After a couple of nights of pavement pounding, I decided to settle in for a bit of armchair activism. I fired up CUTV and Twitter and watched what was happening in the streets of Montreal.

“Oh, man,” I thought, “this one looks fun!”

The mood seemed so festive. All the protesters looked like they were having a great time. It wasn’t just the main march, there were impromptu marches and people banging on pots and pans all over the city.

While I caught some reports of police repression in Quebec City, what was happening in Montreal was the very definition of a peaceful protest. I went  into the kitchen to make a snack.

When I came back, the mood had changed…significantly. Hundreds of people were now being kettled by the SPVM on St-Denis just north of Sherbrooke. They were still peaceful, but the cops seemed anything but.

From my vantage point, the same one that roughly 6000 live viewers had, one cop was telling journalists that they had to turn off the camera and mic if they wanted to get out of the kettle:

http://youtu.be/GyNVTAV84jw

Nevermind the fact that anyone, not just media, have the right (and some feel the duty) to observe and document police actions with any electronic means at their disposal. Nevermind the fact that this officer was just being an all-out jerk and probably only stopped because the Twitterverse got word of what was happening to his superiors. The message was loud and clear, the SPVM didn’t want the world seeing what they were doing.

And why would they? For the first time in this 100+ days conflict they were arresting a large group of people without the usual megaphone dispersal warning and without a pretext that they could later use as justification.

There were rumors of rocks being thrown, rumors later repeated in the mainstream media because the source of the allegations was a police spokesperson. Throwing stuff really didn’t jive with the festive feeling on the streets that night. If you factor in that Public Security Minister Jean-Marc Fournier wanted mass arrests and the SPVM’s almost baiting approach both on the streets and Twitter, you start to get a clearer picture.

They were, for the first time, enforcing Bill 78 (in this case, technically a municipal bylaw that mirrored one of the bill’s parts and carried a slightly smaller fine, but the argument remains). They were arresting peaceful protesters whose only crime was being in a group larger than 50 people without having provided an itinerary eight hours prior.

While my heart and sympathies go out to all the people who got scooped up for happening to be there when the state decided to rear its ugly head, my pity goes to the cops, tasked with being on the wrong side of history. As Quebec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir reminded the press after trying to negotiate with the authorities on the scene, “we have to remember that the police are an instrument…they are also victims of this absurd law.”

It is, after all, politics that brought in Bill 78 and inspired these arrests. Therefore, everyone arrested Wednesday night and those who will be arrested for doing nothing more than exercising their charter rights in a way the government disapproves of are political prisoners. Yes, Jean Charest has taken political prisoners.

I’ll give you a minute to let the absolute absurdity of the situation sink in. A premier with a razor-thin majority government is detaining free citizens at will. Now I’ll give you another minute to let the outrage grow. There were more arrests Wednesday night alone than during the entire October Crisis. For those who don’t remember, the October Crisis involved kidnapping, bombs and murder. The Maple Spring involves people walking around wearing red felt squares and banging on pots and pans.

Fortunately, those pots and pans and the generally festive nature the protests have taken lately are the light at the end of the tunnel and the path towards winning the war. If you have political prisoners, you usually have a full blown social uprising to go along with them. Now, in Quebec, we have just that.

As word spread of the kettled protesters Wednesday, people started showing up and staged an impromptu sit-in on the other side of the barricade, pots and pans in hand. A truly beautiful moment of resistance and one that is now being repeated nightly all around the city.

At 8pm, ordinary people start banging on pots and pans from their balconies, in parks, on the street, you name it. When they see others doing the same, they congregate and sometimes they march, regardless of whether the group is 20 or 200 people. This is spontaneous and peaceful disobedience at its finest.

It is a thing of beauty and it inspired this now viral video, also a thing of beauty:

Now it’s spreading beyond Montreal, to other parts of Quebec and just today to Toronto. The red square itself has already spread further, including the states and Europe.

Quebec is now the focal point for peaceful social uprising and civil disobedience. Charest’s political prisoners were not taken in vain.

* Images: Canadian Press, Globe & Mail

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Student protests Tuesday May 21, 2012. Photo: Chris Zacchia

Ethan Cox is a former news editor with Forget The Box and he is currently heavily involved in politics and trying to change the world. He is currently covering the student protests for Rabble.ca and FTB. Here is his latest take on where the protests stand and where we go next. Be sure to join us for today’s demonstration starting at place des festival at 2pm.

Just in time for the 100th day of Quebec’s student strike comes a birthday present of epic proportions for the indefatigable students.

They’re winning.

A QMI/Leger Marketing poll released early Tuesday morning by the Journal de Montreal bore the banner headline “Le gouvernment va trop loin” (The government has gone too far).

On the central question of whether respondents supported the government or the students in the ongoing conflict over increases to tuition fees, the poll found a stunning 18 point shift from the government to the students, compared to a poll taken ten days earlier. Although this shift still leaves the students trailing the government by 8 points, the momentum is clearly on their side.

On the question of whether the controversial, and likely unconstitutional, special law known as Loi 78 went “too far,” 53 per cent agreed that it did, while 32 per cent judged it to be fair and balanced and 8 per cent thought it didn’t go far enough.

Seventy-three per cent thought the extraordinary law, which critics have compared to the War Measures Act and the dark days of the Duplessis era, would fail to achieve Charest’s stated goal of “restoring social peace.” Three out of four respondents also supported the immediate resumption of negotiations between students and government, a firm repudiation of the Charest government’s refusal to negotiate.

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Police at Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012 Photo by Chris Zacchia

Disastrous as these numbers are for Charest, this may only be the beginning. The more the population analyzes the law, the more they will question it, according to Christian Bourque, Executive Vice President with Leger Marketing. He attributes the collapse in support for the government to Loi 78, noting “it’s the only thing which has changed since the last poll”.

