400 000 in the streets? Quebec’s students are winning…

Tuesday started out looking like a bad day for a protest. A constant drizzle fell on Montreal’s streets throughout the morning, turning my shoes into a soggy mess before I even reached the demo. In the wake of Loi 78 many expected a record turnout to celebrate the student strike’s 100th day, and rage against the infringements of our civil liberties contained in the “Special Law”, but with the rain I wasn’t so sure.

I should have known my fellow Quebecois are made of sterner stuff!

I started to realize the immensity of the day four or five blocks away when the sidewalks on both sides of the street were packed with one way traffic. Arriving at Place des Festivals at 2PM on the dot, I found a sea of humanity as far as the eye could see. The entire Place, from St. Catherine to Président Kennedy, was packed too densely to allow much navigation. I made my way to a raised photographer’s platform which allowed a better view of the enormity of the crowd. From there I could see that it filled St. Catherine in both directions, and the double lanes of De Maisonneuve and Président Kennedy all the way to St. Urbain.

Wave after wave of new arrivals joined the crowd, hundreds at a time. The rain had finally stopped and an oppressive and unexpected heat had people shedding layers left and right. The mood was festive, but determined, as signs read “This is only the beginning…” and “Bring it on.”

Crossing paths with a trade unionist I know, he reminded me that when half of Place des Festivals was equally packed for a free Arcade Fire show, media had estimated the crowd at 100,000. We agreed that there were likely 200,000 people there, with more joining by the minute.

If anyone believed this to be an exclusively student movement, the crowd on Tuesday would have set them straight. As I did my best to circulate through the sardine can, I was struck by how closely the protesters resembled a cross section of Quebec society. Students were clearly in the minority, as grey hair and strollers were everywhere. I noticed a large number of high school age students, some in distinctive school uniforms.

Sometime after 2:30 the protest set off up Jeanne Mance, where I bumped into the CUTV crew. For those who don’t know, Concordia University Television (CUTV) have been revolutionizing the way in which citizens interact with social movements by livestreaming almost all student protests through their website. Despite a shoestring budget, they have been the eyes and ears of the population, frequently risking injury to stay at the front lines and drawing audience numbers that would be the envy of any cable news channel.

The readily available livestream, coupled with francophone Quebeckers sudden embrace of Twitter, have allowed those at home to participate in demonstrations, report injuries and events as they see them live, and interact directly with demonstrators. This has done wonders to spread the movement outside of its Montreal base, and contributed to regular demonstrations in places like Sherbrooke and Trois Rivières, which are unaccustomed to them.

As the march hit Sherbrooke there was a moment of indecisiveness as contradictory commands of “left” and “right” were shouted out. Eventually the march, which was classified as the CLASSE march in media reports,  turned left, spurning the route submitted to police and choosing to embrace civil disobedience.

I stayed near the front, chatting with friends as we went along Sherbrooke before turning down Peel, a good ten blocks West of where we started. A friend called as we marched down Peel, informing me he’d just arrived at Place des Festivals and it remained packed with protesters as those leaving on the march were replaced with late arrivals. From there we descended to René Levesque and returned East.

As we marched I bumped into a good friend who works as a journalist covering the protests. He was estimating the size of the crowd at around 50 000, a number I scoffed at. As we passed Jeanne Mance we looked up to see the Place des Festivals was still packed with people. There were twenty blocks of marchers behind us, yet our starting point remained a mob scene. My friend the journalist started to revise his estimate upwards. This was clearly unlike anything we had ever seen before.

Chants alternated between a mocking “we are more than 50” in reference to the illegality of marches over that size in Loi 78, and a variety of colourful descriptions of the “special law.” The mood became more and more festive as marchers realized the size of the statement being made with the numbers in the street. An almost party-like atmosphere swept us up, with smiles on every face.

The march continued along René Levesque, before turning up Berri. As the crowd hit the Berri overpass, I ran up on top of the overpass for a better view. The street was full, from one side to the other, as far as we could see. The large apartment building overlooking the overpass was festooned with red square banners and dozens of people hung out their windows, banging on pots and pans.

I’ve confirmed with several journalist friends who have attended all the demos that they have noticed a striking change since the passage of Loi 78. The number of motorists honking in support, and residents cheering as a march passes by, has increased exponentially. Even in Westmount, an evening march was cheered along the well-to-do streets, with middle aged women running out to distribute water bottles.

Quebeckers who might not care deeply about the student cause are outraged at the “special law” and made their support felt throughout the day Tuesday, as passersby waved and cheered at the demo constantly.

As the march turned right on Cherrier, a whimsical chant of “The people, enrolled, will never be defeated!” was taken up. People danced in the streets and the crowd buzzed with news that CTV had reported over 400 000 on air. As we reached the massive and sprawling Parc Lafontaine I received a tweet from my journalist friend: “I am prepared to cook my hat and eat it.” He now agreed there were over 400 000 in the streets.

