s Mic, the casseroles were born of government restriction. Because megaphones and amplified sound in New York City were banned without a permit, occupiers in Zuccotti Park used their own voices to echo a single speaker, which became so much louder than a person with a megaphone might have been.
The casseroles were born from Law 78, and suggested (like so many revolutions these days) with a Facebook page but spread in the streets. In Montreal, particularly, a city divided by a language barrier, the casseroles are an idiom of their own. They may be heard mostly in francophone neighborhoods, but just like the tuition fee hikes that started this whole revolt, the casseroles translate just fine into English. One can join the protest immediately, simply by grabbing a pot and pan and heading out into the street. And like the People’s Mic, the sound of the casseroles eliminates the ability to speechify, for one person or group to take up too much space. (As Richard Kim pointed out, “There’s something inherently pluralistic about the human mic…it’s almost impossible to demagogue, to interrupt and shout someone down or to hijack the General Assembly for your own sectarian purposes.”) On a larger march, you can see signs in both English and French, and one of the few chants is simply, “Charest, wooooo — ooo!” teasing the head of the Liberal provincial government like a child at a hockey game might taunt an opponent. Mockery, like violence, is easy to understand.
The noise is also punishment, intended to disrupt, to send a big “fuck you” to the government and its “loi matraque” (“truncheon law”) and the police whose indiscriminate brutality against the students inspired so much solidarity in the first place. (In one horrific video, police followed student marchers onto the terrasse of a cafe and pepper-sprayed wildly around them, catching patrons as well as protesters; in an open letter a retired police officer shamed his former colleagues for using rubber bullets.) The noise itself is weaponized.
Like the LRAD, the pots and pans are “less lethal” than weapons; the people are bearing spoons rather than knives. The LRAD has been touted as a supposedly gentler alternative to the brute physical force of bullets or even pepper spray and teargas. As Aaron Bady wrote:
To ask the question of whether an LRAD is designed to hurt people or designed to communicate across long distances with people is to mystify its central design function: it is a technology whose purpose is to FORCE you to listen and obey, and one which is less interested in the difference than you’d think. Feature and bug merge. Ideally, perhaps, the ‘you’ it targets will obey the communicated threat, sparing police the need to force you to obey and sparing them the need to produce the spectacle of people running away while holding their ears. But the whole point of having an LRAD is to ensure that one way or another, the police can get the people they address to do what they want them to do.
The casseroles are also both medium and message, and that message is disobedience. One pot and spoon alone in a neighborhood communicates little, but several on a street corner or several thousand crisscrossing the streets of the city, joining with others or melting away, is a middle finger to the authorities as clear as the viral map that students supposedly submitted to the police as a march route. The movement itself has become one giant symbolic speech act, and like almost every protest movement of the last several decades, its fight is now as much about the right to demonstrate as it is about ending the neoliberalization of education. (The talks between the government and the students broke down this week—reports say that the government refused even to discuss Law 78.)
The LRAD, as Bady noted, is a one-to-many communication device—Mike Konczal commented that it was the exact opposite of the People’s Mic. The casseroles are many-to-many, and they sound different depending on who you are. For those who are in support, they are a celebration, a gloriously messy band to dance along to, an invitation to join in. For those opposed, they are infuriating, and to the police and politicians they are a threat. Pierre Foglia at La Presse wrote (as translated by the team at Translating the Printemps Érable):
When you throw stones, it reassures them, they say, look, we have to pass special laws.
But when you play the pots and pans, they are afraid.
The brute force of stones, like that of truncheons and other weapons wielded by police, gives justification to one’s enemies and drives away support; the noise of the pots and pans invites strangers to join in, and that is the most threatening thing to a government with plummeting approval ratings. Like the graffiti around Montreal, the threat is targeted. “Charest, we will make you a tomb in the North,” one spray-painted slogan warns. Marchers in the casseroles know which side their government is on, and yes, they do mean to intimidate it into backing down.
On May 22, the day of what might have been the largest protests in Canadian history, marchers attempted to bring the protest to Charest’s home in the posh Westmount area of Montreal. Such targeting has the feel of the music the U.S. military blasted at Manuel Noriega during “Operation Just Cause,” to drive the Panamanian leader out of his sanctuary. (Troops were allowed to call in requests for songs they wanted to hear, including Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Yes, really.) Noriega had also been the target of pots-and-pans protests during his reign.
The student unions have called for more demonstrations on Saturday in response to the failure of negotiations, and so the protest will go on. And this week, across Canada and in cities around the United States, the casseroles rang out, communicating solidarity and support to the students and people of Quebec. But there’s much more to be learned from the way the People’s LRAD has taken over the streets. It has gone from feeling like a weapon of the week to a symbol of strength. Other movements would be wise to take note.
Cross-posted by author from Dissent magazine.
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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.