Saturday, September 01, 2007

Classes, Cops and Liberal Spin: Thinking About Montebello

By now it is old news that three police agents (poorly) disguised as members of the Black Bloc were outed on Tear Gas Monday, August 20th when over a thousand people marched against George Bush, Stephen Harper and Felipe Calderon in Montebello, Quebec.

Captured on video, the three agents were about twice as buff as your average Black Blocker, masked up and wearing right-wing slogans on their t-shirts (now there's something to ponder...), holding very large rocks. What one sees on the youtube video is trade unionist Dave Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, as he harangues the three until they end up allowing themselves to be "arrested" by the Quebec Provincial Police.

As the video was accessed tens of thousands of times on the internet in the days following the demo some mainstream journalists began asking questions, and after initially denying it, eventually the QPP was forced to come clean: the three were in fact cops.

The State claims that the three were in the demo looking to identify "troublemakers", that they were handed rocks by "extremists" and when they refused to throw them their cover was blown.

All of which is, of course, bullshit.

But we have to be careful while saying so, because there are two kinds of reactions to this police provocation, and while both are ostensibly "anti-cop" one is based on superficial analysis and is fundamentally anti-radical, whereas our goal should always be to deepen our analysis and clear the way for a more militant movement practice.

With this goal in mind, i am afraid that what follows is a somewhat long and tedious post. Indeed, i almost didn't bother with this, because i realize that there's a real "signal to noise" problem any time you try and nail down all the little facts and details which are necessary to explain when things are being distorted. i also hesitated as groups like the Council of Canadians, and people like Dave Coles remain within the broad progressive movement, and are not enemies, although they're not quite our friends either. Their interests are not our interests, and they themselves know this and rarely hesitate to put their own agenda first, even when it means trashing us.

So as a tiny contribution to developing an anti-capitalist movement which fights, and also in the interests of plain old honesty (which is something we should all value), here is my take on the 20th. You'll see a lot here which is based on what i myself witnessed that day, and also on what people who i will not name have told me; i realize that how one reacts do this will have to do with one's own preconceptions, but that does seem unavoidable under the circumstances...

The Liberal Cliche: Bad Cops vs. Peaceful Protesters
Anyone approaching someone while masked and armed with a weapon is just wrong. Anyone who supports direct action and wears a mask is just dumb. They should go back to the way Gandhi did it.
- our "ally" Dave Coles
quoted in the Montreal Gazette August 31st 2007

The black bloc should be immediately disbanded and anyone that dresses in their garb and threatens to engage in violence at a protest should be exposed to the media for what they are - dirty cowboy cops who think their job is to spy on and abuse peaceful protesters, scum who prey on the weak and give good police a bad name while ensuring the right to protest is chilled.
- Paul Joseph Watson in his anti-SPP article
on the right-wing Prison Planet website

Essentially, the anti-radical version of Tear Gas Monday goes something like this:
  • protesters of the 20th had gathered to express their democratic opinion in a peaceful manner
  • this purely peaceful protest was so threatening that the police needed to clear it out or discredit it
  • in order to accomplish this agents provocateurs were sent in with a mission to stir up trouble
  • the provocateurs were exposed by Dave Coles, thus preventing the police from attacking and saving the protesters' credibility
This story is particularly appealing to social-democrats and right-wing opponents of the SPP, who feel reinforced not only in their own identity (as "responsible law abiding citizens") but also their political conception of Canada (as a "democratic" country whose sovereignty is threatened by Stephen Harper and American imperialism). In this story it is the social democrats themselves (in the person of trade unionist Dave Coles) who effectively repel the police threat.

Left unspoken is the fact that within the left the soc-dems are the main opposition to radical anti-capitalists, and in this version the latter (which means us) are left looking "objectively" as bad as the State.

In a demonstration of between one and two thousand people, spread out over a good 500 meters, different folks can have very different experiences. Depending on which crowd you're hanging out with, your preconceptions, and even just the random chance of looking this way or that at a critical moment, different people may experience the same series of events quite differently.

Nevertheless, over a week after the fact, the many reports available on the internet and opportunities to listen to what others who were there have to say, have convinced me that this story is a distortion, and one whose limited veracity is in fact less important than the way is which it can be instrumentalized against the radical left...

A More Honest Account

The demonstration on Tear Gas Monday was spread out and could appear very different depending on where one was standing. The actual entrance to Chateau Montebello - where Harper, Bush and Calderon were meeting - was behind a line of police, backed up by further police reserves, beyond a fence, and (according to the media) protected by snipers beyond that point. There was never any hope or plan, even among militants, of actually breaching all of these defenses. Nevertheless, there was a mandate from a consulta leading up to the event to get as close to the Chateau as possible, and many people came hoping to push the police lines back as close to the fence (where the road to the Chateau left rue Notre Dame) as possible.

