Published in Writing From the Red Zone: Voices of the Anti-Globalization Movement anthology, ed. Neil Coletta | Del Suego Press, 2001
“I’ve decided that the term ‘tear-gas’ doesn’t quite capture the real experience involved. Even from close to a block away the white smoke pouring from the canister causes severe burning to your eyes and throat and immediately empties your nose of whatever snot you’ve accumulated for months. At ground zero the gas makes you vomit and nearly lose consciousness. Sometimes the canister projectiles hit people and split their heads open. Fortunately, this morning I found myself suffering from just the burning eyes and running nose class of symptoms. This morning tear-gas was the Bolivian government’s official response to a huge popular revolt here, over something very basic: water.”
– Jim Shultz, February 4, 2000
THE ABOVE QUOTE is an eyewitness account of an inspiring rebellion against corporate domination. No, it was not from Quebec City, and nor was it from Seattle. The rebellion occurred last year in Bolivia, South America.
In late 1999, under direct pressure from the World Bank, the Bolivian government privatized the city of Cochabamba’s public water system, selling it off to an American multinational corporation. The result: price hikes for water users, more than doubling for many families. But instead of passively accepting this injustice, only one of many caused by ‘structural adjustment policies’ of the past decades, the people of Cochabamba rose up and organized a general strike, shutting down the city for four days. Roads were blockaded, and a large peaceful march was planned.
In response, the government brought in more than a thousand police and soldiers, who took control of the city centre and attacked the protesters with tear-gas and rubber bullets. One hundred seventy-five protesters were injured. Two students were blinded. And, after the government declared martial law, one 17-year-old boy was shot in the face and killed, followed by five more deaths.
Eventually, however, the government of Bolivia and Bechtel Corporation were forced to back down in the face of the widespread citizens’ uprising, and the people of Cochabamba took control of their water system. It was a victory that has inspired activists around the world.
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ON SATURDAY, APRIL 21, I sat peacefully with an alleyway full of activists in front of a line of riot police, in Quebec City. The police in the front line held shields and billy clubs, and hiding behind them were several officers with tear-gas launchers and plastic bullet guns at the ready. They wore black body armour, including black helmets and thick gloves, and I laughed when I imagined they had changed their motto from “To serve and protect” to, “Luke, join the Dark Side of the Force.”
While the riot police guarded the small section of security perimeter fence that had been dismantled by protesters, the people sitting peacefully in the same alley were humming one long note together, praying silently that the police would not use tear-gas on us, or worse. More police climbed over the bulldozer with which they had blocked up the hole. Being at the front-line of the sit down protest, I prepared for the worst. The narrow alley was sealed off at one end by the riot squad, and at the other by the dense crowd converging on the street behind me; if the police attacked, there was nowhere I could go to escape.
I looked at the other activists with me at the front. Most were women, and the average age was closer to my parents’ than to my own. They had been in situations like this before, but for me it was my first time and I felt painfully vulnerable. I had seen the police inflict much pain and suffering over the previous days, and realized it might be my turn to receive that.
But together we felt strong, and together we were ready to hold that alley in opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, no matter what violence they inflicted on us. As I focussed on grounding myself to find strength, one of the women began to read from the Water Declaration prepared by the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia and international water activists:
We, citizens of Bolivia, Canada, United States, India, Brazil …
A hush fell over the sitting crowd in the alleyway.
Farmers, workers, indigenous people, students, professionals, environmentalists, educators, nongovernmental organizations, retired people …
I listened as these words resonated in me, realizing that the declaration included me, that we were in solidarity with the people of Cochabamba in both our words and our actions.
… gather together today in solidarity to combine forces in the defence of the vital right to water.
The police shuffled in their places, adjusted their grip on their billy clubs, readied their tear-gas launchers. I was not sure if they were relaxing or preparing.
It was a powerful moment. When the declaration had been read, someone else stood up, holding a white flower, and slowly walked towards the line of police less than eight paces away. They placed the flower at the feet of one of the police officers, and returned to the crowd. Two more people did the same. The Cochabamba Water Declaration was then laid next to the flowers, at the feet of the heavily-armoured riot cops, and I walked forward to greet the police with my hands together in peace.
