June 12, 2012

The noise on the street is the sound of struggle!

On s`en casserole! 

J. Boyden

Over the past two months the picture of Quebec is of a people in motion, a river of struggle and solidarity.  That river surged and burst its banks in May with the passing of the repressive Law 78 (read more here, here and here). While June has seen (as everyone expected) a slow-down in the intensity of protests, the resistance has not gone away.

Nor has the police repression abated, evidenced by the arrest of Amir Khadir, member of the Quebec National Assembly for the left-wing coalition party Quebec Solidaire, of which the Communist Party of Quebec (PCQ-PCC) is a member. Khadir was peacefully marching in a casserole protest.

Almost the next morning, around 6:00 am, police raided his house, snatched his student activist daughter and her boyfriend out of bed and paraded them in front of TV cameras, down to the station in hand cuffs.

According to the CLASSE student coalition, wearing the sign of the student and anti-austerity struggle, the red square, for the past few days during the Grand Prix Formula One race has meant your are an open target to have your bags searched each time you enter the subway and sometimes on the street. Le Devoir newspaper did an investigation into this claim and found that, not only were their unidentified journalists with red squares searched, but if they ask questions they were be detained at the police station.

But the spirit of the people has not been dampened. And that resilience is best described through stories about the casserole.

Never seen before

As I unlocked my bike I could just hear it.  Bang-bang, clang-clang, bang, clang, clang. It was exactly 8:01. The casserole had started right on time.

Already I could see a few people. Mainly they were students, wearing the red square. They were walking out of their front door. In their hands – a big spoon, a soup pot, or a cooking pan.

This is what the word casserole means in French. Any pot used to cook, with a lid. “It is a Quebec tradition,” a reporter had confidently claimed the night before on CBC’s the National. “I’ve never seen anything like this is in my life in thirty years,” my next door neighbour who immigrated from North Africa said the same evening, with a sense of amazement in his voice.

UPDATE: Read more about the casseroles and 'rough music' here.

A cross-section of society

I was heading home.  It was the fourth or fifth night of the casserole since it began, shortly after the Charest Liberal’s draconian Law 78 had outlawed spontaneous mass protest.  “It’s gone viral” an older activist had told me earlier that morning.

He lived on the opposite side of the downtown.  So tonight I was testing that claim by drawing a line, dissecting part of Montreal by bicycle, listening and watching and weaving a route as quickly and yet as comprehensively as possible through the side-streets to get a read on the size of these protests.

The route I chose started in the community of Mile-End, cut through the fashionable Plateau neighbourhood, then crossed the railway tracks and headed down into the east side of Montreal and the working class communities of Maisonneuve and Hochelaga.

For people less familiar with a map of Montreal, imagine going from the edge of Burnaby Central Park in Vancouver and down Kingsway street, then turning onto Commercial, down to East-Hastings. Or, in Toronto, going from Eglington East down Liard and Pape, through the Danforth and ending on Eastern Avenue.  If you can picture that urban social geography, just imagine people banging pots and pans all along the way.

Two solitudes?

But Montreal has another twist, born of generations of social and national inequality. Half-way through the town there is an invisible dividing line.  On one side the communities speak French and that’s what you hear in the street. On the other side the language is English.

The student movement, numerically and politically, is much stronger among the Québécois(e). But the students have triumphed over this barrier, to everyone’s credit. Perhaps it is the strongest social movement to ever do that in Quebec.

The CLASSE student union now releases statements and publications in English. The English-language universities join the CLASSE in their (weekly!) all-Quebec national conventions. They have found creative ways to participate in the strike. Before the school session was lost, many departments at McGill and all the undergrads at Concordia had joined the strike for at least some time.

The night demos

The casseroles are perhaps the most dynamic and colourful expression yet of this solidarity. Yet to understand the casseroles you have to place it in the context of the whole campaign of the students and the evolution of the struggle from a campaign over access to education, to a fight back against austerity budgets and now, after Law 78, a battle for democracy.

You also have to consider the night demos.

Portrayed as riots by the News outside of Quebec, the night demos were born after the first round of negotiations between the students and the Charest Liberal’s failed.  Public anger poured into the streets with spontaneous after-work protests.

From 8:00 pm onwards, hundreds and then thousands of people snake around in the downtown streets until early in the morning.  Some night demos have been reported by the TV station RDI (Radio Canada’s Newsworld) as over 10,000. Their size has dissipated greatly as May rolled into hot July, but they continue. Tonight, July 13th, will mark the 50th action.

