Social strike and solidarity in the streets of Montreal

As a montreal ex-pat of sorts, I’ve been following the student/social strikes and the widespread anger and defiance against the intensified state and police repression. Personal reasons demanded my presence in Toronto within 48 hours of landing in kkkanada but it’s been incredible to move from the facebook/media voyeurism onto the streets, if only briefly. I want to take a minute not just to share my brief encouter, but to give folks unfamiliar with Montreal a better sense of what is going on. This first part is more a “this is what the streets were like” account; the second, if i get to it, gives a bit more analysis and context for the strikes and why it has blossomed in Quebec.

My first evening in Montreal i wasn’t on the streets. Whisked directly from airport to BBQ, you’d hardly even know there was a social struggle of epic proportion going on. I expected my ears to ring with at least the  echos of casseroles, but of course i arrived a little late; i expected my nose to twitch against he acrid smell of tear gas, but then i was visiting pretty far north of any major sites of insurrection. Of  course after more than 50 connective nights of demos, 4 months into the student strike, and a week after the massive convergence against the Grad Prix, I was aware that energy must be waning. Students have been calling for less-frequent marches, saying they are burnt out and need time to pause, reflect, and build for the strike votes coming again in August.

The BBQ and my following day was populated with friends, old and new, who have been doing deeply important work long before the two + years these strikes have been building. I wanted to be part of the street demos, but  i also wanted to understand from people i trusted and shared context with, what their perspective of it all is (plus i just wanted to see people whom i miss and love). To be honest most of my best mates have not been heavily involved in the strike, busy as they are fighting the same day-to-day fights they have been for years: “working non-stop trying to race bill c-31 [the horrific new Refugee Exclusion Act] ”; standing in solidarity, day in and day out, with indigenous commuities doubly colonised in Quebec; fighting against Bill C-38; raising young children and building families and communities; doing day-to-day, frontline street outreach.  But they’ve probably all made it to a number of cassaroles and demos and have thoughts about the shape of this student-cum-social movement.

Keys were left for me at my mate’s flat so i could settle in while she was working – doing street outreach into the early morning hours. The key was tucked away in an envelope and cushioned by a lovely red square. The next morning, at my breakfast date, the first words out of another mates’s mouth was – “do you need un carré rouge?” and he pulled out a swath of red felt, “I find it’s good to have a few on you. We’ve been having a lot of visitors lately so i just keep them on hand”.

Walking throughout the streets red squares in windows and on fellow pedestrians were less-present than i had hoped, but still pretty ubiquitous and imbued the city with a feeling of hope and communication.

My second night in town, my one and only chance to be on the streets with the masses, whatever that might look like. 8:30pm at Berri Square I wondered if I had truly missed the wave, as there were a just a handful of people milling about. Some casseroling, some (but very few) selling newspapers, waving Quebec flags (and I will talk about separatism/nationalism in part 2) one or two with anonymous masks and a few crews pacing the periphery; mostly it was folks just hanging about, like any other night in Berri Square, though with a heavy police presence.  And then something amazing happened. A few bike-cops lined the edge of the square as the Orwelian recorded announcement declared the gathering illegal. the moment the announcement started, the milling about stopped, and, like the well-rehearsed act this has surely become, people lined up in front of the police, waving flags, recording cops, starting to chant and in a seemingly spontaneous yet cohesive act, taking the streets.

It was about 100 people, mostly chatting or casseroling, as cops diverted traffic and made futile attempts at intimidation. There were no marshals to the march. No scouts or comms team. Certainly some people remained towards the front and others followed, but it felt as spontaneous and fluid as lovers going for a stroll. Walking west on René Léveque (a dual-carriageway), the police had already diverted traffic and the lanes were free. And then, like osmosis, the march flowed across the barriers into the vehicle-laden lanes. And there was not an angry honk to be heard. Not one person rolled down their window and gobbed on us. Several did roll down their window to accept red squares being doled out.

Through residential streets again and, like a small town, people called out to each other and stopped and chatted, some joining in the march, others going on their way. Waves came from windows and doorways. Most marches I have been to are met with the distant gaze of the spectator at best, more likely mistrust and hostility from the vast majority of non-participants. This was different. This felt as though the march was just one limb of a body that might be multi-tasking at the moment, but ultimately working as a whole.

Brief talks with a few folks on the streets in my very broken French gave me an impression similar to what kept Occupy going for so long. There is the political necessity for this movement, but as well there is the affect. The community that is being built through these actions, be they neighbourhood casseroles or the nightly marches.

As we approached the FracnoFolies festival area (not a week in the summer goes by without a festival in Montreal), the numbers swelled (reaching into the many-thousands after the Los Locas show finished).  Earlier in the week Cindy Milstein described the night demo being blocked from the festival crowd by a thin line of police but, contrary to the typical us/and them on either side of the blue line, people talk of the festival crowd cheering and chanting with the march. Last night the security actually approached the march and said “people like you here, you are welcome to come in”. And later in the evening, the biggest feeder march to the night demos was the Loco Locass show <;, which invited CLASSE spokespeople on stage to co-perform Libérons-nous des libéraux, and then encouraged the audiece, thousands strong, to hit the streets.

I had left the main march by this point, joining up with the first familiar – if camped up –  faces i saw (remarkable for a city where 2 years ago I would have at least recognized 75% of the faces at any given leftist militant demo) in the Pink Bloc’s Drag March Against Repression which was in it’s second or third hour and so split off, taking the streets on route to a well-needed pint in the village. Though a drink was the objective, the route to get there was peppered with anti-capitalist slogans and a blatant claim of the streets. The police kept a close watch, occasionally nudging people along, and at one point blocking access and forcing someone in a scooter to leave the march as the corralled people onto  sidewalk without curbcuts, radonmly grabbing one demonstrator on the way just to regain their power.

The megaphone chants included everything from “Queer, feminista; anti-capitalista” and calls to vote with bricks instead of ballots to ati-cop chants from “la police aux service des riches and des fascits” and “La police: homophobe” to “Police suck, but do you swallow”. Yet even with these militant and sometimes seemingly vulgar chants coming from what would be considered by the mainstream to be veritable freaks in drag, the passersby were on our side. Chanting along with us, pumping fists, applauding, and at the moments when  the police looked poised to to pounce, joining us on the streets for a block two.

At one point, after the ubiquitous recording pronouncing us, yet again, as illegal, the police moved in. Join us, people called, and some turned to their friends and said of course. Others stepped in between the march and the police interrogating them, both registering their refusal to accept this repression, and creating space between cops and the march – this tactic of creating a buffer was one that I used to participate in, with slight different optics, blocked up. And now an action which is common for the often-denigrated “Black Bloc” gets reflected back in its roots as natural human impulse against threat and coercion; passers-by with and without red badges unquestioningly stepping in against state intimidation in a place where, just months previous they may not have intervened even at the sight of more explicit police violence.

(still to come: part 2 – the Context of Colonialism: why this can happen in Quebec)