It has been two days since the Summit of The Americas and I still don't understand what happened this weekend. I can't pretend that I've come to any pat conclusions. My memories are filled with scenes, smells, words and feelings. I will share a patchwork of these here:
I saw it first on Friday, just after seeing a section of the security fence fall from a distance. A loud, frightening bang followed by a white canister arcing through a clear blue sky. It hit my nostrils shortly after: a spicy smell, one that I got to know and fear very quickly. When it hit my lungs and my eyes, my eyelids cramped shut. Burning tears blinded me and my throat was raw and dry. People around me ran in all directions, some shouted "don't run, walk."
My only impulse was to move away from the terrifying sting. Anywhere but near the gas. I grabbed the arm of a friend, and he led me, blind, down a side street, further away from the perimeter. The gas caused confusion as well. The pain overwhelmed me; my capacity for decision felt as clouded as the air. Friends and strangers doused my eyes with water. It ran down my shirt and I was wet, cold and scared. That was the first dose. There were many more to come. In fact, the air here still smells of tear gas on some streets of the upper city.
On Thursday, I joined about 400 women and marched from Basse-Ville towards the security perimeter. We followed a twelve-foot high Goddess made of papier-mâché and chicken wire. We spoke about solidarity with women around the world. We chanted in French and Spanish and English.
Residents waved and smiled from their windows. It was beautiful.
When we reached the perimeter everyone was tense. We were prepared for arrests, since even touching the fence was forbidden. We announced our intentions to the police on a loudspeaker:
"Security forces, we are here to protest peacefully. We are exercising our right to assembly and freedom of expression. We plan to take webs and banners, woven by women all over the world, and attach them to the security fence. We have no intention of violence."
There was a tense moment, as we strained our necks to see any reaction from the lines of riot police behind the fence. Tentatively, the first small group went forward to hang their art on the web. When they returned without incident, we cheered and, group by group, we approached the fence to hang up our art, which symbolised the negative consequences of globalisation for women around the world. After the webs and banners were hung, we wove another web by dancing through spokes of crepe paper and attached it to the fence as well. I touched the fence for the first time. I climbed up and tied our web to the fence and looked back at the women who were cheering in support. I will always cherish this moment of solidarity.
The pieces we attached varied from webs woven of braided rags to banners with beautiful gems and photos of women and children glued to them. Someone taped up a Hustler magazine. We wove balls of yarns through the chain links. We had made our point, we had done so peacefully, and afterwards we danced.
Dead Bodies and Public Nudity
On Friday, clouds of tear gas had pushed down my friend and me into the lower town. Our respite didn't last long as the gas canisters were shot further and further away from the perimeter. I was recovering from the sting, and when I could see again, I was chilled from the water that had spilled down from my eyes onto my shirt. I had brought a spare shirt and we started looking for a place to change. Nothing was open.
There was an ambulance in the street, we presumed to help a girl who was on the stairs with a hip injury from a rubber bullet. This was at the foot of a large brick building with two sets of double doors. There were people inside and I decided to ask if I could use a washroom to change my clothes. The second set of doors was locked, and a woman who seemed very sympathetic told me I couldn't enter because it was a senior citizen's home and the residents were already very frightened. I asked if it would bother anyone if I knelt between the doors, somewhat hidden, and changed my shirt. She said that was fine.
I had just taken off my wet shirt, and was fumbling with the dry one when the interior doors opened. I looked up to see an ambulance attendant coming out with a stretcher. He gave me a look that I interpreted as `bloody naked activists` and I did my best to get out of the way, concerned that I was blocking the way for someone who needed immediate attention. When I was finally out of the way and dressed, I stood and watched. This victim did not need immediate attention. It was a dead body wrapped in a sheet.
Afterwards, one of the workers in the home came to the door to talk to us. It was clear that he wanted some outside contact. We asked if he knew how the person had died. He said he didn't, but that the residents could see everything from their windows and were terrified. A moment later a woman across the street who saw the body and the ambulance starting shouting at the protesters in the street. `Look at what you've done.` I cant say how much this saddens me.
The Price of Protest
Saturday morning, I decided to stick with a group of friends who were covering the peaceful labour demonstration. Just as the march reached us, I was reunited with Morgan Stewart, a friend and activist from Victoria with whom I had originally intended to drive to Quebec City. We hugged and he told me that the trip had gone well. He was with a group of activists who had no weapons, and no violent intentions. It was important to him that he not be injured or arrested because he had to return for an exam at the University of Victoria.
We started marching and I pointed out an unmarked police van, parked on a side street, to some friends. It was the first one I had seen. Morgan started chanting "So-so-so solidarité" into a megaphone he had brought. I joked with one of the parade marshals about Morgan's English accent. "It doesn't matter," he said, "we are all together."
I smiled and ran ahead to catch up with Morgan. When I did I saw a police officer running towards him with his baton ready to strike. Morgan put out his arm to defend himself, and was quickly surrounded by five other officers who beat him to the ground. He let himself fall to a dead weight, and they dragged him, pulling his shirt off in the process, into the same white van I had seen earlier. They must have seen him and driven to the next block to apprehend him.
Some protesters tried to pull the police off Morgan and were beaten back with batons and held back by parade security. Some people took pictures. I went to the front of the crowd and shouted at Morgan, "Who do I call?" He couldn't hear me. He was busy repeating over and over "Qu'est ce que j'ai fais? (What did I do?)"
One particularly excited protester beside me drew the police nearby and I nearly got hit in the head with a baton. Morgan was dragged into the van. This same protester waited until the police were getting into the van and kicked the door back on them. He got a warning look. The van sped off and I was left, shocked and unable to help.
My friends and I called the legal support number and reported the incident. We speculated about why Morgan had been targeted. He was a prominent activist, but he had no history of any violent protest. He had been wearing a motorcycle helmet - was this enough reason to believe that he was planning violence? As it was, it protected his head from the batons.
Since then I've heard that Morgan was held eight hours without food, then twelve hours without food or water. He was denied access to a phone and to a lawyer. He was led into a room with a TV and told this was a court. He demanded to speak to a lawyer and was eventually given a few minutes on the phone to speak to one. After this, he plead not guilty to charges of uttering a death threat and damaging a police van.
These are only some of my memories of Quebec. There are many positive and negative images rattling around this brain. I`ll share them with you if and when they make sense to me.