We decided that we had succeeded in maintaining peace, had held the alley nobly, and had raised awareness about the dangers of corporate control of water, and so we applauded the police for their restraint and then flowed, holding hands, out of the alley. I say flowed, because that is how I remember us moving; this group was based on the image of a Living River – fluid, determined, powerful, but graceful. We rejoined the rest of the group on the street, mostly dressed in blue and carrying flowing blue cloth above them to identify them with a flowing river.
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DESPITE THE MEDIA SENSATIONALISM about riots and protesters clashing with police, this was far from being representative of the weekend. Yes, the Black Bloc anarchist movement was active, struggling against injustice by wearing black masks and confronting police – and sometimes throwing rocks as well. Their heroes are the Zapatista army fighting for indigenous rights in Chiapas, Mexico.
But the vast majority of us struggled against global injustice without physical confrontation, and without violence. Humour was a huge part of many actions. One group put out a call prior to the summit, to all model airplane enthusiasts – the plan was to breach the security perimeter with annoying model airplanes dragging slogans and banners, which would then do loops and tricks above the heads of the bewildered riot cops.
I spotted someone dressed as the Easter bunny carrying a hand-basket full of chocolate eggs, and handing out candy to demonstrators in Saturday’s massive labour-led march. Later, at a spot where the perimeter fence had been ripped down and activists were preparing for a lengthy stand-off with police, I saw the morale-boosting bunny again. Between us and the line of police was a gap of about fifteen paces, which was slowly filling with acrid tear-gas fumes. The brave bunny was busily hopping along the remains of the security fence, right in front of the police line, hiding Easter eggs on the concrete blocks.
One of the organized anarchist groups (not to be confused with the Black Bloc anarchists) had built a large, wooden medieval catapult, and were launching cute stuffed toys over the perimeter fence at the overly-serious riot cops. It was a light-hearted attack on the fortress-mentality of the summit’s security operations. We could not stop the trade meetings inside, but perhaps we could torment them by having more fun than they were having inside their cage.
I was inspired by a women’s action, called Weaving Webs of Solidarity: women activists, who had received thread and strands of cloth from women around the world, carried these to the security fence, wove them together into an interconnected web, and then tied the web onto the cold metal wires of the fence. It was a symbol of solidarity and interconnectedness between women, and also of reclaiming the ugly barrier between us and democracy.
For a time I also followed some joyous Radical Cheerleaders through the demonstration. Dressed in the colours of resistance – red and black – and with ponytails, pompoms, and felt cutout hearts pinned to their shirts, they lightened the mood of the crowd and energized it at the same time:
R is for radical, and
A is for all right
D is for democracy, and
I is for in sight
C is for cheering, and
A for anarchy
L is for lovin’, and that’s just what you’ll see.
Raaaa-dical – don’t let the police know
Raaaa-dical – or they won’t let you go!
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I HOPE I’M GIVING THE IMPRESSION that the demonstrations were a lot more organized than many people imagine. They were.
To bear witness to the weekend and inform people around the world about what was happening, we had an ‘independent media centre’ (Centre for Media Alternatives Quebec, or CMAQ), brimming with brave and passionate journalists snapping photos, filming, interviewing and reporting from the front lines. Photos, videos, newscasts and stories were uploaded onto the web site throughout the weekend, even while riot police laid siege to the media centre on Saturday night.
To house the masses, we had a ‘convergence centre’ space staffed around the clock by volunteers coordinating lodging around the city.
To feed the masses, we had a soup kitchen run by volunteers from the Food Not Bombs and People’s Potato collectives, providing free vegetarian food for all.
To give us energy and strength, we had “militant drum corps” – some with actual snare and bass drums, others with plastic tubs and water tanks strapped around their necks – marching in formation. Once, when police were using tear-gas to clear an intersection of protesters, everyone was trying to get away from the smoke, including me. But marching up the hill, towards the smoke-filled intersection, came a dozen marching drummers pounding out a spellbinding beat. Suddenly, people escaping the gas decided that it wasn’t so bad after all, that we did not have to give up the intersection so easily, as long as we had the drummers with us. And so we turned around, and went back into the smoke.
To inform us, we had a People’s Summit and ‘teach-in’ forums, which brought together prominent activists from around the hemisphere, including indigenous leaders, labour activists, human rights workers, environmentalists, and others. Out of this summit came a new version of the Alternatives for the Americas document, which must be read by anyone who claims we do not have concrete proposals for a better world.
