It has been a highly-charged week and a half for Québec’s anti-austerity movement, Printemps 2015. On March 31 collective agreements for 500,000 unionized workers in Québec expired. Across many fronts citizens are more than hoping for a strike — they are actively pushing for one. After another provincial budget filled with cutbacks people are rightfully indignant. Tensions are high and it’s difficult to deny the feeling of a massive looming general strike.
Students aren’t waiting either — on Monday they entered the fourth week of strike. It has been hotly debated though whether, for strategic reasons, students should wait until the Fall to strike, in the hopes of joining forces with public unions. Beyond the divides, the disputes and the contention—which history shows are often the greatest detriment of the left but are intrinsically interwoven into most any social uprisings—there lives a unifying rage and defiance that shows little to no signs of leaving the streets anytime soon.
Every student in Québec belongs to a student association that represents their respective departments or programs. Collective decisions are made amongst students within general assemblies (GAs) where all members can participate. Last month associations began voting for an open-ended strike to begin March 21 and lasting two weeks with the option to prolong at the end of that. On April 6 student associations began returning to their respective GAs to vote on the prolongation. Results in favor of a continuation started rolling in; some associations voted not to prolong but instead to strike on specific days, such as May 1 — “May Day” or International Workers Day. Currently there are just under 30,000 students on nine campuses who are on strike indefinitely. On top of that, there are 72,455 students who were on strike for specific days.
This is a society-wide grassroots social uprising. Students are not alone in the fight against austerity.
As many as 122 community groups across 25 municipalities, as well as public unions, have voted to strike on May 1, even if it may be deemed an illegal strike. As numbers grow each day it becomes increasing difficult to quantify such a widespread revolt. But as anticipated by many, an escalation of heavy-handed repression by police forces has accompanied the pro-strike vote results. Many were surprised, however, by the tactical pushback of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) administration to prevent the strike and consequential halt of classes.
Tear gas split up the April 6 evening protesters, leaving some to be pushed and barricaded into the entryway of a nearby metro station. After this, riot police escorted—by threat of their baton and arrest—the group into the metro. Inevitably it rained flash bangs and tear gas on the peaceful women and trans-only feminist march Tuesday night. Many were surprised by the tactical pushback of the UQAM administration to prevent the strike and consequential halt of classes. The university’s admin was not in the least deterred from requesting a court injunction forbidding classes to be picketed, even if their teacher’s union had also voted to strike for the April 2 protest. To be clear, these are classes whose respective associations democratically voted to be on strike.
Early Wednesday, unprecedented violence erupted inside the university walls as police, at the request of the administration, stormed the space and arrested 21 students. Then, in an incredible show of support and solidarity from the instructors, including union president Michele Nevert, the instructors formed a line between the students and riot police and linked arms.
“Who or what do police forces serve and protect?”
We must acknowledge and resist the role of police forces in our society. To understand something is to be liberated from it. As a society we have been indoctrinated to believe that the police are there to serve and protect and that their role is to manage crime or terrorism. As a general rule of thumb, I believe it’s necessary to question and challenge the legitimacy of any form of authority and power structure. This is not to say that any and all forms of authority must be done away with; there are some that can prove themselves legitimate. For example, there is a clear power dynamic between a mother and hernewborn child, or there’s the teacher-student relation. That being said, the role of teacher in today’s education system ought to be reflected on and revised too.
Who or what do police forces serve and protect? This is a question deserving of more thought than is currently given to it. Police, and by extension armies, are not primarily present to manage crime. We only need to look into the historical development of police forces to see they exist to manage crowds, to contain and then repress legitimate dissent. The only job of police is to enforce, by any means necessary, state-created laws. So who has the authority to create laws, and whose interests do those laws serve? The beauty is that if they were created by humans, they can equally be destroyed and re-created by humans.
Despite maybe not being able to quite articulate a clear expression of concern, I believe deep down most people feel something is not right — that governments do not serve the public’s interests, as they claim, but stand instead to serve the private interests of banks, multinational corporations and large development companies. It’s no wonder the average citizen finds it difficult to understand the complexities of the political and economic reality we live. Knowledge, critical analysis and legitimate dissent are not freely publicized. And in lieu of any of these, the opposite occurs — suppression.
Those who hold power do not want that power to be understandable. The people are not privy to such information, for we are the greatest enemy of the elite. Trade agreements, such as the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement (CETA), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are a great examples — they are written in secrecy, but not secret to the lobbyists and lawyers who write them, heavily influence them and stand to profit from the treaty’s provisions. They are more about investor rights and less about trade and the people’s best interests.
Power likes secrecy, for in the light of transparency it erodes. In place of free access to information, free press, freedom of speech and the right to assemble, people are normalized to a police state—one in which we are bombarded with the dogma that police must take such oppressive and violent measures “to keep the peace,” and to prevent troublemakers, nuisances, radicals and so-called terrorists from creating unlivable chaos.
