"I'm worried that free trade is leading to the privatization of education," an elementary school teacher tells me. "I want to go to the protests in Quebec City, but is it going to be safe?"
"I think NAFTA has increased the divide between rich and poor," a young
mother tells me, "But if I go to Quebec, will my son get pepper sprayed?"
"I want to go to Quebec City," a Harvard undergraduate active in the
anti-sweatshop movement says, "but I heard no one is getting across the
border to Canada."
"We're not even bothering to go to Quebec City," a student in Mexico City
says. "We can't afford to get arrested in a foreign country."
If you think that the next big crackdown on political protest is going to
take place when 5,000 police officers clash with activists outside the
Summit of the Americas in Quebec City next month, you are mistaken. The
real crackdown is already taking place.
It is happening silently, with no fanfare, every time another would-be
protester decides not to publicly express his or her views about the
largest free trade zone in the world: the proposed Free Trade Area of the
It turns out that the most effective form of crowd control isn't pepper
spray, water cannons, tear gas, or any of the other weapons being readied
by Quebec police in anticipation of the arrival of 34 heads of state. The
most cutting-edge form of crowd control is controlling the crowds before
they converge: this is state-of-the-art protest deterrence -- the silencing
you do yourself.
It happens every time we read another story about how Quebec will be
surrounded by a three-meter high fence. Or about how there's nowhere to
sleep in the city except the prisons, which have been helpfully cleared
out. A month before the Summit, post-card perfect Quebec City has been
successfully transformed into a menacing place, inhospitable to regular
people with concerns about corporate-driven trade and economic
deregulation. Protesting, rather than being a healthy part of democracy,
seems like an extreme and dangerous sport, suitable only for hard-core
activists, with bizarre accessories and doctoral degrees in rock climbing.
More protest deterrence takes place when we accept the stories in the
papers, filled with anonymous sources and unattributed statements, about
how some of these activists are actually "agitators" who are "planning to
use violence," packing bricks and explosives. The only proof provided for
such inflammatory allegations is that "anarchists" are organizing into
"small groups" and these groups are "autonomous," meaning -- gasp! -- they
don't tell each other what to do.
The truth is this: not a single one of the official groups organizing
protests is planning violent action. A couple of the more radical
organizations, including the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, have said they
respect "a diversity of tactics ... ranging from popular education to
direct action." They have said they will not, on principle, condemn other
activists for their tactics.
This admittedly complicated position has been distorted in the press as
tantamount to planning violent attacks on the summit -- which it most
certainly is not. The position has also been a source of frustration for
many activists who argue that it would be infinitely easier if everyone
just signed on to a statement saying the protests will be non-violent.
The problem is that one of the fundamental arguments against the FTAA's
Darwinian economic model is that it increases violence: violence within
poor communities and police violence against the poor. In a speech
delivered last year, Pierre Pettigrew, Minister of International Trade,
helps explain why. In the new economy, he said, "the victims are not only
exploited, they're excluded ... You may be in a situation where you are not
needed to create that wealth. This phenomenon of exclusion is far more
radical than the phenomenon of exploitation."
Indeed it is. Which is why a society that blithely accepts this
included/excluded ledger is an unsafe society. It is filled with people who
have little faith in the system, who feel they have nothing to gain from
the promises of prosperity coming out of gatherings like the Summit of the
Americas, who see the police only as a force of repression.
If this isn't the kind of society we want -- one of included and excluded,
and ever higher walls dividing the two -- then the answer is not for "good"
activists to preemptively condemn "bad" activists. The answer is to reject
the politics of division wholesale. And the best place to do it is in
Quebec City, where the usually invisible wall of exclusion has been made
starkly visible, with a brand-new chain-link fence, and crowd control
methods that aim to keep us out before we even get there.
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