Reporter's Notebook

The Battle of Quebec City

From the frontlines of the anti-FTAA confrontation

by Orpheus

Revolutionary Worker #1101, May 6, 2001, posted at

Quebec City, Canada, is a beautiful city on the St. Lawrence River. Its cobble-stone streets and buildings reminded me of pictures I've seen of Paris. As we drove into Quebec for the first time, we saw police cruisers at checkpoints every several hundred yards for many miles. Our taxi driver told us they had blocked off half the airport and the main roads into the city for the arrival of dignitaries attending the Summit of the Americas. He had been repeatedly stopped by police looking in his cab and asking where he was going. Police helicopters hovered overhead, like a scene out of the Vietnam War.

The Summit of the Americas took place in Quebec City from April 20 to 22. Tucked inside a walled city where the people weren't allowed, U.S. President Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Chretien talked of "expanding democracy" through a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement. Meanwhile, images of pitched battles at the wall flashed around the globe. Headlines in Canadian newspapers screamed: "War Zone" and "Quebec Like Beirut." For two days and nights, thousands of masked youth fought armies of riot police to a standstill despite massive brutality.

The imperialists hoped to silence dissent, crush resistance, and sucker the peoples of the Americas with the lie that "free trade" will increase prosperity for everyone. Instead, the plans of the U.S. and Canada to further suck the blood of the people in the poor nations of the Western Hemisphere through FTAA were indicted by tens of thousands in the streets. The state repression set off a mass rebellion that couldn't be stopped.

At the end, summit leaders declared an accord to adopt FTAA by 2005. But--like the 1999 Battle of Seattle--news about the determined resistance against capitalist globalization overshadowed news of the meeting of business-suited officials.

The battle in Quebec showed that not only is there intense resistance to the system in the imperialist heartland--there is great hope for a revolutionary future.

The summit could only happen behind the wall defended by 6,000 riot police. The people called the wall--a ten-foot-high barricade of concrete and metal fencing several miles long--the "Wall of Shame." Once again, the brutal reality of the capitalist system came firing out of police weapons. Police shot protesters with hard plastic bullets and tear gas canisters at close range, blasted people with water cannons, launched massive tear gas attacks that poisoned large sections of the city, and arrested over 400. Despite all this, the courageous fighters of Quebec repeatedly ripped down sections of the security fence. People battled police blow for blow by throwing back tear gas canisters and with rocks, bottles, molotov cocktails, chunks of concrete, and burning street barricades. Local hospitals treated at least 71 cops and 109 protesters. Medics organized by the protesters treated many more people for things like tear gas inhalation and possible fractures caused by rubber bullets.

At least 50,000 people participated in actions and mass marches against the FTAA. The Quebec resisters were diverse in their political views but united in their opposition to the FTAA, the wall and the police. Canadian Prime Minister Chretien and police officials worked to divide the militant anti-capitalist streetfighters from the broader forces involved in the protest, but the masses rejected these terms. As one Quebec student remarked to the RW, "The crowd was very heterogeneous, but there was a great solidarity between the people. Everyone had, not the same speech, but...let's say the same vision." And the leading edge of the broad united front against the FTAA was opposition to the system of capitalism and its police enforcers.

The actions at the wall and the clouds of tear gas blowing back into the security area caused significant disruptions to the summit. The opening ceremony was delayed one hour. The Montreal Gazette reported that a meeting between Chretien and the president of Chile was canceled "after officials couldn't make it through the security to the meeting." The Gazette described the situation on April 20: "Inside the convention centre and the neighboring hotels, officials and dignitaries were under siege, unable to move from one building to another. The buildings were locked up so tightly that police shut down the ventilation system to prevent the air from being contaminated and wouldn't even let reporters who had left the building return for fear they had been exposed to pepper spray or tear gas." According to Quebec television, on the 21st another summit event was delayed, and Chretien was forced to evacuate his hotel due to tear gas contamination.

Confrontation in the Red Zone

Residents of Quebec City opened their homes for many visitors and took in protesters caught in the police rampages. We stayed with a couple of university students. Our hosts were eager to describe the scene and history of struggle in Quebec. They said the police had engaged in a campaign of intimidation for months--visiting activists' houses and questioning them. 97% of Quebec City residents speak French. There is a long history of struggle in Quebec province against the suppression of the language and culture by the dominant English-speaking culture in Canada. Over the past few years youth in Quebec City have risen against police brutality several times--mainly on Jean Baptiste Day in June, the national day for the French-speaking people of Quebec. Now, the authorities were walling the people out of their own city, attempting to silence their voices and shove globalization down their throats. The wall became a lightning rod galvanizing the resistance of tens of thousands from Quebec and beyond.