To heal our stinging eyes and burning faces from tear-gas, our bleeding wounds and battered limbs from plastic bullets, and to soothe our frightened minds, we had teams of roving volunteer medics, bearing water, vinegar, mineral oil and rubbing alcohol (for cleaning off chemicals), bandanas, herbal remedies, and lots of emotional support. And they almost always seemed to appear magically at the moment they were most needed. They also had an indoor medical centre for treating activists.
On Friday afternoon, the first full day of protest, I stood alone right up against the security perimeter, my hands and face pressed up against the cold chain link fence, and my eyes and heart trying in vain to reach out to the robotic-looking riot police on the other side. Twenty paces behind me was a crowd of drumming, dancing activists. Behind them was a large crowd of very peaceful supporters, holding banners and watching. The twenty paces between them and the fence was empty, like a No Man’s Land; this whole intersection was a non-confrontational “green” protest zone (the zones had been planned before, so that families and children could come to protest without worrying about being tear-gassed or arrested). I and a few other peaceful activists stood for hours in front of the fence; I was trying to make eye-contact with the officers, somewhat successfully.
One activist came to stand next to me. When he held a sign up against the fence, a riot cop burst through the line of police, pushed his tear-gas launcher through the chain link fence, and fired directly at the protester’s face, from within a few feet. It grazed fast past the side of the peaceful protester’s head, but only because he dropped as soon as he realized they were firing a boiling-hot metal canister at his face, from a gun. The police then lobbed two smoking tear-gas canisters over the fence, for no apparent reason – the crowd was still twenty paces from the perimeter, and they were still dancing. But we stayed at the fence. Five minutes later, the same thing happened when two people tried to hold a banner up against the fence, and the same riot cop shot one directly in the face. I yelled in anguish as I watched my friend fall and the cop aim again, firing another canister nearby. I had by this time withstood five ‘rounds’ of tear-gas without treatment or fresh air, and having only a dust mask and work goggles for protection. My eyes and face burned intensely. My throat began to tighten and close. The painful tears streaming from my eyes prevented me from seeing, and I dropped to the ground in intense pain. In a panic, my body tried to vomit but nothing came out, and I could not breathe through my wrenching throat. I was so afraid – here I was in the middle of a war-zone, unable to see or move or even breathe.
But I felt a warm hand on my shoulder, and a voice close by said softly, “Just breathe deeply. Do you need water?” My panic disappeared, and I was helped to my feet and away from the fence. The medic who had rescued me cleaned my eyes out with water, and kept her hand on my shoulder to calm me down. She was like a guardian angel. I thanked her sincerely and we hugged, then I returned to the fence, ready for more. The comradeship I felt hugging her had brought back my energy and my commitment to making a world where people support each other like she supported me.
And I will never forget the power of thousands of people on Saturday night, under the highway overpass, everyone clacking on the highway railings and on anything else they could find with sticks and stones: Clack clack clack… Clack clack clack… Clack clack clack… The strange sound could be heard everywhere in the city, because of the acoustics of the overpass. And the police far above on the streets of the city could not stand it; the noise of solidarity was giving the activists in the streets so much strength that the tear-gas was useless against them. So in response, the riot police began to fire tear-gas and hand-sized plastic bullets down into the clacking crowd, whose clacking just got louder and louder in response.
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BY SUNDAY, most of us were tired, sore and drained. Some were badly injured; a friend of mine was hospitalized after a plastic bullet hit him in the kidney and caused internal bleeding; another activist was shot in the throat with a plastic bullet. The Summit of the Americas was coming to a close, and delegates were being whisked out of the city in fancy helicopters. The perimeter fence was opened in the afternoon, though the air was still painful to the eyes. I walked around the fence with two wonderful friends, visiting the places where we had been tear-gassed, where the Living River had read the Cochabamba Water Declaration, where we had danced, where we had sung, where I had stood at the fence on Friday. And my two wonderful friends were in tears when they found the place they – a menacing group of three unarmed, colourful young women in cheerleading outfits – had been targeted and tear-gassed directly by riot cops, and had fallen to the ground in confusion and fear, completely alone in the empty street and without help.
We needed closure. And as we walked around the perimeter fence, we picked up the signs and banners which had fallen, and we propped and tied them to the fence. We retied the cloth strands of the women’s solidarity web where they had come untied. We picked up flowers which had fallen and gently placed them on the fence. And I thought about how, always after conflict, there are people like us, who pick up the pieces, who retie the webs – bravely, and undeterred.