Police play cats, we’re their mice

To frustrate and shut-down these demos, literally hundreds if not thousands of police have taken over Montreal’s streets in the night. Traffic police, riot police, undercover cops.  Sirens scream. A cavalcade of twenty police cars rushing down the streets is a common sight.  They commandeer the public transit, despite the protest of drivers and their union. Looking up at city bus, you might see it filled with storm-trooper riot cops clad in their paramilitary gear.

Every few nights, around two o’clock in the morning, the riot police will start to charge the demonstration.  Pounding their shields, with a helicopter above, they will try to split the demo. Then they will swoop down. Smashing heads, ‘kettling,’ making mass arrests.

But the public is angry, and they have been coming back. Night after night. When Law 78 was passed, the sustained anger grew. Even progressive jurists marched through the streets in their official gowns.

Hands up!

The law itself was a provocation. A few nights after it passed, a bonfire was lit on a street corner. Sitting on a patio not far away, we witnessed the police kettle our entire street block. The police were not content with just putting out the fire.

As a punk band played in the background, the riot cops (some in gas masks) stormed our patio and smashed directly into two bars next door. They scooped people for arrest and deployed sound bombs, while pepper spraying us.

To exit without arrest, we had to leave the chaos of the bar, many people with eyes burning, cross the road and cut through the ground floor of a strip club into a back lane – in single file, our hands up in the air.

The hammer law

In this context of sustained police riots and violence, and literally thousands of arrests all across Quebec, the casserole’s began. The corporate media has made much of the fact that the casseroles are a non-violent action, as if the public was criticising the students for their tactics. In fact they are a direct act of defiance against Law 78.

Law 78 not only forces students to return to class. This, in itself, is an attack on basic rights: any act of student strike, even symbolic, can be punished with a year’s student fees withheld from a student union for just blocking a day of classes, student associations dissolved, teachers punished who do not police the law, school administrations fined if they do not enforce the rules, with the minister able to increase her power without consulting the Quebec National Assembly. An open door exists in the legislation to expand these rules to the labour movement.

But Law 78 also imposes fines in the range of tens of thousands of dollars to forbid the right to assembly and spontaneous protest.  Clearly reaching into criminal code and beyond provincial jurisdiction, the law marks perhaps the biggest legal attack on civil liberties in Quebec since the Padlock law and the War Measures Act.

Silence of the lambs?

This is why the approach of the New Democratic Party has been a kind of betrayal through silence.
Former Minister of the Environment under the Charest Liberals during the major 2005 student protests, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (and almost all of the Quebec NDP MPs) have even refused to wear the red square.

And it is on the edge of Muclair’s riding of Outremont, in Mile End, where I’m starting my bike ride.  The sky is still sunny and bright, but patches of blue are being blocked out by giant storm clouds building above the Mont Royal mountain.

Bang, clang, bang!

Mile End is not just home to many McGill and Concordia students but also Greek and Portuguese immigrants and the Hasidic Jewish community.

Sure enough, one of my first sights is a young man in a traditional Hasidic black robe and black cap banging a pan. This will have to go down in my memories of the student strike (along with the image of a nun, standing in her light grey habit just outside the grand doors of a convent, giving a clench fist salute to a long demo as it paraded past.)

By the time I am leave the tree-lined avenues that skirt Park Mont Royal, the pot bangers have left their door steps. Little groups of five to ten are clustering on the side of the road.  They are young and old, women and men. Their clanging draws you in. I turn onto a bike lane and am joined by five other cyclists; one close to me starts to ring her bike bell. Cheers go up. We zip through an intersection and I see now there is a casserole on each corner. It is almost 8:10.

We cross St Denis at Rachel and are into the French side of town. The plan of the casserole is to ban and clang by your house and then join an assembly of clangers in your neighbourhood after about twenty minutes.  But already there is a large crowd of almost a hundred people banging away and spilling off the sidewalks into the road.

The pots and pans orchestra

Now skirting Parc la Fontaine, a pots and pans orchestra has erupted.  I start to notice how many children there are. Parents with toddlers in strollers, little boys and girls dancing with wooden spoons. I see a middle-aged women across the street, so enthusiastically banging away that she breaks her spoon and laughs.
People are not just on sidewalks. They are on balconies, open windows and even rooftops.  If people don’t have a pot they are banging something else. A drum. A watering can. A mail box.  Banging and clanging, and clanging and banging.

The orchestra has never disappeared once since I kicked-off. But now it drifts away as I cross the railway tracks and head through a light industrial area. And as I turn down into Maisonneuve the casserole returns on the street corners and out of windows.  The Olympic stadium tower looms in front of me. Heavy rain clouds are building.

