Special Report

PROTEST 101

Tom Fennell April 2 2001
Special Report

PROTEST 101

Tom Fennell April 2 2001

PROTEST 101

Special Report

Tom Fennell

Lily, barely five feet tall but filled with determination, bounds into the hassle line. “Corporations are violent,” the 23-year-old activist yells, her black pigtails swaying behind her as she bounces from one black Doc Marten boot to the other. “They’re destroying the environment and killing people.” Lily has just arrived at a Toronto church where instructors are teaching protesters how to obstruct police and politicians attending the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. If it follows the pattern of numerous faceoffs since the landmark Battle of Seattle in 1999, the Quebec scene could turn violent. So at this session, nearly 400 people, from teenagers to senior citizens, are practising shouting and pushing against one another until the soaring windows in the 153-year-old church start to vibrate. “People aren’t violent,” Lily shouts as the line breaks up. “Corporations are.”

Welcome to boot camp. For two days, Floly Trinity

Church, tucked away behind the Eaton Centre, a sprawling shoppers’ paradise in downtown Toronto, shakes with anti-corporate fervour. “It’s no longer a question of rational debate,” says Alex Kerner, 21, a third-year history student at the University of Toronto, as he prepares for an exercise. “It’s time to mobilize.” A group of Toronto-based activists, calling themselves transAction, designed the event to help prepare Alex, Lily and the others to survive the anticipated melee in Quebec. Four instructors from Calgary, all veterans of West Coast anti-logging protests as well as Seattle, teach their eager students the skills: how to interfere with police, deal with pepper spray, hang banners on buildings. By the time the two days of simulated combat end, the activists are pumped up and ready to protest. “Let’s go to Quebec City,” shouts Jaggi Singh of the Montreal anarchist group Anti-Capitalist Convergence to a chorus of war whoops and applause, “and put some cholesterol in the arteries of capitalism.”

Some anarchists in attendance argue that violence would be acceptable in a confrontation with police in Quebec City. But most of the new recruits in the fight against what they call the “global corporate agenda” want to protest peacefully. They come from nearly every walk of life— retired engineers, students and solitary men in ragged sweaters who have lost their jobs ruefully referring to themselves as “post-industrial men.” There is 74-year-old Ab Kabayama, a soft-spoken retired chemist with a flowing white beard who blames free trade for shredding the social safety net that once protected the poor. Standing nearby, Maria Schneider, a lanky 18-year-old high-school student with a blond brush cut, fears for the environment in a world where, she says, power wielded in boardrooms seems to supersede that of government. “When I saw the size of the free-trade zone they are talking about,” says Schneider, “I knew something was wrong. I want to go to Quebec to make my voice heard.”

Their instructors, led by B.C. environmentalist Alan Keane, 40, devote two days to turning this diverse group into well-organized protesters. Their goal: to stop talks aimed at joining 34 nations of North and South America—all but Communist Cuba—in a hemispheric free-trade zone. Before the training begins, they warn the class that there II are likely undercover police in the room. And to protect themselves from arrest, the instructors make it clear they are not telling anyone to protest, only that they can do so if they choose. “Everybody in this room has power,” Keane tells them. “By showing up here today, you have begun to exercise it.”

Most of the participants have never been in a large demonstration, let alone a violent one. To help simulate the experience, Keane orders them to form two hassle lines and face each other. One side pretends they are delegates from a small South American country trying to get into a building in Quebec City.

The other side are protesters determined to block the delegates’ passage. The noise is deafening and the shouting continues for 10 minutes, until the instructors divide everyone into groups of 20 to 30 people to discuss how they felt in the confrontation. “I didn’t feel right blocking someone from a poor country,” admits one. Don’t worry, responds another, “the delegates at these meetings will all be rich.”

The topic switches to the conference’s security forces. Never turn your backs on the police, the instructors warn, and watch out for “snatch squads” of police trying to sweep in and seize the ringleaders. The participants learn techniques such as piling on to prevent arrests: a protester about to be grabbed drops to the ground and fellow demonstrators pile

Some activists argue

violence would be acceptable when confronting police in Quebec City

on top, making it difficult for police to reach their suspect.

To achieve their goal of disrupting the conference, the instructors tell them, they will have to defeat the police. And that, it seems, can only be done by organizing themselves into “affinity groups.” Some members of each group will carry medical supplies or food, while others will be charged with operating communication systems. The affinity groups are to be part of larger “clusters,” each of which will carry out specific assignments in Quebec. Individual protesters or small groups separated from the larger demonstration can easily be arrested, but tight-knit cells and clusters that are constantly moving make it harder for police to target individuals.

The group also hears that protesters disabled by pepper spray are vulnerable to arrest. Instructor Chloe Sage appears in complete battle gear, demonstrating the equipment needed to counteract an array of police weapons, including chemical sprays, rubber bullets and batons. She wears a flailface gas mask, but also carries a simple white filter soaked in lemon oil and vinegar in her backpack in case she loses her mask in a melee. “I had several of these in Seattle,” she says, holding the little filters. “I handed them out to people who were being gassed. ”To prevent tear gas and pepper spray from burning the skin, Sage advises wearing layers of synthetic clothes that can be peeled away if they are exposed to a chemical spray. The group learns not to wear perfume or makeup—they can absorb pepper spray and tear gas.

Instructors also warn the would-be protesters that some will be hurt, possibly even killed in Quebec City. Josh Hehner, a veteran of several violent demonstrations against Premier Mike Harris’s government in Toronto, is studying to become a paramedic. Hanging from his sturdy backpack is a roll of toilet paper, which he says makes a great bandage in emergencies, and a roll of duct tape to seal the cuffs of pants and shirts against chemical sprays. Hehner, who says each protest he attends seems to be more violent than the last, expects to stay busy tending to the wounded in Quebec City. The group divides, however, over just how violent the protesters should be.

Those who believe in demonstrating peacefully are told to embrace a “diversity of tactics.” Under this philosophy, activists would not condemn a protester who attacked and injured a delegate or police officer. They should support one another and accept whatever level of violence an individual chooses to use, says the anarchist Singh. “It isn’t the people who throw stones at windows who are the enemy,” says Singh. “It’s the people inside who are the enemy.” Most, however, reflect the views of Aron Veldstra, a towering 19-year-old printer. “I just want to push the corporations back a bit,” says Veldstra. “I want to help people.” Activist Kate Chung, a 59-year-old grandmother, is no less determined. “I’m doing this for my granddaughter,” she says. “I want the world to be a better place for her.” Right or wrong, that search for a better world is the motivation that brings most of them shouting to the hassle line. ED