Before Quebec, the debate about violent-versus-nonviolent tactics
was pretty low-key After Quebec, there will be no way to avoid taking
a stand, one way or another. As has been the case for months in
the United States, the debate has been defined by those arguing
for violent resistance to corporate-driven schemes. Though a tiny
minority in number, they have energy and novelty on their side,
forcing the majority to contend with their argument that nonviolence
is tired, old and ineffectual.
Even as some 50,000 unionists, environmentalists, youth and women's
groups marched in an enormous demonstration below, a battle raged
on the bluffs of Boulevard Rene Levesque and Cote d'Abraham on April
21, as hundreds of young people charged the 2.5 mile chain-link
fence "protecting" the heads of state and corporate elites who had
come for what should have been a massive photo opportunity. Besides
smiling for the cameras, little work was actually required of these
men because their trade ministers had already negotiated the joint
statement on the Free Trade Area of the Americas weeks before.
But the public relations battle was won by their nonviolent and
violent opponents, as
even the Wall Street Journal conceded: "Environmentalists, union members
and anti-globalization activists, Mr. Bush's most vocal critics on
trade policy, often stole the show."
"As much as some of
us would like to process
shit forever, we need to take action."
"The violent response to protesters does not lend credibility to
government reassurances that labour, environmental and democracy
concerns about the proposed FTAA will be addressed," trumpeted a
column in Toronto's Globe and Mail. The division between
the peaceful march and the bluffs was not as sharp as might appear
to the TV cameras. As in Seattle, unionists peeled off from the
march to join the young people at the fence, and thousands of peaceful
opponents of the summit crowded the bluffs, pushing close to the
fence and engaging in a sit-in that police tear gassed as readily
as the fence fighters. Despite the riot police's ready use of water
cannons, tear gas and even rubber bullets (a first in Canada), it
was hard to keep the Canadian
Auto Workers on the peaceful march, reported an activist from
that union. "They see that some of the violent demonstrators have
been successful," she told the Montreal Gazette.
Quebec was the latest in a series of escalating protests that have
engulfed Canada since 1996. That year, some 300,000 peaceful demonstrators
protested in the streets of Toronto against the conservative government.
From there, police, and some demonstrators, have grown increasingly
violent, starting with the Vancouver Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation
(APAC) meetings in 1997, where police pepper-sprayed demonstrators,
into the small protest against the Organization of American States
meeting in Windsor, Ontario in the spring of 2000, where police
aggressively and illegally arrested protesters. Around the same
time, members of the Ontario Coalition against Poverty rumbled with
Toronto police after the right-wing legislature refused to allow
the group to speak. In Quebec, powerful unions refused to march
to the bluffs because they did not want anything to do with the
anarchists planning more militant tactics. A coalition of 34 Quebec
groups worked with the unions to organize the nonviolent "People's
March" and to provide accommodations, a "welcome center" and other
support for the thousands of protesters coming to the city.
But the People's March lasted for what felt like forever, ending
up in a parking lot with no place to sit and rest. Why not link
hands and encircle the fence with miles of unionists and environmentalists,
side by side, suggested Village Voice writer Sarah Ferguson.
Instead, people just stood around or walked back. The lack of creative
ideas stood in stark contrast to the commitment of those charging
the fence despite unbearable tear gas attacks.
On Sunday morning, activists awoke to find that the peaceful, "liberated"
area below the bluffs had been trashed. And not only bank windows
were smashed. (One on the bluffs was scrawled with the plaintive,
"We're sorry, we tried to stop them.") The army-navy store where
many of the demonstrators had bought gas masks and other equipment
to crash the barricades also had its windows bashed in. "You don't
trash your own area," complained one veteran '60s radical.
But Howl, an anarchist who trained young people at Bard and Vassar
in direct action before the demonstrations, reported that at the
sessions, "We got into property destruction, which I think is bullshit
to call violence."
In the student debates of violence versus nonviolence she led,
Howl said, "People are recognizing the difference between violence
and nonviolence, and right and wrong. I think people are exploring
more of the differences between those things. They also are debating
what violence is, defining it as anywhere from eating meat to bearing
arms. I thought a lot about why it's OK to have a violent struggle
in other places but not here."
I quoted to her some words I once heard from an older anarchist
in another context: "As an activist, I want to disarm the violence
of the situation so people can act and another process can begin.
Any violence we bring to that situation helps the people in their
unthinkable violence toward us. As anarchists we are asking the
imagination to take power, and violence is intimidating the imagination
and not linked to people's liberation."
"That statement bugs me because it makes a huge assumption about
time," Howl replied. "For most people [the social crisis is] really
urgent and really immediate. I think that's the kind of attitude
that turns off people of color and working-class folks because of
the perceived wishy-washy nature of anarchism. As much as some of
us would like to process shit forever, we need to take action."
Howl also dismissed arguments that violence interferes with organizing
a broader political base or produces a vanguard-style politics.
Nonviolence can also be vanguardism, she said, and many of the people
of color she organizes want "action," not another demonstration.
She echoed the phrase heard from many other activists at this moment:
We need a "diversity of tactics."
A diversity of tactics reaches those who want to express themselves
through petitions and voting as well as more militant folks. But
violence can be demobilizing, as the experienced '60s activist saw
in his days at the University of Wisconsin. He recalls that when
anti-war activists bombed the Army/Math building that was supporting
bombing raids of Vietnam, a graduate student was killed, and then
the broader anti-war coalition fractured and dissolved.
Is Quebec, with its uneasy alliance of a few Molotov cocktail throwers,
hundreds of fence attackers, and thousands of nonviolent protesters,
a wonderful demonstration of "a diversity of tactics"--or a turning
point where the gap between tactics yawns larger?
Abby Scher is director of Independent Press Association-
New York, and formerly served as co-editor of Dollars and Sense