Throughout my neighbourhood in east-end Montreal this evening at exactly 8 pm, people stepped out onto their doorsteps or walked around the block banging pots and pans. This activity carried on for about 15 to 20 minutes all over the city (as I could read in the immediate Facebook updates) in a joyous cacophony of multiple micro protests against the Quebec government’s imposition on May 18 of the “Special Law”, or what I like to call, “martial law lite”.
As I write, it’s the 101st day of the student strike and the 101st day and night of consecutive demonstrations across Quebec, a remarkable and unprecedented achievement of activism and mobilization. Yesterday (May 22), I joined about a quarter million people marching – illegally, as it now happens, because the demonstration didn’t have prior state approval – through downtown Montreal in an overwhelming popular rejection of the government’s creeping fascism. It was a historic occasion, in which citizens of all ages and backgrounds showed up to celebrate and defend our fundamental democratic rights against a corrupt and increasingly brutal government.
As impressive as it was to participate in that massive and historic moment yesterday, I actually preferred the quiet little statement my neighbours and I made this evening. Living in the city, there are few neighbours I know by name, a few more I recognize by sight and many more whom I’ve never met.
But tonight, we all exchanged big smiles and knowing nods as we drummed on our pots and pans in rhythmic fashion until we felt that our point had been made. And after that short little moment of shared purpose, I feel less alone in the urban ocean because I now share a bond of solidarity with many folks on my block who were, before tonight, complete strangers.
That’s a big danger for Jean Charest and his odious attempt to limit our access to knowledge while exploiting our outrage to eliminate democratic rights. Once people come out of their isolation to begin understanding our shared interests and then to insist on this essential element of the common good, the powers that be are in serious trouble.
Tomorrow evening at 8 pm, I’m going to step out on the sidewalk with my wooden spoon and metal mixing bowl once again. This time, I’m going to arm my five kids with the same dangerous weapons of democracy. And I’m going to introduce myself to a neighbour I would never have otherwise met. And I hope we will keep this up every following night, in more and more neighbourhoods throughout the province, until reason and common sense once again have a respected place in the councils of power in Quebec City.
It’s a small aspect of the phenomenon sweeping our society, to be sure. But it has a long and honourable history. In New Brunswick, the Acadians call it the Tintamarre. Every year, the descendants of the original French majority walk out into the street banging their pots and pans in symbolic reminder of the fact that they still exist – more than 250 years after the expulsion of most of their Acadien ancestors by their British overlords in an early example of ethnic cleansing here in the New World.
To be sure, it might now be seen as a folkloric tradition, but it serves the same purpose as the appropriation of the tactic by the popular movement here in Quebec. Its power derives from the local affirmation of a broad-based sentiment. If neighbourhood folks begin understanding and identifying with the goals of those who are always portrayed as dangerous agitators, the big lie that justifies state repression is stripped naked. It loses its power to create fear.
For a law to work, it has to have either broad support or a justified fear of repercussions for acts that would transgress it. This “Special Law”, Bill 78, is an interesting test case. Justified by hysterical calls to restore “social order”, the average citizen needs to believe it is necessary. When one’s neighbours (i.e., not the masked, rock-throwing anarchists who star every day and night on the endlessly replayed TV news loops, but who actually are a very rare participant in the huge number of protests now taking place) start to question the need to surrender their freedom, it has a far greater impact on Madame and Monsieur Tout-le-Monde.
In Latin America, those who participated in this tradition over the past 30 to 40 years did so with heroic courage. They are called, depending on their gender, cacerolazos or caceroladas. Under brutal and bloody dictatorships in Argentina and Chile, local folks who otherwise would never be considered hardcore demonstrators much less outright insurrectionists would take to their neighbourhood streets with these essential kitchen tools to register their popular dissent. The urge to freedom and respect is universal.
Today, despite the death squads of the Argentinean junta and the sadistic nightmare of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, both countries have evolved into vibrant, healthy democracies. A simple act of banging one’s pot, night after night, can help people change the world for the better. We each make the statement we can.