Birthday Bash
by Mary Conquest

Is there such thing as pre-traumatic stress disorder? If so, I may be suffering. The nightmares haven't come yet, but the obsessive worry is here, and, if it's possible, I'm having flashforwards. Visions of what is to come. This is not the anxiety of a vain woman who will soon turn twenty-five, another artificial milestone of adulthood; it's not the birthday itself I worry about; it's the party.

From April 20 to 22, I'm invited to a shindig with an economic theme. This will be a gathering of, well, global proportions. And perhaps a bash in more ways than one.

I'll be joined by: thirty-four heads of state and their diplomats, the Quebec City and Ste Foy police forces, selected CSIS members, 800 RCMP officers in full riot gear, and an estimated 50 000 party-crashers. The decorations include a three-meter high chain link fence with steel posts embedded in concrete and topped with barbed wire for extra effect. Party favours are the responsibility of each invitee, but so far I have vinegar soaked bandanas, swimming goggles and gauze bandages on my list. The location will be the city streets for the most part, although in case of overflow there are an extra 600 spaces in the prison, and the hospitals will be emptied too. As to the party activities, they'll be anyone's guess. I picture a tango with a police officer, and spicy pepper champagne foaming everywhere.

This grotesque carnival is the People's Summit of the Americas, where the Free Trade Area of the Americas will be negotiated, and possibly signed. I will be there to protest.

Now I'm going to tell you a secret. One that you won't hear at the activist rallies or collective meetings. One that I have only heard in hushed conversations with veterans of Seattle, Washington and Windsor.

It's gonna be scary. I mean really freaking scary. Despite the protester rhetoric about all the fun we'll have, taking one for the cause and such, no one really wants to be pepper sprayed. No one enjoys being beaten. And no one wants to talk about that.

Rumours of police action are rampant. They're going to shut down the cell phone networks. They're going to corral us into a closed space and arrest the whole group. In my visions I see clouds of pepper spray, friends lost in the confusion, burning tears and stone-faced police officers reading me my rights: Telling me that due to special legislation I have no rights.

Everyone speaks of this as the party of the century, without a hint of fear. They tell me I am lucky to be going, as though this is the moment our generation has been waiting for. But, for the record, I'll say it now. I'm scared stiff. I told my parents I would keep safe, but the truth is, this may not be possible. I may be tear gassed. I may be beaten. I may be arrested.

This reality begs one vital question. One that I have been considering seriously for weeks now. Why? If 50 000 protesters will be there, if my safety is at risk, if my mother won't even speak to me, and if no one admits how scary this all is, why am I going?

Until now I've been a practitioner of safe activism. Garden-variety middle-class gestures. I've signed petitions and organized film festivals. I've gone on retreats and applauded panel discussions. I've even gone to protests, none of them threatening. Now I'm taking that extra step towards radical activism, a notion as murky as a cloud of tear gas.

The best reason I can think of goes back to Plato's proverbial cave man. He only ever sees his shadow on the wall, and takes that for reality. Until he turns around. Then he sees the source of the light and can never be satisfied with his shadow again. Like the cave man, I've learned about the light. I've become The Woman Who Knew Too Much.

And since this transformation, I can no longer remain neutral. I know that the sweater I'm wearing was made in Indonesia, where my concerns about police brutality must seem laughable to people who have suffered genocide, ethnocide and environmental destruction on a mass scale. I know that the woman who made my sweater would likely have to work nineteen hours to be able to afford to buy it. Nineteen hours in a firetrap where talking is forbidden, unions are illegal, and pregnancy is a ticket to unemployment. All for the sake of providing a climate hospitable to international trade.

I know that NAFTA and the failed MAI are serving as models for the FTAA agreement. Neither of these has any safeguards to protect the environment, or the sovereignty of governments to set health and labour standards. I know that under NAFTA, a community that declines to sell its land to a corporation seeking to expand its operations can be sued.

Even if the refusal is based on health concerns. This is called an unfair barrier to trade, and can be taken to a court that is run by the people who signed the NAFTA agreement. I know all this, and I can't turn back to the shadows on the cave wall.

What I don't know, ironically, is the text of the FTAA. Because this document, which if passed will affect hundreds of millions of people, is a secret. After mass protests, negotiators have finally agreed to release the text, with one small catch. There isn't time, they say, to translate it from the Spanish working document to English or French before the summit. By the time I get to see the FTAA agreement, it will have been negotiated, and possibly signed, behind a three-metre high wall. Apparently none of the English or French speaking delegates have advance working copies. Apparently releasing the text in Spanish for critics to translate isn't an option. Apparently, democracy doesn't live here anymore.

I think this is the root of my decision to protest. Call me a crazy idealistic kid, but I still believe in democracy. At least I believe in democracy as it was intended - to include divergent opinions, open debate and mass participation in the political process. The kind of democracy that everyone agrees is a good idea, except that those 'idiots' (replace 'idiots' with your political slander of choice), will screw it up. So we've left it to the experts, and somehow in the shuffle between power, profit, and material goods, we seem to have lost our voice. If you don't believe me, watch the corporate-owned news, where political protesters are magically transformed into rioters and troublemakers.

My roommate tells me that I should stay safe at home. She says that there are already enough protesters and that the people in power will do as they please anyway. What could I possibly hope to change?

I tell her that I hope that when the pepper settles on the streets of the old city, Canadians will understand more about our tenuous hold on democracy. Perhaps we'll be forced to be honest about the price of protest. In any case, I'll be turning twenty-five and this is one party I don't want to miss.

Mary Conquest is not an alias, we think.

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