A Generation that Knows the Taste of Tear-Gas
by Darren Stewart

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"The darkest and deepest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis refuse to take a stand."
-Dante, The Divine Comedy

"We want to make sure that every citizen has an equal opportunity to live in dignity."
-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, from his address to the Summit delegates during the opening ceremonies.

* * * * *

I spent three days on the front lines immediately outside the controversial 3-metre high security barrier in Quebec City during the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting. I drove with a group of friends from Toronto, and spent 15 hours each day running between the indy media station and the areas of direct action protest, known as the red zone. I wielded nothing but a camera and threw only ideas. I filed eyewitness accounts of the action for a conservative talk-radio station in Toronto. I have a journalism background and was aiming for objectivity with my words. This was impossible after what I'd seen and felt the previous days.

Teargas dodgeball

The chaos began Friday, when the wall came down fast. Tear gas suddenly provided ambience to the entire city. I breathed it for the first time, and gagged. I breathed it through my bandanna for most of the weekend and was myself gassed point-blank more than twenty times, carrying nothing but a water bottle, and often far away from violent clashes.

Most T.V. cameras stuck to the main action, and therefore only had one chapter of the story. I spent hours running along the perimeter, sometimes far away from violence, sometimes at ground zero.

The images of the green zones, supposedly designated (by protest groups) for peaceful protest, are unforgettable-and an affront and an assault. A good friend, who came out from Victoria to peacefully protest, was gassed particularly bad early on, while we were watching the action from a sideline. I helped her into a parking lot, blocks away from the perimeter for a few moments of peace. She was already incapacitated, gagging and sobbing when police lobbed two more canisters into the parking lot, just to make sure we got the point. Blind and unable to move, she gripped my hand tight and was force to hold her face in a filthy snowdrift for several minutes while the second round of gas cleared. My face felt singed behind the barely effective children's swimming goggles and bandanna I was wearing. At this moment, I felt hatred. I wished I could storm the fence and throttle the person who did this.

I spent the previous eight months learning and writing about the issues surrounding the FTAA agreement with my work in the student press. I had many opportunities to use my knowledge to engage people in the streets-protesters and locals-on the issues, and see what they felt. On one such occasion I stood well over 100 yards away from the wall with a group of seniors (including a woman well into her seventies) who'd driven from Maine to express their disapproval for the trade agreement. They said they wanted to lend grey haired credibility to the younger protesters, who are often stereotyped by the mainstream media as ragtag anarchists. We stood for a moment in disbelief as two tear gas canisters suddenly bounced into our midst. We scrambled away with eyes clenched tight around the corner of a building where fellow protesters calmed us and washed our eyes.

"This is what democracy looks like."

A friend took a photo sequence of a small unarmed group of protesters sitting on the street showing the peace sign. Police shot a teargas canister into their midst. We saw this happen often.

Later, my small group tried to photograph the arrest of two solitary protesters who stood just inside the fence. The protesters had climbed the barrier and were standing ground, holding an anti-FTAA placard. Moments earlier and several times before we'd seen police use brutal force to arrest peaceful and unarmed protestors, particularly those who'd managed to climb the wall with their placards and peace signs. Huge armed and armored police pointed cannons at us point-blank through the fence and threatened us, telling us to stand back and put away the cameras. This was intimidating, especially given the witness reports we'd heard of the equipment malfunctioning and misfiring over the course of the day. Our fear froze the moment, only briefly.

With disbelief, I looked through my swimming goggles, through the chainlinks, into the eyes of police officers one metre away, as they lobbed several tear gas canisters over the fence, which exploded at our feet. I heard their chuckles and taunts as the three of us linked arms and blindly made our way to a safer space-crying, coughing, noses running, and stomachs heaving, we picked our way down the steep streets of Quebec, thinking thoughts of democracy. We were not dressed in black, not carrying stones to throw and were all very well educated on the issues. We were trying to document on film police conduct we didn't believe was right. My friends and I couldn't see for 20 minutes. We couldn't touch our own faces because our hands were covered in gas residue. Fellow protesters rubbed antacids and rubbing alcohol on our burning faces to neutralize the gas. When our raw red eyes cleared of tears, we headed straight back to the fence, for more. We'd come a long way and felt we filled a niche here beyond that of marching and chanting slogans far away from the action.