The struggle for a free, democratic and just society is happening worldwide and reaches far beyond just the students, or any other specific group of people. Despite a near media blackout across English Canada, the world is watching Québec, where citizens who wish to be part of democratic decision making processes, are in the streets demanding their constitutional rights be respected and upheld.
“Why are those enforcing the law above it?”
When people go into the streets to peacefully protest, they believe they have the freedom to do so. In Québec, however, we are seeing oppression, violence and unwarranted arrests. These are the kinds of actions that radicalize people, for they come to see they are not as free as they thought, that they do not have rights that will protect them. They come to understand the police are simply a pillar sustaining a defunct system — a system in which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the middle class gets squeezed out and we are left seemingly powerless. They see first-hand that democracy is both a word misunderstood and misused, for we do not live in a democracy but, like those in the U.S., an oligarchy at best.
Often at the beginning of demonstrations we are told we have the right to protest peacefully — hear it at 5:39 in this video: “Offenses will not be tolerated. Should you commit crimes, charges could be laid and we will have to bring an end to the demonstration.” But what about the crimes committed by the so-called peace officers? Why are those enforcing the law above it? More often than not what happens is the police decide they’ve had enough peaceful protesting and become violent to end it. Perhaps they think enough democracy and freedom of speech has been had for one day? Who knows. But one thing that’s certain is it can no longer be tolerated; everyone gets rounded up and, through a police tactic known as kettling, is arrested. No one is safe from it. On March 27 one individual found themselves kettled simply by walking out of a Burger King. A tourist from Winnipeg was trapped in that same kettle.
Oppression, violence and unwarranted arrests…are the kinds of actions that radicalize people, for they come to see they are not as free as they thought, that they do not have rights that will protect them.
Today’s pseudo-democracy is contained by force. When and where we can express our constitutionally-protected freedom of thought, belief, and opinion, practice our freedom of peaceful assembly and exercise our freedom of association is dictated to us. Through constraint, dissent is strategically pacified.
A wave of outrage swept across Montreal and around Québec after the student arrests last Wednesday morning. Immediately after people began to assemble in the pavilion, an occupation went on into the night. Food, music, good conversation and solidarity were abundantly available. It was understood that UQAM had imposed a 9:30 p.m. curfew, and shortly before that time individuals began erecting barricades to hold the space. The festive atmosphere continued as many danced the hours away while others did graffiti, changed the bathroom signage to gender neutral and dismantled the widespread surveillance system. Shortly after midnight the occupation ended as police smashed their way in and the struggle continued outside.
Thursday saw multiple responses: a silent march though the university, a panel comprised of both students and teachers publicly denouncing the UQAM administration and the police brutality, as did major public unions. And an occupation occurred at Laval University to protest the political expulsion of, and show solidarity with, nine UQAM students. Protesters chanted “Laval, UQAM. Same fight!” There was also an afternoon march that didn’t last 10 minutes before mass arrests took place. Friday’s demonstrations were subjected to more kettles, while Anonymous took down the SPVM’s—Montreal’s police force—website.
The majority of arrests are made under a violation of a municipal bylaw. To be clear, this is equal to a parking ticket you would receive if your meter time ran out. Mind you, at $637 it is an expensive parking ticket. And can you even imagine being handcuffed and detained for hours for a parking ticket? Ludicrous, I know. The by-law is called P-6 and under its name thousands of tickets have been written since Printemps érable in 2012. In April 2013, 86 community groups endorsed a public statement opposing the by-law and a refusal to submit to it. “Arrest us, we don’t care,” goes this song.
P-6 was defeated in the streets. It was defeated by the thousands of individuals who kept showing up for our rights despite the fear-mongering and the consequences. In February of this year, after a long struggle, it was defeated in court by self-represented protesters, leaving the city no space to do much else but nullify hundreds of tickets. The City of Montreal is still facing several class-action lawsuits related to the various P-6 mass arrests. Nevertheless P-6 is still being used today to make arrests, only now the police cite a different section.
“We don’t want that ‘real’ world”
I often hear it said, from those who oppose this anti-austerity movement: “Well that’s not how the ‘real’ world works.” There is a key piece of all this such people fail to understand: We don’t want that ‘real’ world. That real world was created and imposed upon us, riddled with debt, depression and violence. We want to create our own real world — one that is just, where we take care of each other through equitable allocation of resources, where we respect Mother Nature through sustainable production methods and where power is decentralized and allows individuals the ability to participate in making decisions that affect their lives — more so than marking an ‘X’ on a ballot once every four years.
On Tuesday (today), the premiers will meet in Québec City to discuss the national energy strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last Saturday, with around 80 buses arriving from British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Québec, 25,000 Canadians poured into the streets of Québec City to march for climate justice, to demand that renewable energy be made a priority and to forgo expansion of Canada’s tarsands and associated pipeline projects.
We will not leave our destiny in the hands of a few. It is through civil disobedience and defiance of unjust laws that we will reclaim our freedom. It is through collective support and solidarity that we continue the struggle.
The streets are ours. The streets are yours. Join us there.
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