It was a beautiful day for a riot. There wasn’t a cloud in the baby-blue sky above Quebec City. It was a warm, sunny Friday afternoon and a strong south wind was blowing to keep us cool and send the tear gas back toward police lines.
My buddy Lyle and I were bumping into lots of old friends in the crowd of 5,000 peacefully protesting the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City’s Old Town.
It was one hour before the summit’s opening ceremony and we were standing just outside the 3.8-kilometre perimetre fence. Nothing much was going on.
On the other side of the 10-foot-high fence, a platoon of riot cops stood guard, decked out in gas masks, riot helmets and shields and three-foot truncheons. Police choppers droned overhead.
The summit organizers had turned the city into an armed camp with $100 million in security preparations, including 6,000 police, 1,200 soldiers and armoured vehicles mounted with water cannons.
Safely inside the summit zone, which covered most of downtown, 34 heads of state from across the Americas were getting ready to start their backroom negotiations on the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement.
The idea was to create the world’s largest trading bloc with 800 million people and a combined economic output of $9 trillion per year.
For many, the fence symbolized everything that was wrong with this picture. Opponents of the FTAA – who organized a week-long alternative People’s Summit-said the closed-door negotiations were anti-democratic and were all about giving corporations more unfettered freedoms, while restricting government controls on pollution, labour standards and health care.
Thousands of people turned out to workshops organized at the People’s Summit on topics like human rights, the environment and education.
Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told one of the workshops that trade is a Native tradition. But trade pacts negotiated in secret are alarming, he added.
“We are not afraid of trade. We are the first traders of America, trading amongst ourselves,” he said.
“But we are concerned about the way these agreements are being signed where we are excluded. Once again, the government inside these walls will be making decisions that will have direct impact on indigenous people, who are on the outside.”
Coon Come also got a chance to address the official summit. He was given four minutes.
“I have been invited here to do the impossible,” he said. “In four minutes, one indigenous leader cannot speak to 500 years of colonial history across a continent, to our injuries, to our concerns, to our aspirations and to our rights.”
Into the forbidden zone
Meanwhile, back outside, I asked Lyle how he was feeling. He was philosophical. “I feel serene.” After a pause, he added, “Slightly apprehensive.”
Then all hell broke loose. It was 3 p.m. and another group of 5,000 protesters had joined us after marching through the city’s streets. The streets were packed with people. The air was electric.
Suddenly, Lyle said excitedly, “Someone’s climbing the fence!” A young masked protester got to the top of the fence, then his buddies started shaking it.
The crowd cheered as he flew back and forth like a matador on a bull’s horns. The shaking got so crazy a 20-foot section crashed to the ground. Everyone was momentarily stunned — especially the police. Some cops started running away in a panic.
Inspired, other protesters started shaking the hated fence. Soon, over 100 yards were torn down. A handful of people ventured into the “forbidden zone,” but none went more than a few yards.
Later, the media and police focused on how violent the crowd was. Ignored was the fact that the thousands of protesters could have easily overwhelmed the 30-odd cops in their way and flooded into the summit zone, causing a major security emergency. Instead, most protesters seemed content just to see the much-despised fence on the ground.
Within minutes, hundreds of police reinforcements arrived and a hailstorm of tear gas was flying our way. We spent the rest of the day dodging riot cops, tear gas canisters, pepper spray, water cannons and plastic bullets (which injured a Member of Parliament and two journalists). Over 460 people were arrested.
At one point, some tear gas came flying our way, followed by a police charge. Lyle and I took off. When we turned to look back, we saw our relaxed Latin American correspondent Mary Ellen Davis casually emerging from a cloud of tear gas. It was like she was on an afternoon stroll.
Through it all, the crowd was mostly festive and friendly. People were making lots of music, beating on bongo drums and helping those overcome by gas.
Ironically, the police and tear gas accomplished what the protesters couldn’t do. The strong wind blew the gas right back at the cops and into the security zone, forcing the opening ceremonies to be delayed for 90 minutes while the conference centre was aired out.
Even U.S. President George Bush reportedly got a little something up his nose.