At the same time, other people had no desire to push at the police lines. While some of these folks nevertheless milled about at the demo's western edge and were perhaps sympathetic to the militants, others hung out or stood around or sat down on the road all the way back past the Crevier gas station on the corner of the 323, effectively out of sight and earshot of the western front.

All the while there was a line of police along the north side of rue Notre Dame stretching from the 323 all the way to the more heavily fortified police line at the western edge. Most of these cops were actually in the local cemetery, which led one of my smarter friends to suggest that perhaps they were there to make sure the dead did not rise up against them :)

At various points, the cops could have rushed the demonstration from the north and attempted a mass arrest; that they did not is indicative of the fact that to do so would have automatically led to a major political defeat for the State. Both because of the level of violence they would have encountered (as many people were not committed to simple non-violent resistance), and because the simple arrest numbers would have shown that large numbers of people had gathered to protest (Harper would later try to imply that there were only a few hundred there).

In other words, a heavy confrontation, even with unbridled police violence, was more a risk for the State than for our side. Nevertheless, the demonstration was always vulnerable on its northern flank.

As for the south side of the road: there was a small fence there and then a wooded area, beyond which lay Bush, Harper and Calderon, our three stooges. A few folks would enter this area from time to time without anything bad happening, but the demo as a whole had no desire to test the claims of snipers protecting the Chateau...

Along the western edge, where the police line separated the crowd from the actual gateway that led to the Chateau, people were being shoved and were shoving back. The police were especially aggressive just off the road at the south west corner, where some kids were doing passive resistance and some guy was driving folks crazy chanting"Ohm". As for the shoving that occurred on the road, it would be silly to get into semantics over "who started it": there were large numbers on each side and there's no way of my knowing. It would be naive to deny that the police may have shoved first, it would be dishonest to claim that nobody on our side would have tried to shove if they hadn't. Unlike liberals or kindergarten children, we have no real interest in obsessing over who went first... pushing back police lines is a completely legitimate part of movement building.

During the course of the afternoon police pepper sprayed folks, and sent out several volleys of tear gas. Those who go hit of course included many who had not personally been involved in anything unpeaceful. In a proper response people were always quick to fill the space left as others ran off to get their eyes dowsed with water, so despite the discomfort the police were unable to push protesters back from this west edge. This is a good thing.

Again purposefully ignoring questions of "who started it", throughout the afternoon many small rocks (at times they seemed more like pebbles) were tossed at police along this western edge. i say "tossed" because that's what i often saw: literally one cop who might be on their softball team was actually having fun catching some of these stones as if they were fly balls!

Similarly, bottles were thrown... empty plastic water bottles, the kind that have zero chance of hurting someone unprotected, were being chucked at cops in full riot gear...

My point is not to belittle or praise these actions on the part of our comrades, simply to attempt to contextualize: if most people were not participating in this stuff, a hundred or more did prove themselves willing to technically "assault a police officer", but the general feeling was obviously such that almost nobody seemed willing to do so in a way that would actually risk injuring a cop. It was symbolic. Again, not belittling or praising, simply trying to talk about where we are at.

The police did not attempt a sweep or mass arrests, which would have been the only way to definitely put a stop to all this. And would, by pig logic, have been justified. This contradicts the soc-dem version of police having to plant agents in order to provoke mass arrests: if the cops wanted to try and nab everyone they had their excuse. (Note that in total only four people would be arrested during the entire day's events.)

As to the real Black Bloc and the maoists, each of which i assume did come prepared for heavier action... i can only guess as to why this was never followed through on. Again, not a condemnation, it is possible that these folks simply saw that the crowd was not choosing to engage in a heavier level of confrontation, and so chose not to up the ante.

Which would have been perfectly reasonable.

The Undercovers
On the famous youtube video one can see Dave Coles yelling at the undercover cops, who eventually retreat behind the police lines where they pretend to be arrested. Two things are not shown here, both of which have been told to me over the past ten days. First, the undercovers were first identified, confronted, surrounded, and "escorted" to the point where Coles joined the fray by the real Black Bloc. Second: Coles had previously accused other people, who were definitely "real" protesters, of being cops. Presumably because they were masked and acting militant.

In other words, it was the militant faction who were able to take decisive action against the State's agents, and in so doing they were obviously not motivated by some kind of liberal desire to "keep the peace". Coles' actions against the undercovers, while correct and perhaps involving some personal bravery, seem like a case of a stopped clock being right twice a day...