The 20th was a beautiful sunny day. We headed up to the action called by La Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes (CLAC--Anti-Capitalist Convergence in English). CLAC called the main marches that led to actions at the wall.

The CLAC march started at Université Laval to the east of the city. Different zones of resistance activity were planned. The green zone would be a march with less chance of arrest. The yellow zone was for those who wanted to go to the wall around Vieux Quebec (the old city). The yellow zone would be in support of the red zone--where people would do mass actions with diverse tactics at the wall itself.

A youth from Toronto with a mohawk haircut told us, "We're here to shut down the FTAA...and with the mass media here, it's gonna draw a lot of people to our cause. It's gonna show people that there is opposition out there and that they don't have to be repressed by governments and corporations."

At least 10,000 people moved into the protest zones. There were flags in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, signs saying "No ZLEA!" (French for FTAA), giant cut-out soldiers with red streamers representing the many countries of the Western Hemisphere invaded by the U.S., and black anarchist flags. A red flag contingent built by forces in Montreal and Quebec City reportedly distributed 175 red flags to people. Others wore red stars and hammer and sickle insignia on hats or clothes.

The red zone was in an open area around Boulevard Rene-Levesque. Just as we arrived in the red zone around 3 p.m., we looked up and saw people climbing the fence while others rocked it back and forth. The authorities had claimed that the steel fence would stop a car driving 100-miles an hour. But suddenly the fence came tumbling down! The perimeter had been breached, and the battle was on.

People moved inside. The green-clad riot police of the Surete du Quebec (the provincial police) fired at the crowd with tear gas canisters. Youth threw rocks, bottles, sticks, and snowballs at the police--who scuttled back to block off a street. As the battle raged, the crowd backed the frontlines with chants of "So, so, so, solidarité!" More cops came forward and fired tear gas at and into the crowd. Luckily, the wind was blowing the right way, and much of the gas blew back toward the police and into the perimeter. Another squad of 30 to 40 riot cops moved in from behind the protests and marched to the wall in a flanking action. One young man with a trumpet walked in front of the police lines and was shot at close range with a tear gas canister in the chest. Throughout the next days, police would shoot anyone close to their lines with tear gas or plastic bullets--whether they were throwing something, sitting down, or just giving a peace sign.

Later in the afternoon, the police brought two large water cannons on trucks into the area surrounding the perimeter. People blocked the trucks and refused to move. Others smashed at the truck and the cannons with sticks. The trucks were forced back, to the cheers of the people! Then the water cannons blasted protesters and knocked them over.

For several hours people battled and confronted the police attacks. Gas flew everywhere. Finally the people were pushed out of the area. Undercover cops jumped and arrested Jaggi Singh, a CLAC spokesperson, as he stood talking with someone in the streets. He was charged with "participating in a riot" and "possession of a weapon."

The streets of the St. Jean Baptiste neighborhood, where most of the resistance occurred over two days, were jam-packed with people. The participants in the resistance in Quebec represented an incredible array of viewpoints, political struggles and regions. The majority of protesters seemed to be French speakers from Quebec City, Montreal and elsewhere in Canada. Many residents of the city--youth, students, workers, and some middle class people--took part in the actions and aided the protesters. Also in the mix were Acadian peoples from New Brunswick; English-speaking Canadians (many from Ontario); some people from the East Coast of the U.S. and beyond; a smattering of people from Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean; and immigrants from Palestine, Iran, India, Central America, and elsewhere, now living in Canada.

We talked to many college students and youth from all over Canada about why they came to this protest. Many saw Quebec City as the place to make a real difference, the latest round in the battle against globalization. Others said they wanted to be part of something alive and creative, to figure out the truth about things. Many had been inspired by the Battle of Seattle and other anti-globalization resistance.

Over two days the neighborhood was bombarded by police gas attacks. Gas seeped into people's apartments. Many small stores had been boarded up, but the activists did not target the small businesses. Some storeowners had written anti-FTAA messages on the plywood themselves. The plywood, buildings, and concrete barriers holding the security wall became a canvass for messages and paintings. We saw messages like "George W. Bullshit," "Less Talk, More Rock," "FTAA=U.S. Imperialism," "Revolution," "FLQ" (Front de Liberation Quebec--Liberation Front of Quebec), "Cops are Political Machines," "Mort a l'etat" (Death to the state), etc.

One activist told the RW he had seen youths smash the windows of police cars and liberate a number of police shields, vests, and a police radio. One youth tinkered with the radio as another walked away with a police hat on.