As we descended into the park a large contingent from the front of the march continued on through the park, while the bulk of people milled around. We sat down and took a breather, watching the seemingly never ending march continue to file in. After around 30 minutes we decided to take a walk back to see what was happening.

A stranger asked to borrow my phone, and reported that he had spoken with a friend further back in the protest, who was only now passing Central Station at Berri and De Maisonneuve. A friend who had left texted me from the Berri overpass to inform me there were still protesters down Berri as far as the eye could see, this almost an hour after we had passed under it with the head of the march. “This may be a 400 000 person demo alright,” he wrote “in walking back through the march it’s f’ing enormous.”

When we left, some time later, the march had still not ceased its steady flow of people into the park. Unfortunately a brief but violent rainstorm drove most to leave, while several other marches departed in different directions.

We retreated from the rain to Else’s, a quiet neighborhood bar on Roy St. Joined there by four or five journalist friends, from both independent and mainstream outlets, we agreed that the march was easily in the territory of a half million people. But as smart phones appeared, and news sites were canvassed a series of outraged cries went up. “This article says “tens of thousands!” “So does CBC!”

A friend who works for a mainstream media outlet counseled patience. “Those are early estimates, don’t worry, the headlines tomorrow will be hundreds of thousands.” But as time passed and more people joined us, more stories cited the tens of thousands figure. This led to a heated debate about journalistic ethics.

The same journalist noted that journos are bound by what they’re told, not what they see. Therefore he argued that they would publish what the police told them, even if they thought it wasn’t true. He also explained that journalists have a system for crowds, one which only applies to protests, and not any other type of gathering.

Because tens of thousands could mean 80 or 90 000, a demonstration below that threshold will often be described as “several thousand” if it is in the area of 20 or 30 000. By the same token, tens of thousands is a safe estimate that, it can be argued, would apply to crowds as large as 200 or 300 000, so it will be used even if a journalist believes the crowd to be over 100 000.

We argued that since no one but journos knows this code, they are misinforming their audience about the single most salient fact of any demo, its attendance. We argued that a reader who sees “several thousand” will assume that means 2 or 3,000, not 20,000 and a reader who sees “tens of thousands” will assume it means 20 or 30,000, not over 100,000.

He reassured us that notwithstanding this, today’s demo had been so huge they would report, at a bare minimum, hundreds of thousands. He accepted a, perhaps drunken, challenge to wear a red square pinned to his crotch at the next demo if he was wrong, and headed out to the night demo.

Sadly, he’ll be wearing that red square. Although Journal de Montreal published the number 150 000 on their front page, most other papers, including The Gazette and National Post published tens of thousands. As did CBC, CTV and other outlets online. The Globe’s print edition estimated between 100 and 250 000, but its online content continues to say tens of thousands. Meanwhile La Presse cites “Police sources” as saying there were over 100 000. So if the police are telling reporters over 100 000, where does “tens of thousands” come from?

Alternative outlets meanwhile, universally published estimates between 400 and 500 000 people, in line with the initial estimates on CTV and in other MSM outlets, which were subsequently revised heavily downward. Several papers cited CLASSE’s estimate, for its march only, which did not include the large FEUQ/FECQ and labour union march, of 250 000.

If all you knew about the protest was what you got from mainstream media, you would logically conclude there were around 30 or 40 000 people there. I have yet to speak to a journalist who believes there were “tens of thousands” there, but they all printed it.

Whatever the excuse, that’s wrong. People deserve the truth, or as close as a journalist can get to giving it to them. Is it hard to tell the difference between 300 000 and 400 000? Sure. Between 20 000 and 400 000? Not so much.

As for this writer, I attended the Iraq war demo in 2003 when over 300 000 took to the streets. I was at the Arcade fire concert and I’ve seen most of Quebec’s big demos. This was larger than all of them, by several orders of magnitude. I don’t know if it was 400 000 or 500 000, it might even have been closer to 300 000. But it sure as hell wasn’t “tens of thousands”.

And coming as it did on the heels of a poll showing an 18 point shift in public opinion from the government to the students, it was the second serious body blow Charest took in 24 hours. For my money, Charest is reeling, and trying to get out of this mess without losing face. If the students press their advantage now, they’ll win. How big a victory remains to be determined. At this point I’m not even sure Charest will survive till the next election.

Hundreds of thousands in the streets is a message to the rest of this province that the students fight is their fight too. The next poll will show an even more dramatic shift of public support. Charest will either back down or be driven from office. Notwithstanding the hard work that remains to be done, the students have won, and yesterday it was clear that they knew it too.


* Photos by Iana Kazakova

I will be publishing my take on why the students are right, and this struggle is so important, in the next few days on rabble.ca and forgetthebox.net, keep an eye out for it!

You can follow Ethan on twitter, where he posts regularly on the student strike, at @EthanCoxMTL

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