Enemies of Trade

The FTAA protesters in Quebec were misguided. So was the police-state response to them.


At one end of the park, the crowd let out a loud huzzah at the urging of a passionate speaker, then streamed out of the park and into the downtown streets. "FTAA: Fuck You, Go Away!" A motorcycle cop roared by at top speed.

I cringed, wondering again just what I was doing at Ground Zero of the world anti-globalization movement, feeling distinctly like a pilgrim in an unholy land. Blocks away, 34 heads of state -- along with their families, their factotums, their foreign ministers, and several thousand journalists -- representing every nation in the Americas save Cuba were gathered in the historic heart of Quebec City for the third Summit of the Americas. The stated goal of the April meeting was to create a Free Trade Area of the Americas, better known simply as the FTAA. In the streets surrounding the historic district were some 30,000 protesters from Canada, the United States, and even further away, expressing their collective indignation at the prospect of a hemispheric trading bloc. And between those two groups was what has become the symbol of the weekend, a 2.3-mile concrete and chain-link security perimeter, inside which only the neighborhood's residents and workers, summit attendees, and registered journalists were permitted to pass.

I had come to town on a chartered school bus, in the company of some leftist friends (members of a group called the International Socialists) who've learned to ignore my libertarian affection for unplanned, unpredictable trade across national borders. As we crossed the St. Lawrence River into the suburb of Sainte-Foy, the bridge had been lined with police cars about every 100 feet. Our affinity group leader admonished us to write the number for the counter-summit's free legal aid association on our arms in permanent marker.

The nerve center for the protests was Laval University, located about two miles west of the city center. (The university had opened its buildings to the protesters, transforming its lecture halls and gymnasium into tightly packed barracks.) I met up with a large group marching from Laval to downtown, an eclectic assortment of new arrivals, jubilant and expectant, whooping, clapping, beating drums, and chanting "The people united will never be defeated!" in three languages. The air smelled strongly of marijuana -- a scent vastly preferable to that of the tear gas that would permeate the rest of the day. The protest signs ranged from "Continuous Growth Is the Philosophy of the Cancer Cell" to the more distinctly hostile "Eat the rich!" (I found that one a bit unsettling, if only because the left's leader in Parliament, Alexa McDonough, has defined "the rich" as those making more than C$60,000 a year -- around $40,000 in U.S. money.) Several placards deployed the stern visage of Ché Guevara to condemn the U.S.'s multi-billion-dollar drug eradication folly, Plan Colombia. (See "The Drug War's Southern Front," April 2000.) I found myself agreeing with the crowd on that issue, if not on their choice of spokesman. Likewise, I rather fancied the International Socialists' signs urging Canadians to "Jail the Liberals, Free the Refugees, Stop Attacks on Immigration!"

As we marched down boulevard René-Lévesque toward downtown, residents of the neighborhood we were invading came out to watch as we passed. A few faces showed stony hostility, some passive interest, others flagrant support. They reminded me of spectators at a Fourth of July parade. A police helicopter roared overhead and the people booed. "Say no to the racist police!" "Fuck neo-colonialism!" A mocking rendition of "O Canada" broke out amid jeers.

The crowd came to a stop at rue de Bougainville: A small contingent of riot police was up ahead. The crowd instantly tensed. The black-clad, truncheon-wielding "Eat the Rich" crowd put on their masks and bandanas. Everyone else began to quietly worry. A protest leader with a megaphone delivered the status report: "The block is clear. The police are still there." He recommended that the march turn right on rue de Bougainville and continue to the Plains of Abraham, then meet up there for solidarity with the labor groups. We could continue up ahead, but there was a risk of riot cops and tear gas. The hard cases in black charged forward with evident relish; most of the remainder stayed at the intersection for a few moments, visibly unhappy about the march being split. Ultimately, almost everyone moved on to the Plains of Abraham and I found myself reasonably content to follow them.

The overwhelming majority of the protesters during the conference were peaceful; at most, only 500 were violent, many of them members of the anarchist Black Bloc. Out of a total of nearly 30,000 protesters, that is indeed a tiny percentage. Yet in absolute numbers, 500 young, fit troublemakers is more than enough to wreak considerable havoc. And that figure doesn't count the many nonviolent protesters who, not wanting to be injured or arrested, might have thrown a tear gas canister back over a wall or shoved a riot cop away.

The labor groups may have been the de facto big cheeses at the protest, but their main show was studiously ignored by both the media and the police. That afternoon, 20,000-plus union members and their supporters marched north of downtown in the protest-friendly "green zone," unmolested by a single riot cop, with only a paltry number of reporters and photographers in tow. Not that I'm blaming the press. The far more interesting events were happening downtown, where several thousand remaining protesters were gathered in the general vicinity of the notorious barricade, the "red zone." On the other side of the barricade were hordes of federal, provincial, and local riot policemen armed with tear gas and rubber bullet rifles, plus Canadian army troops with dogs.