That evening the police swept out from the perimeter into the streets of St. Jean Baptiste. Underneath a highway overpass young people gathered around a bonfire and danced to music and fire twirlers. All of a sudden police on the overpass opened fire with tear gas into the crowd below. About 100 were arrested on the first day of actions.

An Inspiration for People Around the World

That night I spoke with members of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade from Philly and New York who had come to link up with the protests. They were tired but full of enthusiasm about the events of the day, the combativity of the youth, the anti-system thrust of the resistance--and the communist trend out in the midst of all that. They said they really got a sense of a developing community of resistance among the generation out there. Many people they spoke with were interested in the new Draft Programme of the Revolutionary Communist Party--particularly on the question of making revolution in an imperialist country.

Distributors of the revolutionary internationalist magazine A World to Win were also in Quebec, and they said they found a great openness to Maoism and revolutionary communist politics. Many copies of the magazine and the Declaration of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement in French and Spanish were sold.

An RCYB member from New York said, "I think today was just this amazing day. You had all these mainly middle-class youth really putting themselves on the line--picking up the steaming hot tear gas containers, putting themselves on the line for proletarian people around the globe. That's really inspiring for all the oppressed peoples in the world. And it's really inspiring for us as Marxist-Leninist-Maoists, looking to build the united front under the leadership of the proletariat, that there are these allies of our class that see things as being so fucked up that they're gonna go out there and take on these pigs and this entire pig system to bring this down. They really feel passionately about this."

The Battle Intensifies

Saturday headlines in the Quebec papers said "War of Gas" and "Black Friday." But the battle had just begun. Strengthened by the breach of the wall at Boulevard Rene-Levesque and reports of its breach elsewhere, activists prepared to go after the wall.

The day started with a huge march of 25,000 to 50,000 people through the lower old city. The march was called by the alternative People's Summit of the Americas--a coalition of labor unions and progressive organizations. On Friday morning, we had gone to a teach-in sponsored by the People's Summit where 2,000 to 3,000 people participated in discussions and presentations on how the FTAA would affect agriculture, the privatization of water, indigenous rights and patenting of drugs. Organizer Marie Louve told me it was a "day of education for resistance."

At the march, we were with the CLAC contingent. People streamed by for an hour. The march was a riot of colors and political messages. There were teachers and construction workers represented by the Confederacion Syndicats Nacional (Confederation of National Unions), autoworkers, bakery workers, Quebec separatists, Catholic teachers, committees supporting maquiladora workers, members of the Council of Canadians, farmers, members of Amnesty International, Mumia activists, church groups, thousands of youth and college students, and supporters of the Union of Iranian Communists. There were flags of Palestine, Cuba, Chile, red flags, black flags, union flags of many colors, and many blue and white flags of Quebec.

There was lots of festive street theater. About 30 people dressed in business suits and ties, faces gagged by bar codes, moved slowly to the beat of a drum, like zombies marching to the dictates of capital. There were drummers, radical cheerleaders and a food activist group called the Radical Cooks protesting genetically modified foods and the lack of involvement of the people in FTAA decisions. A group of people holding headstones sang about the death of the rights of the worker.

As the march entered the lower old city just below the Jean Baptiste neighborhood, people began choking and crying from tear gas. The streets were so soaked from the previous night's gas attacks that the entire march was effectively gassed! At the Rue de la Couronne, the CLAC led its contingent up toward the wall.

At the perimeter on Rue St. Genevieve, a contingent of the anarchist black block attacked the fence. A French-speaking black blocker described what happened: "We go to break the line, the security perimeter. And we broke it. But the cops come with a bulldozer and go in the fence. We were in the fence when the cops go with the bulldozer, so we tried to destroy the bulldozer. We destroy the bulldozer...with rocks, with everything, man, with all the imagination and creativity of the anarchists." Protesters moved into the perimeter, but police counterattacked, shooting plastic bullets and hitting one man in the head with a tear gas canister and knocking him unconscious. The people again attacked the fence with molotov cocktails.

The fence was also torn down with ropes nearby at the Cimetiere St. Matthew (St. Matthew's Cemetery). At 5 p.m. at St. Genevieve, people sat blocking the intersection while others stood in the street. After a warning, the cops moved on people--firing smoke bombs, concussion grenades, and plastic bullets at close range. One woman was hit in the throat and required an emergency tracheotomy. More tear gas was fired at the crowd, but people didn't panic--many were learning the tactic of orderly dispersal and re-attack. Down the street a woman and her small child, his face covered with a small bandanna, ran a hose from their second floor window for the protesters. A sign in her window said, "Water for the people of the world."