The Greek disease?

It is not cynical to say that Law 78 is an election strategy of the Charest Liberal ‘law and order’ government.  Smash the summer student demonstrations in the street. Smash their student unions and centers of resistance in September. And call an election for the same month.

Writing in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago, the former leader of the right-wing Reform Party (predecessor to the governing Conservative Party) accused Quebec of having what he called – “the Greek disease.”

Preston Manning`s formula? High debt, ‘necessary’ austerity, riots in the street.

But Quebec’s debt was not caused by its social programmes. It was caused by steadily reduced federal funding. It was caused by a policy of tax cuts to corporations and the rich, implemented by both Parti Québéquois and Liberal provincial governments. It was caused by structural and systemic problems with the capitalist system.

If you have any doubt that this is an ideological question, read the report from the bargaining table by the militant student union CLASSE translated on the Rebel Youth blog:

Mia [a government economist] tries to explain the calculation of cost to the government [associated with tuition increases]. The FEUQ demolishes the arguments of Mia and her numbers -- it's nice to watch.  It becomes clearer than ever that the government's objective is only to increase the student`s fees, because it has been demonstrated that the freeze for at least two years was possible. People become enraged.  Michelle [Courchesne, Minister of Education] is so angry that she looses her shoe! She tells us that whatever it would take for a year-long freeze [of tuition], politically the government cannot, [even thought] our argument is logical and it stands.

An ideological struggle

The bargaining table report is very  insightful, detailing the comprise agreement that the student’s are willing to put forward, united: a tuition freeze of two years, increased bursaries, and a major broad public discussion and debate (Estates General) about the future of public education in Quebec.

The Charest Liberal government, however, refuses to accept even a one-year tuition freeze and offered a kind of poison-pill arrangement where the students and their families pay for their own freeze through the elimination of education tax credits and ultimately, after over 100 days on strike, the tuition increase will be $1.00 less. Then the government broke the negotiations.

The social crisis created by this intransigence – daily protest, massive police presence everywhere -- has polarized the people. In Quebec City and some of the regions, people are denounced in the street for wearing the red square.  But in Montreal the mood is of solidarity and support, as I saw when my bike rolled down Pie IX avenue into Hochelaga.

Down came the rain...

Hochelaga is a poorer neighbourhood that has been working class for generations.  There, in the main intersection of Pie IX and Ontario, a pots and pans demonstration of several hundred people was marching along the road. It was the end of my trip, but I joined them as we headed up the street, steadily swelling in size.

Everywhere were children. And I noticed the familiar chants from the night demos had changed – from “La loi matraque! On s’en Tabarnack!” (fuck the hammer law!) and “La loi speciale! On s’en Câlice!” (The special law is shit) to “La loi speciale! On s`en Casserole!”

We weaved through a side road. People were leaning out of their windows in every building to cheer us on. We jammed traffic and the drivers beeped their horns in solidarity while the passengers gave us high fives.

The sky darkened. It started to rain. Then it began to pour.

A river in the streets

We lost the “baby-block” but the march continued into the black night.  And the rain kept coming down. We headed back onto the main road. It was a torrential rain, a pounding rain. But the young men took off their shirts and little girls danced in the puddles. Then water couldn’t drain into the sewers fast enough. We were marching through a river.

The water poured down so hard I could only just see forward.  Suddenly the flashing lights of police cars were up ahead. A black mass appeared before for us – is it the riot cops, come miles out of down town for us? No, it was another demonstration, joining arms with us from the opposite direction – and then, almost a thousand people were in the road, in the rain, banging away.

Solidarity and struggle

This kind of unity shows the way forward not just for Quebec, but the rest of Canada too.  And increasingly, the progressive movements of Quebec and the rest of Canada are paying attention to each other and talking. For the first time perhaps ever, a CLASSE spokesperson addressed the congress of the Canadian Federation of Students.

The question of a united pan-Canadian strategy is coming forward.

In Quebec, the question for the movements is – how do we continue the mobilization? Can we count only on the coming election? The idea of a social and political general strike by labour (and advanced by the Communist Party of Quebec and the Young Communist League) has taken hold in many progressive circles. The strategy is a difficult one for labour, but the experience of Europe concretely shows that the people really have no other route than mass struggle.

And in this path, we will need to deepen and develop our solidarity across the country.

Johan Boyden is the General Secretary of the Young Communist League of Canada and lives in Montreal. This article was originally prepared for People's Voice Newspaper and has been expanded.

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