As for why the undercovers were there, the soc-dems explanation ("to provide police with an excuse to attack the demonstration") seems unlikely. As mentioned above, the cops don't need an excuse but if they did, well several comrades on the western flank could have provided them with one. In any case, that would have been the plausible place to try and start something heavier. Having been there all day nervously watching the line of cops on the north side of rue Notre Dame with nobody keeping them back, at the time my feeling was simply that they had strict instructions not to sweep the entire demo.

If not plain provocation, i can imagine two possible reasons why the undercovers were there.

At first i thought it was possible the QPP might be telling the truth: the undercovers may have been hoping to blend in with the crowd in order to arrest "extremists" (that means us, btw). Given that the militant edge of the demonstration is of critical importance, that we are not so weak as to simply "protest", that some people are intent on resisting... it seemed to me that this was plausible. And even now it still strikes me as more likely that the three pigs were there to target the Black Bloc than to frame the social democrats. (In which case their choice of wearing right-wing slogans on their shirts would be indicative of a major intelligence failure!)

But then when some comrades explained where the youtube video had been filmed (see map above), something else began to seem far more likely, namely that the three cops were part of the State's ongoing psychological operation which was intended to set the protesters against the townspeople.

Already, police had sent letters to everyone in the region warning them that rioters might loot their homes and businesses ("keep valuable objects away from windows" was one piece of scaremongering advice they offered). The media had played things up in the days before, talking about businesses boarding up their windows and people leaving town. Then after all this build-up, on the day of the demo itself the cops - who at all times had hundreds in reserve at the Chateau - made a point of maintaining no presence at all around local homes and businesses, practically inviting these phantom rioters - or perhaps their own undercovers - to attack.

Remember: the agents were not at the heavier western edge of the demo, but were back around a Crevier gas station on the corner of the 323, where protesters were being welcomed to come in to use the toilets and get water. What strikes me as most likely is that these three cops were waiting for some journalists to be around, at which point they would have attacked the gas station, or roughed up locals who were hanging out around their homes further east along rue Notre Dame. The anti-capitalist resistance would have then seemed completely depoliticized, transformed into pictures of irrational violence which could threaten anyone anywhere for no reason at all. Such images of "anarchists" attacking ordinary people would have scored a significant victory for the police and a defeat for our side.

As it happened, the undercovers were exposed, and amongst the protesters nobody had any intention of doing any damage to any of the townspeople. Nobody wanted to target their homes or their businesses. They were in no way viewed as the enemy.

For their part, the townspeople largely saw through the police crap quickly enough. Perhaps in this regard it is worth noting that in the days before the 20th activists (and not from the soc-dem groups!) had traveled throughout the area meeting with local people and explaining our intentions to them. As a result, people seemed broadly sympathetic. Indeed, two days after the protest the town's mayor thanked protesters for having such good manners and not damaging anything in the town!


Oh yeah, the tear gas...
Wrapping up the days events, i should mention that almost two hours after the undercovers were ejected, as things seemed to have begun to die down and there were less people up against the western edge, the police began a massive volley of tear gas which would last for over half an hour, supplemented by rubber bullets against those few individuals who bravely attempted to fight back. Many people were injured and one young person from Ottawa was shot four times by rubber bullets.

As the crowd was moving back at this point anyway, i don't think we can qualify this as a simple retreat, but the police did seem intent on clearing out any smaller group who might stay behind. Stressing that i just don't know, i'd like to mention that Reactionism Watch - who was also there - has suggested that one possible factor contributing to the police's decision to attack was that the maoists and the Black Bloc had withdrawn by this point. If this is the case, then this fact alone flatly contradicts the soc-dem worldview whereby militant demonstraters provoke police violence, instead indicating that they prevent it by assuring a degree of retaliation.


Different Classes, Different Angles
In the aftermath of Tear Gas Monday, as the youtube video was watched by tens of thousands of people and police scrambled to cover their asses, sections of the anti-SPP movement mobilized to capitalize on the situation. In Ottawa the Council of Canadians held a press conference with Coles, which was followed by other press conferences organized by trade unions including one yesterday by the Quebec Federation of Labour. The point of attack for the social-democrats has been to demand a public inquiry, and to accuse the police of trying to discredit a peaceful demonstration.

To truly appreciate what is going on, a few more points should be made clear.

For one, the August 20th protest was not organized by the Council of Canadians, the trade union movement or other similar groups. Which is not so say that some resources were not provided, that the soc-dems did not eventually come on board, or that every individual organizer was a revolutionary, but broadly speaking Monday's protest was pulled together by the People's Global Action network, which combines its opposition to the SPP with an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-patriarchal perspective.