A few streets away, on the Cote d'Abraham, a fierce battle raged from 3 p.m. until at least 7 p.m. As we walked up the street, at least a thousand people were spread out in front of the fence. Music blared out of an apartment window, and the boarded-up windows were covered with graffiti. Youth, older people, workers, students, black blockers, and many others were calmly coming and going from the frontlines at the fence. They were outfitted with gas masks, bandannas, and goggles.

Huge clouds of tear gas billowed into the air. The police were at the fence launching tear gas canisters several hundred yards down into the crowd. Helicopters hovered overhead, surveying the positions of the demonstrators in order to aid the police on the ground.

Organization developed among the people to wage the fight. Some pounded on drums and signs to build the spirit. Some broke up rocks to throwing size and brought them forward in bags. At the frontlines some people threw rocks and bottles. Others taunted police by parading back and forth in front of the police lines. One guy waved a huge red flag with a hammer and sickle. Another, wearing a Scottish kilt, played bagpipes through a hole in his gas mask.

When the tear gas canisters rained down, youths with masks and gloves ran to the canister to pick it up and throw it back. While some slowly retreated, others directed people to open areas where there was less gas. Those badly gassed were led to the rear as medics washed out their eyes and gave them lemon to cut down on the choking. One autoworker had been hit six times by plastic bullets--he showed us large welts on his arm and back. People advancing up the closed highway ramps to the left of the fence threw molotov cocktails at the police lines. Cops behind the lines had to spray the cops in front with water cannons to put out the molotovs. Down the street at the CMAQ (Center for Alternative Media Quebec), journalists returned from the front lines to publish their stories on the Internet and find out what was happening.

Night fell and the police attacked people in streets of the St. Jean neighborhood again. A student from Quebec City told us what happened: "Immediately after we remarked there were no more TV's and journalists, the policemen began to be a lot more rough...they used their sticks a lot more. After that we began to set up a barricade.... It was made of three pieces of metal fencing. We were advancing. Police were throwing gas. People were removing metal grates (on the street sewers) and throwing gas bombs in there and covering them with plywood." A huge burning barricade was built at the bottom of the hill on Boulevard Charest to block the police advance. Finally the police surrounded groups of people and arrested 230.

At another intersection the U.S. flag and other symbols of the system were burned in a huge bonfire. An RW seller who talked with people there and had been on the frontlines all day told us, "There's this real spirit--you can really tell that a lot of young people feel this system has nothing for them...I'm not saying they had a whole analysis of imperialist globalization, but they really understood what this was about--that it's taking their future and that this system has nothing to offer them and they were at war with the system."


On Sunday the 22nd we went again to St. Jean, but the scene was different from the day before. The summit had ended. The streets in the neighborhood were filled with residents and activists walking around to see what was going on. The battle was over in the main, but you could still see the remains--graffiti covering every wall, bottles and rocks littering the streets at the back of the fence where the cops had stood, and black smoke marks from the molotov cocktails. By Rene Levesque a parked car burned up by a tear gas canister sat with a sign on it saying, "The police burned my car."

We spoke with activists and others who were trying to figure out what they had accomplished. Many felt one of the main victories of the protests was the attention drawn to the FTAA and its crimes and they thought more people would be won to their cause by the determined actions that were taken. Others said they felt strong unity had been built against the enemy, with a respect for a diversity of tactics and rejection of the system's attempts to split people along "violent and non-violent" lines. At the jail, people gathered to support those arrested and demand they be able to see lawyers.

On the 22nd the heads of state, led by Chretien and Bush, announced an accord had been reached and tried to claim a victory. The summit had achieved its goals, they said, and the police had shown strength but also "restraint." Bush had to acknowledge the protest--and said he and the other heads of state would listen to those outside the hall who were willing to "join us in constructive dialogue."

But among the resisters this talk was not getting over. The imperialists had shown how they engage the people in "constructive dialogue"--with fences, lies, and brutal thugs armed to the teeth to attack.

Many millions around the world are sick to death of the repeated lies and promises of the imperialists about democracy and prosperity. The system and its free trade plans for plunder stand more sharply exposed by the battle waged in Quebec. The power of the people against a force armed with heavy weaponry and technology was clearly demonstrated. The actions taken there will surely set a new standard, inspiring people around the world to step up the important struggle against capitalist globalization and further raising the specter of revolution.

Orpheus wants to thank all the comrades of Quebec City, Seattle, Philadelphia, and New York for their contributions. Without them this article wouldn't have been possible.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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