From firstname.lastname@example.org Thu Jun 14 10:37:55 2001
Date: Wed, 13 Jun 2001 22:30:27 -0500 (CDT)
Institute For Social Ecology <email@example.com>
Subject: [smygo] Something Did Start in Quebec City: North America’s Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Movement
When thirty-four heads of state gathered behind a chain-link barrier
in Quebec City this past April to smile for the television cameras
during the Summit of the Americas, it was the tear gassing outside
that garnered all the media attention. Those on both sides of the
fence jockeyed to put a spin on the meaning of the massive chemical
haze that chocked the old city for over two days. The
claimed that as duly elected leaders of so-called free countries, they
were attempting to democratically bring
freedom through free
trade, and as such, those on the streets were merely troublemakers
without a cause or constituency that needed to be dealt with
outsiders asserted that those hiding behind
the fence were the real source of violence—the tear gas exemplifying
what nation-states are willing to do to protect capitalism and the
dominant elitesand thus, a certain level of militancy was necessary to
tear down the
wall of shame that many saw as separating the
powerful from the powerless.
What got lost in the smoke, however, was the substantive transformation that this particular direct action represented. For Quebec City’s convergence, more than anything else, ushered in an explicitly anti-capitalist movement in North America—one spearheaded by anti-authoritarians (by and large, anarchists). That was our real victory in Quebec. But what caused this sudden sea change?
Serendipitously, one fence; self-consciously, two groups.
It was this movement’s collective
good luck that law
enforcement officials and politicians determined on a fence as the
heart of their strategy to counter the protests.
start in Quebec, one could say; last June, in Windsor, Ontario,
similar trade discussions went off without a hitch behind chain-link,
and barbed wire served nicely to make Davos, Switzerland, an
impenetrable fortress this past winter for the World Economic
Forum. The state-sponsored prophylactic in Quebec City did in fact
ward off unwanted intruders: the summit meetings went on, generally
unimpeded. Thus, if the fence had remained merely a physical
barricade, it could have been counted as a security success.
Unfortunately for Jean Chrtien, George W., and their cohorts, the
ten-foot fence became a larger-than-life symbolic divide, in essence
Which side are you on?
The contrasts could not have been sharper. Closed meetings and secret
documents inside; open teach-ins and publicly distributed literature
outside. The cynical co-optation of
democracy via a gratuitous
clause as a cover for free-floating economic exploitation
versus genuine demands for popular control and mutual aid in matters
such as economics, ecology, politics, and culture. The raising of
glasses for champagne toasts versus the rinsing of eyes from chemical
All of the recent direct actions have, of course, also focused on
targets that were figurative to a certain extent. Indeed, the symbolic
value of these spectacular showdowns is an essential ingredient in the
fight to win the majority of minds over to one perspective or another.
But previous focal points, such as the World Trade Organization and
International Monetary Fund, have shown themselves to impart somewhat
ambiguous messages. The debate stirred up has often centered on how
these institutions can potentially be reformed, how the social
good they do can be salvaged from all the harm they
inflict. Besides, some contend, what would replace them? It’s
proved difficult to move beyond questions regarding the single
institution being protested other than to fall back on the buzzword
globalization, while suggesting a
wider critique, is just as ambiguousin no way necessarily underscoring
systemic forms of domination that cannot be reformed.
Things were very different in Quebec City. From the vantage point of those on the outside, the fence served no purpose. It not only exemplified a lack of commitment to free expression on the part of the nation-states represented inside but also a further circumscribing of the possibility of freedom itself, and those political leaders trying to allege otherwise were merely revealing their hypocrisy. Hence the heightened level of militancy, illustrative of a movement increasingly intent on fundamental social transformation, directed at tearing the fence down. Yet the fence was crucial for those gathering behind it, too. Beyond providing a literal sense of security, it functioned as a stand-in for the attempt to control the debate aroundas well as protect the implementation ofthe neoliberal agenda across the Americas. Hence the fiercely fought battle on the part of the police and military in Quebec City to hold the line.
