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Photograph by Rachel Showstack

Fight the Power: Protestors bearing signs gather before the free trade summit in Quebec.

The View From Quebec

Bringing a sleeping bag into Canada recently became a suspicious activity

By Rachel Showstack

Santa Cruzan Rachel Showstack participated in the demonstration against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Quebec City April 20-22 as part of a 14-member affinity group called the Santa Cruz Cluster. A team of activists with similar goals, the affinity group adopted code names--Kolrobi, Daikon, Gumby--and was committed to looking out for each other. The activists, who had prepared themselves for action by attending a nonviolence training and holding planning meetings, traveled to Quebec City in small groups. What follows are extracts from Showstack's diary.


WHEN QUEBECOIS immigration officials searched through my luggage at customs in Montreal, they questioned me about every item that might suggest I was going to a demonstration. They inspected the books LuLu had taken along with her to study for a UCSC class on 1960s social movements. Reading the back cover of the book, a uniformed woman came across the word "protest."

"Aha!" she seemed to say. "Now we've caught you."

Since we were clearly a serious case, our two questioners called in a third--a large blonde woman who spoke perfect English in a very loud voice. "Are you going to Quebec City?" she boomed.

"No," I said. "We're going to visit my great aunt Terry in Westmount."

"Are you going to Quebec City!?" she repeated, even louder.

"No," said Lulu.

"I'm going to ask you one more time," the large blonde woman yelled. "This is your last chance to tell the truth! Are you going to Quebec City?"

"No," I answered, palms sweating.

The first questioner ordered us to follow her to a waiting room. We were not the first travelers to be detained that night. We sat between a group of five Mexicans and a young couple who looked about our age. The immigration officials hovered over us and muttered to each other in French.

The Canadian government was trying to keep activists from the United States out of the country during the week of the demonstration. The FTAA had so far been negotiated behind closed doors, and the 34 heads of state meeting in Quebec City on the weekend wanted to keep things secretive.

But tens of thousands of protesters were heading to Quebec to express their disapproval of the treaty. "We're going to bring about a situation that will be impossible to ignore," one activist told me.

My belief that the FTAA would lower labor standards and reduce environmental regulations across the Western Hemisphere had made me decide to speak out--my right and duty as a citizen in a democracy, I thought. But in this detainment center, I felt like a criminal.

After two more hours of interrogation and waiting, our questioner finally stamped our passports around 1:30am and wrote a code number below the stamp. "This is a reference to your record," she said. "You are not to leave Montreal while you are in Canada. If we find out that you went to Quebec City, there are going to be problems."

Lulu and I didn't sleep a wink that night. The hostel and the bus station were closed by the time we arrived in Montreal. Walking down the street at 2am with our backpacks, we suspected the police were watching, searching for some indication we might be planning to go to Quebec. A sympathetic taxi driver informed us of an all-night cafe called Second Cup, and left us there to plot our getaway.

Storming the Fortress

BY AROUND 1pm Saturday, six blocks of the road on the other sice of the city from the FTAA summit were filled with protesters ready to march. More were still joining the mass from all directions.

Six of the members of my affinity group covered their faces with bandannas and T-shirts, preparing to break off from the rest of the cluster and participate in direct action at the perimeter. A woman's voice rang out on a megaphone to cheer us on, and we simultaneously began marching and chanting. "Le peuple, uni, jamais ne sera vaincu! The people, united, will never be defeated!"

After a few miles, the march slowed down. "Cluster!" somebody yelled. Quickly, my affinity group gathered in a circle. Our black-clad contingent started putting on rain gear and masking up again. Gumby announced that part of the group would be heading toward the perimeter under the banner of the Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Offensive. They disappeared down the road.

I continued marching with my new, smaller affinity group. We held hands to gather strength and stay together. "Sommet des hypocrites! Bull shit démocratique!" we screamed.

Before I knew it, we were looking at the 15-foot-tall chain-link fence that surrounded the perimeter. Several masked activists were hanging on it, climbing it, shaking it, cutting it with clippers and pulling on ropes attached with carabineers to bring it down.

A line of armed police stood behind the fence, wearing gas masks and helmets, and carrying 4-by-3-foot transparent shields. The first can of tear gas flew into the crowd, and a surge of people ran away from the fence, back into the masses.

Tear gas canisters flew in every direction. As soon as they landed in the crowd, activists threw them directly back at the police. In the midst if it all, I saw a section of the fence floating toward the police line.

Helicopters buzzed overhead, carrying delegates to their meeting place. Little did they know that even within the perimeter they would not be safe. Tear gas--the very weapon the police used against us--would blow back at the negotiators, causing the opening ceremonies to be postponed by 90 minutes and at least one meeting to be canceled.

Sssss! A can of tear gas landed right next to us. I held my vinegar-soaked bandanna to my mouth. My throat burned. Kolrobi coughed as we walked slowly away from the action. Around us, hundreds of people were running. Others stopped and poured water and Maalox on each others' eyes.

About two blocks from the perimeter we noticed people running down a hill away from the road. "They're attacking from behind!" somebody yelled. Tear gas flew into the mass. We followed the crowd across a field and then ran down a snowy hillside.

Missing in Action

THE SANTA CRUZ CLUSTER converged under the freeway Saturday morning after the Spokescouncil meeting. When most of us were already gathered together and waiting for the rest of the crew, Neckbone ran up to the group.

"Check this out," he said, out of breath. "I was walking over here with Daikon and Gumby, and a big gray van pulled up next to us--they were full of armed police--and these two cops jumped out ..."

Gumby ran up to the cluster next. "The cops are after us," he said. "We have to get out of here."

"Where's Daikon?" Kolrobi asked.

"I don't know, but he may have been arrested," said Gumby.

A black-clad woman who looked to be in her mid-20s approached the group. "Do you know about any red actions?" she asked. (Activists at the demonstration who were planning more direct action were calling themselves "red.")

"No," said a member of the cluster, and the woman returned to the picnic table where she had been sitting. She was carrying a brightly colored plastic flower. (I suspected she was an undercover informant, because it was inappropriate to talk about red actions in public, a protocol she would have known, had she been involved.)

A few minutes later, I looked over to the picnic table. The woman was gone. In her place at the picnic table sat a clean-cut young man, holding the same plastic flower in his hand.

"We have to stick together, and we have to be in a large crowd at all times," Neckbone announced. "I need to be as anonymous as possible."

We masked up with bandannas and headed out to meet the union march. While we were waiting on the sidelines for a place to join, I noticed the man with the flower standing directly behind me.

Leaving Quebec

DAIKON WAS released Monday evening, when I was back in Montreal. His charges were dropped.

At the Montreal airport, a customs official asked me for the purpose of my visit to Canada.

"Travel," I said, and she directed me to the baggage check-in.

The forces working to shut me out of the decision-making process could finally relax now that the meetings were over. Nobody was stopping me from going back to California where I wouldn't cause any trouble.

Nobody here was stopping me from going back to California, or giving me problems, because we hadn't managed to shut down their meetings. Even so, I left with a sense of accomplishment. Because of all the media attention we had garnered, which had put pressure on the 34 heads of state to change the way they discuss the issues, people are now more aware of the dangers of trade agreements like the FTAA.

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From the May 9-16, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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