I did not lob any rocks at police, but often stood nearby and washed the burning eyes of those who did. I refilled my water bottle at a nearby garden hose to wash more eyes and faces. I stood still in the sun and chatted with a middle-aged Quebecois man, wearing no protection for the gas clouds swirling around us. He told me in broken English that he was washing people's eyes as well. He said he couldn't stand to see the passionate young protestors suffer for standing up to this. For me this was pure and beautiful, and I shook his hand.

I felt solidarity with the enormous peaceful march, Saturday, yet experienced a glowing satisfaction every time I saw the people who had split from the union march to head to the front. I chanted and cheered with many people my parent's age in the red zone. They waved union flags, eyes squinted shut, chanting slogans at the gas-choked front lines, while police officers half their age shot canisters of gas and rubber bullets into their midst.

I do hold onto my mixed feelings about violent protest-though there were some moments I was tempted to lob whatever I could back at the police. I remember an incredible moment, when hundreds of protesters, filling an entire city block, sat in the streets metres away from the line of riot police. We sang songs while several people drummed on street signs and danced. The police decided to retreat on the condition that protestors wouldn't advance to the wall again. For nearly an hour, the block was a peaceful swirl of colour and dancing. But the peace was broken suddenly as a cadre of the Black Bloc anarchists chose this moment to storm the empty CIBC Bank on the corner and break its windows. The action had a calculated precision and the group left the buildings on either side of the bank intact. Many protestors boo'd, and some even tried to physically restrain the black clad group. As the anarchists retreated, one turned back for a moment with a felt marker and wrote on the bank, "Banks don't bleed, protesters have." I agreed, and decided that, given the how directed, well-orchestrated and symbolic this action was, I supported it wholeheartedly.

Random acts

This is the point the media has missed entirely: the acts of violence enacted by the violent protest groups were far from random. After lobbing rocks through the windows of a Shell station, one of the Black Bloc spraypainted "Viva Saro Wiwa" on the station's sign. The anarchists left the neighbouring Esso station intact. Ken Saro Wiwa, is the Nigerian academic and activist who hung on trumped up murder charges in 1995, after his long campaign against Shell. Observers hold a widespread consensus that the trial and the sentencing was a farce and a smokescreen means of elimanating Wiwa, so Shell could keep drilling in Nigeria and greasing the palms of dodgy politicians. This was not a random act.

Said and done

My mother, typically conservative and apolitical, sat glued to the T.V. all weekend, learning much about the issues involved. She was appalled at my story, which I punched out in a quick e-mail Saturday night, of an innocent friend dragged off the street in front of me by police in an unmarked van during the peaceful labour march. (He was later interviewed from jail on CBC about the incident). The charge was "uttering death threats to a police officer," which, upon my soul, is entirely false.

My mother got into a heated discussion with a member of her church who said my friend probably deserved what he got. My friend-political yes, violent no-was doing nothing wrong at the time. He was wearing a motorcycle helmet, ski goggles, and a dark jacket, and chanting through a bullhorn-none of which are illegal in this country. His attire was more than appropriate given the random projectiles that hurtled through the air from both sides for hours the previous night, and the thick cloud of teargas that had already filled the city. We can only guess that he was targeted because his attire suggested that he may turn militant at any moment, or incite violence in others. The incident made a telling point: who's more to blame for this violence, the taxpayer-funded police and their dangerous arsenal, or the protesters fighting back, trying to have their small voice heard? Why should my friend, a passionate believer in socialism and opponent of capitalism, remain silent? Obviously, he dressed appropriately for the occasion, given the excessive teargas, and given the fact that six police armed with clubs forcefully abducted him from a public place, without warning or good reason.

This weekend did more to radicalize me than anything I have experienced. No longer will an affinity for used clothes, a refusal to eat fast food, a vegetarian lifestyle and a subscription to Adbusters suffice. I want to buy myself a gas mask, tear this world apart and rebuild from the roots with others of like-mind. After the teargas clouds clear and the fence comes down, here stands a radicalized generation, which is part of a population outraged by what they experienced in Quebec or shocked by what they heard from those they know who came here.

* * * * *

{Much has already been said about media focus on the violence outside the wall. I plan to read everything I can and absorb all the rhetoric, and come back with another piece after that. This missive will serve as an anecdotal account of my experience in Quebec. Please watch for its sibling piece on why I was there, my reaction to the media coverage and what I think of what went down inside the summit later this week}

* * * * *

Darren Stewart will be here all week, all things being equal. You can also find his work here.

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