The widespread hatred of the wall and all it embodied meant that those who took a leadership role to bring it downthe libertarian anti-capitalistsstepped not only into the limelight but gained the respect and admiration of other demonstrators, much of the local populace, and a healthy cross section of the broader Canadian public. Sympathyfor the first time in this North American branch of the new global movementwas largely on the side of those seeking revolution. No longer the pariah or the parvenu at this direct action, the anti-authoritarian contingent was able to come into its own as a strong and visible force, rather than a marginal, marginalized, or even feared element.
To a great extent, credit must be given to two key organizations: la Convergence des luttes Anti-Capitalistes (the Montreal-based Anti-Capitalist Convergence, or CLAC) and le Comite d’Accueil du Sommet des Ameriques (the Quebec City-based Summit of the Americas Welcoming Committee, or CASA). For starters, it was a brilliant stroke to stake out a nonreformist posture not only in CLAC’s name but in the very theme for the summit weekend as well: the Carnival against Capitalism. An opposition to capitalism was openly front and center, both during the many months of organizing leading up to April and at the convergence itself. It was, moreover, an anarchist-influenced version of anti-capitalism. As nuanced by CLAC/CASA’s short lists of organizational principles, a rejection of capitalism included a refusal of hierarchy, authoritarianism, and patriarchy, along with the proactive assertion of such values as decentralization and direct democracy. There was no mistaking the message at this direct action.
This brand of anti-capitalism, in turn, served as the substantive and
radical tie that bound Quebec City’s many direct action
participants together. Those people organizing toward and/or coming to
the direct action events could bring along their varied concerns and
identities, but they were clearly doing so under the rubric of
anti-capitalism. A sense of unity was achievednot through a shapeless
tag such as
mobilization, nor by watering down demands until
they lose their rebellious edge, nor by ignoring particularity
itself. As articulated by CLAC/CASA’s
Basis of Unity,
anti-capitalism created a defined and uncompromising space for
the multiplicity of individuals who see themselves as part of a
Crucial in this necessary yet delicate balancing act between a
striving for unification and individuation was the strategically smart
diversity of tactics in CLAC/CASA’s statements of
principles. Many have written elsewhere that this principle allowed
for heightened militancy in Quebec City, or that it diffused the often
poorly formulated and argued
debates that seem to fracture this movement internally. Each claim
rings partially true, yet both miss the forest for the trees. The
diversity of tactics notion helped to unmask the anti-capitalism
element, and in showing its full face, revealed how influential (and
even appealing) it is as a force in this new global movement.
In the recent past, there have been thousands of libertarian
anti-capitalists at North American direct actions, but they remained
separatedand thus largely hiddenby dress, role (such as medic, media,
or comm), age, ideological tendency, strategic notions, and so
converged together at mass direct
actions, but sadly, the
Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc was
generally seen as synonymous with the black blocmeaning that a radical
political outlook appeared to have minimal support. The blame lies not
with the black bloc or the fact that many anarchists choose to wear
other colors. Instead, the problem has been the inability to combine
this spectrum of anti-authoritarian styles under a transparently
The full line in CLAC/CASA’s
Basis of Unity statement on
a diversity of tactics altered that equation. It reads:
a diversity of tactics, the CLAC [or CASA, respectively] supports the
use of a variety of creative initiatives, ranging from popular
education to direct action. By embracing on an equal footing
action, thereby also breaking down the
supposed theory versus practice divide, the conflation of
radicalism was shattered. One
wasn’t a revolutionary because one was a priori a militant; and
this indirectly affirmed that not all revolutionaries can afford to
take the same risksjust compare a healthy eighteen year old to
wheelchair-bound octogenarian. (As a corollary, it showed that being
militant doesn’t necessarily make one a revolutionary, either.
There were plenty of disgruntled Quebecois youth on the streets each
night during the convergence intent on mischief and it’s highly
doubtful that they shared CLAC/CASA’s principles.)
The diversity clause, in essence, acknowledged that an opposition to systemic domination such as capitalism and nation-states could and should take many forms if a majoritarian movement is to be built. The principle did not make room under the anti-capitalist banner for militants; they were there already. What the diversity of tactics stance did do was create a welcoming space for those many more anti-authoritarians who perceive themselves as less militant. It widened the margins not of militancy, in other words, but of what it means to reject capitalism as an anti-authoritarian.
