Protests: A Report from the Streets
by Roger Benham
When the storm calms, when rain and fire again leave the land in peace, the world will no longer be the world, but something better. Subcommandante Marcos
In April 2001, I served as a street medic in the protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. This event, which drew upwards of 40,000 anti-globalization activists, was my first taste of post-Seattle mass demonstrations. A coordinating meeting before the summit formed teams of four based upon protest experience, medical training, and personal affinities. Individual medics provided their own supplies, and volunteered their time. But the huge effort to coordinate the availability of medical care began long before the summit commenced. Pre-summit organizing involved the procurement of a central sleeping space and the rental, staffing and supply of a medical clinic (located a block away from the security fence which became the focus of action). In addition groups like the Northeast Action medics, NEMA, provided medical training to those interested in attending the protest. All of this was coordinated amongst activists who were not subscribing to any overarching political analysis beyond anti-globalization, who ranged from social democrats to anarchists.
The summit precipitated two days and three nights of opposition, ranging from a huge legally permitted march involving labor unions and mainstream environmental groups to running nighttime battles between armored riot police and masked members of the Black Bloc wielding cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. Undoubtedly, the perpetual cloud of tear gas which cloaked the entire upper city for two days colored the proceedings. But the protestors themselves were unable to affect the negotiations directly despite several successful breaches of the security fence. The success of the fence has resulted in similar tactics by police at the recent summit and Genoa. (A similar fence was planned to protect the WTO meetings in D.C. this September, before they were cancelled). Tactics like these increase the frustration on the part of protestors, and defensiveness on the part of the police, it is only logical that violence will continue to escalate as governments do not allow their citizens to be heard. The most recent demonstration in Italy resulted in the killing of a street fighter by police in Genoa. The corporate media continue to characterize the increasing militance of protestors as disconnected upsurges of random thuggery, and some activists concur. But perhaps we are witnessing (and creating) the first outbursts of true dissent, a revolutionary upheaval which will leave the planet better than it would have been?
From a street-level vantage point my experiences contrasted sharply with those I later read about in the media. A few drunken yahoos with Nike swooshes and quarts of malt liquor treated the occasion as a giant street party and licence to destroy random objects, but no more than what could be expected at any large gathering of North Americans out on the streets at night. In contrast, many activists worked together to protect each other and to make their voices heard in creative and varied ways. The spontaneous cooperation and ingenuity needed to tear down sections of the security fence later spilled over into other sections of the city, where real estate billboards and the windows of corporate chain stores bore the brunt of the creative destruction. Free stew cooked up by Food Not Bombs sustained our bodies, while grassroots art projects such as a homemade catapult hurling stuffed animals at the police nourished our spirits.
When crowds ran in panic from the rubber bullets and CS gas, medics asked them to walk to avoid trampling the injured and blinded. In every case I saw, they did. When a tear gas canister was hurled back into the police lines from the midst of the crowd, a massive collective cheer would go up.
Throughout the storm of gas and bullets, and the roar of helicopters I didnt witness one fight between activists, and few angry words. I came away feeling jubilant and energized, with a real sense that capital was being challenged. Almost everyone I talked to at Quebec came away with a similar sense that were in it for the long haul, that the real work of this revolution must be carried out back in our communities, building institutions of resistance, education and serious local alternatives to the forces of globalization. Taking the streets from the capitalists and the police, if only for a few days, gave me at least an inkling of how these entities might function. Take the medics themselves; free health care, provided according to abilities, given according to need. Sound familiar? Or the numerous Quebec residents who rigged ingenious hose delivery systems from their apartment windows, dispensing free water to any and all comers. Stand this in opposition to what was occurring on the other side of the fence, where delegates from the transnational elites were busy attempting to privatize social services and commodify water.
Everywhere you turned that April weekend there were concrete examples of how society might be organized after the defeat of globalization, and capitalism itself.
Putting aside the necessity for anyone concerned about the global future to stand up to those who are putting it up for auction, these massive protests also give us a glimpse of what can come after; not the world, but something better.