From a convenience store near the battlefield, I phoned one of my socialist friends and arranged to meet him on avenue de Sallaberry, near the purported fall-back zone. (This turned out to be probably the most heavily policed spot in the city, aside from the barricade itself.) The main group of demonstrators was moving north in a colorful parade. I met up with the International Socialists, who were preparing to head up René-Lévesque toward the barricade. My friend was wearing an Israeli gas mask. I was kindly loaned a bandana soaked in lemon juice -- a helpful formula for reducing the respiratory effects of tear gas, though it doesn't do much for your eyes.

By wearing it, I committed a misdemeanor: The cities of Quebec and Sainte-Foy had banned bandanas, handkerchiefs, gas masks, or anything else that would interfere with effective gassing. As I donned my makeshift mask, a stranger bearing leaflets asked me, with deadly earnestness, "Sir, are you a Bolshevik?" The situation at once seemed both outlandishly ridiculous and deadly serious. I was now in harm's way.

Marching toward the barricade, I was struck by the eerie silence of it all. At the same time, my eyes began to water slightly from the distant clouds of tear gas. There was a bitter taste on my tongue, and I felt an urge to cough. Off in the distance, riot cops were advancing toward us, and a large cloud of gas began to blow in our direction. Another tear gas canister exploded a short distance away, and someone shouted, "Fuck George W. Bush!" The crowd was turned around, at least a quarter-mile from the barricade, and we began to retreat back up René-Lévesque. There must have been two or three thousand of us retreating from a hundred or so riot cops. Several more canisters went off. Helicopters hovered overhead. Looking up, I noticed several sharpshooters perched on the taller buildings. As we passed avenue Turnbull, we caught sight of another line of riot police flanking us from down that street. The crowd began to panic. Cooler heads shouted, "Don't run, don't run," and the retreat remained orderly, if painful.

At that point, I decided I'd had enough, and a group of us headed a few blocks north to a small park, where we sat and rehydrated, discussing what had happened. Several of my friends had been down at the barricade itself; they were soaked from head to toe and flushed from the effects of the gas. They had been participating in a peaceful sit-in at the barricade when the police fired tear gas at them and chased them off with a water cannon. The cops had also been firing rubber bullets indiscriminately: They're supposed to be directed at legs, but several people had been hit in the throat. Off in the distance, I heard a concussion grenade explode.

I began to ponder which was more discouraging to me: the presence of so many people so woefully informed about trade or the police-state response to them. At one point, we counted 30 tear-gas canisters fired in under a minute. The provincial Sûreté alone fired 1,700 canisters over the weekend, and the Mounties and the Quebec City cops probably each fired as many again themselves. The Sûreté du Quebec also fired some 320 rubber bullets; the total for all police was probably around 1,000. And then there was the wall itself, a presence so medieval in its implications that some protesters even constructed a large wooden catapult to fire teddy bears into the police. Meanwhile, the authorities outlawed handkerchiefs, attacked people sitting outside its security perimeter, and gassed nearly the entire downtown.

I was not the only free-trader in Quebec to be alarmed at the police response. Former Industry Minister Sinclair Stevens -- a veteran of the Mulroney administration, which had negotiated the original Free Trade Agreement with the United States -- wrote an excellent editorial in the Toronto Globe and Mail that summed it up as a "police state in the making." Yes, the delegates' security must be guaranteed, and the violent elements must be controlled. But at what cost? And when police attack peaceful protesters, who is to blame when more violence results?

Try as I might, I can't condemn the protesters (except, of course, for the deliberately violent fringe with their baseball bats and Molotov cocktails). Some of them are my friends, and nearly all honestly hope for a world where everyone is rich, secure, and able to pursue their dreams freely. If these desires manifest themselves in a simplistic anti-capitalist message, then we on the free trade side of the debate can only blame ourselves. Too often we assume that nothing can stand in the way of free trade, that globalization is inevitable, and that engaging the other side in a constructive debate is unnecessary or irrelevant.

The case for free trade has been made primarily by cretinous conservative politicians and pundits, who seldom resist ridiculing earnest youngsters looking for a better world. Some even defend the repression of non-violent protesters. I have heard them called "global village idiots," "incoherent morons," and "flat earth advocates." World Trade Organization President Michael Moore once remarked that he would like to vomit all over the demonstrators. With allies like this, who needs enemies?

True free trade will bring great benefits to us all, especially to the world's poor and downtrodden. Those who understand and support this should not leave its defense to those who would use police terror, suppress free speech, or belittle their opponents. The advancement of liberty and prosperity is too important.