Thus, Quebec’s anti-capitalist bloc was not one little
contingent among many. It was the direct action bloc itselfprecisely
because it allowed anyone who subscribed to CLAC/CASA’s
nonreformist stance to march together regardless of how they dressed
(or didn’t), whether they carried a black flag or a puppet, or
whether they wished to avoid arrest or tear down the fence. This was
tangibly facilitated, to cite just one example, by the three-tiered
color coding of events to indicate varying possibilities of arrest
risk and militancy. As the
CrimethInc. Eyewitness Analysis
served the purpose ahead of time of making everyone
comfortable [by] setting their own level of involvement and risk.
Instead of 500 or 1,000 people as at past direct actions, then, the
ranks of the two anti-capitalist bloc marches during the convergence
swelled to 5,000 or moreperhaps the largest in North America in recent
What the diversity of tactics principle translated into was a
diversity of people. But this commitment to inclusiveness was only one
of the ethical parameters spelled out in the rest of CLAC/CASA’s
Basis of Unity. As such, rather than an assertion of difference
for difference’s sakepotentially implying a diverse movement
emptied of contentwhat emerged in practice was an explicitly radical
movement that was diverse. One could argue that the convergence of
anti-capitalists in Quebec City wasn’t diverse enough, of
course. Yet it provided the first real guide of how to go about
nurturing inclusiveness and unity in a way that is at once qualitative
and sincere, and moreover, that allows the particular and universal to
complement rather than crush each other as part of a social movement.
To return for a moment to the heightened level of militancy in Quebec City, perhaps the diversity of tactics phrase encouraged a somewhat more confrontational stance. But that pales in comparison to the catalyst exerted by the fence and police tactics as reasons why many people choose to go one step further than they ever thought they would during the direct action. Suggestive of this is a photo that appeared in the 22 April 2001 issue of Le Journal de Qubec: sporting a Ralph Nader for President T-shirt, a young man lobs a tear-gas cannister back at the police line that just shot it indiscriminately into the crowd.
Care must nevertheless be taken not to let the diversity of tactics
principle morph into a code for
anything goes. As noted by
L. A. Kauffman in her recent essay,
Turning Point, already
in certain radical circles . . . the militant acts at the front
lines are being seenand celebratedin isolation, as part of a growing
mystique of insurrection. These direct actions are not yet, and
perhaps will never become, insurrections. Viewing them as such could
lead to the use of tactics that would be potentially suicidal for this
still-fledgling movementas the historical examples of the Weather
Underground and Red Army Faction show. Without a bit more definition
to the diversity principle, and a way to make people accountable to
any parameters decided on, the anti-capitalist movement is wide open
to stupidity or sabotageor at least more than it needs to be.
At the same time, it is a positive sign that the diversity of tactics
phrase has worked its way into the call for an anti-capitalist bloc in
D.C. at the World Bank/International Monetary Funds meetings well in
advance of the actual protests this October. For where the tangible
commitment to diversity of tactics really shone was in the months of
organizational and educational work prior to Quebec City’s
convergence. Here, the tired bumpersticker phrase,
Act Locally, took on renewed meaning in CLAC/CASA’s
efforts. While they brought teach-ins to numerous cities across Canada
and the United States, and put out their politics on the World Wide
Web, the real key to their strategy was the attempt to win over the
host city itself (where many CASA members live and
work). Rather than merely organizing a weekend-long direct action,
CLAC/CASA used the global and continental issues raised by the Free
Trade Agreement of the Americas as a wedge into their own communities,
as a way to develop radical resistance for ongoing struggles long
after the tear gas clears. These Canadian-based organizers, in short,
never lost sight of the need to link the global to the local, and to
do such community work openly as radicals. They thereby succeeded in
one of the more difficult tasks: bringing anti-capitalism home.