In the lead up the Montebello there were pressures from the more social-democratic groups to focus on activities elsewhere. Of ten buses which were rented by the Canadian Labour Congress to come to Ottawa from Toronto for an anti-SPP protest on the 19th, which is a 6-7 hour trip, only one took the extra couple of hours to go on to Montebello the next day. Despite the fact that the activities on the 20th were not organized by them, the Council of Canadians had no problem pushing themselves to the front of the demo, where they at one point formed a barrier between the cops and people who were intent on challenging them.

When the Council held its Ottawa press conference about agents provocateurs, they did not contact local activists who had actually organized the protests. At the time one woman was still being held by police, in a school gymnasium in the Montebello area which had been transformed into a massive holding area with cages topped with barbed wire. This one protester had been alone there for days, and local activists asked the Council to mention her situation when they spoke to the media - they refused to do so. (The woman was finally released on the Thursday.)

None of which is shocking, for it all goes along with the class perspective represented by the Council and the trade unions, and also by the right-wing critics of globalization. It's worth thinking about this...

Canada is a class society with a large and diverse middle class which enjoys a standard of living significantly higher than those at the bottom layers of "Canadian" society: the First Nations who resist colonialism, the migrant workers who maintain the country's agricultural sector, the unemployed and precarious workers who are concentrated in the most profitable sections of the economy and yet are increasingly denied a "normal" First World standard of living.

People in organizations like the Council of Canadians often feel sympathetic to the plight of the most oppressed, but the hard truth is that they represent a divergent set of class interests, those of the better paid and unionized sections of the working class in alliance with sections of the middle class. That is why - regardless of their members' personal opinions - these groups limit their opposition to particular aspects of capitalism, specifically trade agreements with the United States. The key question for these organizations is one of "Canadian sovereignty", this nationalism often expressed with a hocus pocus belief in Canada's (or Quebec's) "progressive" national culture and role in world affairs.

Such an uncritical attitude towards the racist Canadian State is in fact itself an expression of Canada's racialized class structure, where white people and certain select immigrant groups predominate in the middle class, while people of colour and the majority of immigrants from the Third World are funneled into the working class and most impoverished and excluded communities.

Not meaning to be reductionist, but looking at the classes represented by these different strands of the anti-SPP campaign is a useful way to understand the different positions these groups take. It's not a matter of them being "bad people", but it's also unlikely to be something they will grow out of when they become more experienced or better educated in the struggle. They hold these different positions because they are fighting for a different set of goals than the radical left. As such, Canadian (or Quebec) nationalism will likely remain an important aspect of their politics, which not only creates real limits to how much we can work with them, but also leaves them open to working with some of our worst enemies.

To whit: in a particularly egregious example of where such a nationalist approach can lead, the day of Monday's protest the Canadian Action Party held a press conference against the SPP... alongside various far-right groups from the United States, such as the John Birch Society, the Conservative Caucus, Veterans for Secure Borders and the American Policy Center. Thus at the same time as many people of colour, immigrants and refugees marched in Montebello against the SPP, some of the most vicious racists were being welcomed by the Canadian Action Party in Ottawa as part of the "same" campaign.

The CAP may not be a left-wing party, but it does try to swim in the same waters as the broad progressive movement, and is often tolerated by social-democrats as a legitimate voice on issues pertaining "Canadian sovereignty". In a way, it can be seen as the reactionary expression of the same class interests which, in more progressive form, also see themselves represented in social-democratic opposition to globalization.

While one must be careful in distinguishing between these different strands of opposition to the SPP and other trade agreements, even at the overwhelmingly left-wing demonstration on the 20th one could see a few people with signs saying "Ron Paul for President". Of course most Canadians have no idea who Ron Paul is, but the fact that people backing a far right candidate in the American elections should be attracted to the same campaign as we are is another sign of the different classes and political agendas which are brought together by opposition to trade pacts like the SPP.

Our strategy as anti-capitalists should be to retain and reinforce our differences from both the social-democratic and the right-wing critics of corporate globalization. This means continuing the work many of us are doing, in day to day struggles alongside the classes and nations which are most oppressed by Canadian capitalism. It also means promoting aggressive tactics at demonstrations and emphasizing our hostility to police and to the State, weak points for both the social-democrats and right-wingers.

Finally, it means keeping in mind that not everyone at our protests are our allies, even if they may claim otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely said. This is exactly why post-left anarchisms should be given more attention today; they are critical of the left as a whole. Instead, todays popular anarchists are quick to call post-leftists elitists.

    This post is worth distributing (infoshop, anarchistnews, etc).