A few examples suffice to illustrate the scope of their community
activism. For instance, they asked Quebec City inhabitants to
a protester, which meant agreeing to house and hence have
relatively intimate contact with an anti-capitalist out-of-towner
during the convergence. CLAC/CASA’s massive leafletting effort
in Quebec City, on the streets and door to door, included handing out
thousands of copies of a four-page bilingual tabloid that tried to
debunk fear-provoking stereotypes and urged townfolks to
one big anarchist contingent on A21. The anti-capitalist
organizers worked in and with grassroots neighborhood associations,
and helped ensure that a no-arrest zone was strategically placed in
the residential neighborhood abutting the fenced-in summit meetings to
create a sense of security for the locals as well as nonlocals. After
the convergence, members of CASA pitched in to help other city
residents decontaminate the urban parks affected by tear gas.
This community organizing campaignslipping into public relations at
timesput a positive human face to the negative media (and
state/police) portrait of anarchists and gave locals some of the
knowledge they needed to begin to judge (and hopefully reject)
capitalism for themselves. It probably convinced numerous Quebecois to
participate in the days of resistance (or at least provide water and
bathrooms, as many did), and much more than that, built a solid
foundation of support, sympathy, and trust in the community for
longer-term projects. The fact that Laval University gave several of
its comparatively luxurious buildings in Quebec City over to CLAC/CASA
for such things as a convergence center, sleeping facilities (housing
over 2,500 people), and rallying point for the two anti-capitalist
marches is testimony to these two groups’ grassroots efforts. As
were the signs in local shopkeepers’ windows:
CLAC/CASA have proved that it is possible not just to bring thousands
into your city but to also work closely with the thousands already
there to radicalize and mobilize them for the convergence and beyond.
Given that the cities where summits and ministers meet constantly
rotatefrom Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, to Prague, Genoa,
and even Qatarmany anti-capitalists will probably get their chance at
hosting a convergence and could therefore view it as an
opportunity to link global concerns to on-the-ground local
struggles. Left in the wake of summits and direct actions could be not
a small, weary group of anarchist organizers but a large, invigorated
radical milieu along with the foundations for resistance attempts in
numerous cities across the global.
For it is not a matter of community organizing versus splashy direct
actions but how to balance the two so they reinforce, complement, and
build on each other in a way that escalates a revolutionary movement
globallyas the efforts of CLAC/CASA has shown. While journalist Naomi
Klein has been an insightful commentator on this movement, she is
wrong in dubbing direct actions as
McProtests. Putting aside
the fact that each direct action is not alike but borrows from,
rejects, and/or transforms elements of previous actionsthat is, there
is often a generative, creative process at workas Quebec City
exemplified, mass actions also afford moments of real gain that would
otherwise not be possible if resistance and reconstruction were merely
parochial affairs. And they give people hope.
The real task of social transformation has only just been glimpsed, of course. Quebec City’s convergence felt revolutionary, yet it was by no means a revolution. CLAC/CASA members, like other libertarian anti-capitalists globally, are a long way from helping to turn the places they live into free cities in a free society. At least to date, it also appears that they have done little work, much less published thinking, on what a reconstructive vision might look like, as well as how to move toward it in their communities and this movement. Rather than just a Carnival against Capitalism, a carnival for something might have better provided the utopian thrust necessary to sustain and give direction to the difficult struggle ahead.
Nonetheless, by working locally and globally, by nurturing diversity in the arms of an explicitly anti-authoritarian politics, CLAC/CASA, with the help of a flimsy fence that became a mighty symbol, motivated thousands who came to and live in Quebec City to hoist the anti-capitalist banner onto center stage. Something did start in Quebeca distinctly radical movement in North America. Now the hard work of self-consciously shaping and building that movement must begin.
Comite d’Accueil du Sommet des Ameriques (Summit of the Americas
CASA’s Principles. Available at
Convergence des luttes Anti-Capitalistes (Anti-Capitalist
CLAC Basis of Unity. Available at
CrimethInc. Rioters Bloc.
CrimethInc. Eyewitness Analysis: Free
Trade Area of the Americas Summit, Quebec City, April 19-22.
Available at http://crimethinc.com/features.html.
Kauffman, L. A.
Turning Point. Free Radical: A Chronicle of the
New Unrest, no. 16 (May 2001). Available at www.free-radical.org.
Talk to Your Neighbor; It’s a Start.
Toronto Globe and Mail, 2 May 2001.