For those of us on the ground here in Quebec, it seemed evident as soon as Loi 78 was introduced that Charest had overplayed his hand. In a province which has lived through the quiet revolution and the War Measures Act it seemed unlikely that we would fail to notice or care if our fundamental freedoms were curtailed.

The bill suspended the semester of striking institutions, to be resumed in late summer. It outlawed protests within fifty meters of an educational institution (rendering the downtown core a no-go zone), and protests whose details, including precise route, had not been communicated to police eight hours in advance. It also gave police the right to cancel a duly advertised demonstration, and imposed heavy fines for student organizations, organizers and simple citizens judged to have disobeyed the law. It is written so broadly that anyone communicating the details of an “illegal” protest, on twitter for example, could be severely fined.

Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012
Student protests tuesday may 21, 2012 Photo by Chris Zacchia

Perhaps the most concerning, and under-reported, provision of the law would allow the government to cancel the payment of dues to a student association or federation at a rate of one semester for each day or part thereof they were judged in violation of the law. Coupled with the reverse onus provision, which would force associations to prove members or supporters breaking the law were not acting on behalf of the association, this would allow Charest to effectively eliminate troublesome student associations and federations for a decade or longer. Would that we could all dispatch our enemies so easily!

Probably knowing the law would never survive a court challenge on constitutional grounds, the Liberals set it to expire in one year, before any challenge would likely be heard.

Over the weekend since Loi 78 was passed by the National Assembly it has been denounced by everyone from the Quebec Bar Association to pro-hike student groups. The Arcade Fire wore the emblematic red square symbol of the student strike during an appearance on Saturday Night Live, as did Xavier Dolan and his entourage at Cannes. Michael Moore waded in, pledging his support on twitter, and local boy turned Hollywood comedian Jon Lajoie publicly defied the law by releasing a “Song for Students” which ends with a call for viewers to join the mass demonstration organized for today to celebrate the 100th day of the strike.

Student protests
No end in sight, over 5000 protesters marched until 1 in the monrning through upper Westmount past Jean Charest's home

But it wasn’t just celebrities who took a dim view of the law. As demonstrations unfolded over the weekend it seemed that every bystander was suddenly cheering, every idled car honking in support and whole terraces full of people standing to applaud as the students went by. The last, and only, time I witnessed such a sudden shift in public opinion as this poll shows was during last May’s orange wave.

Then too there was a palpable shift on the streets of Montreal. A sudden unanimity.

For my money Charest has already lost, at this point he’s fighting history, and history always wins. Pauvre Jean, your summer of hell is only just starting…

A monster demonstration against Loi 78 and in celebration of the 100th day of the student strike has been called for TODAY (May 22) at 2PM at Place des Arts Metro.

If you are unable to attend, Concordia University Television (CUTV) have been revolutionizing how we interact with social movements by livestreaming the daily protests over the internet. Tune in! But remember, electronic copies are never as good as the real thing!

You can also follow me on twitter for live updates from the demo: @EthanCoxMTL

Police barricades on fire in downtown Montreal, photo Patrick Chartrand

It doesn’t matter what you think about the protest against tuition fee hikes, this isn’t about accessible education anymore. Now, everyone in Quebec’s right to protest, organize and express themselves freely is at risk. As of last night, people’s right to just go out and have a good time is at risk, too.

Friday, after a last-minute 48 hour session of the Assemble Nationale, the Charest government passed Bill 78. This “special” law originally defined any gathering of ten people or more who had not provided police with a trajectory and duration eight hours prior as an illegal riot.

That figure got changed to 50 people. The original number was laughable and prompted tongue-in-cheek phonecalls informing the police of upcoming family gatherings as well as satirical observations that people waiting for a bus, for example, could constitute a riot. Any number imposed as a limit, though, is unconstitutional and oppressive.

Image: Al Korkidakis

The law also makes it illegal to protest within 50 meters of a school, effectively barring protests from Montreal’s downtown core. Not only that, Twitter is apparently under surveillance, too. People’s tweets in favour of the strike protests or critical of the new law could land them in trouble for being a protest organizer.

In a nutshell, this is the most repressive piece of legislation passed in Canada since the War Measures Act. It’s a desperate act by a desperate administration trying to hold on to authority. Unfortunately, everyone has to pay for that desperation.

The student movement is locked down, so is any other movement that wants to get their message out in public space. A chill is being felt all across Quebec. Charest can now pass whatever he wants without having to deal with the consequences.

Well, not quite. If you were out in downtown Montreal Friday night, it didn’t look like any activists were in hiding. Protesters responded to their right to protest being removed by, well, protesting, in larger numbers than before. Some media said there were 10 000 people in the streets, others online argued that the figure was way higher. To be safe, I’ll just say that there were more than 50.

Image: Canadian Press

And that’s the point. Way more than 50 people marching without providing police with a route eight hours in advance by all the major schools in the downtown core and tweeting about it. That’s the only kind of response that will work, direct, point-by-point defiance.

And it was, for the most part, peaceful. Yes, there was a brief exchange of molatov cocktails and teargass and the cops declared the march illegal (kinda pointless, really, given the fact that all marches like this one are now technically illegal from the get-go), but as tens of thousands of people marched on, that passed and the protest continued until around 2am.

Those marching weren’t alone this time. They were cheered from terrasses and by car horns. Even a group of bikers revved their approval, prompting one CUTV (the best source for live coverage of this movement) commenter to observe that it “looks like Charest has lost his base.”

Last night wasn’t so jovial. The SPVM not only arrested 69 people, but they also teargassed a terrasse full of bar patrons unrelated to the protest on St-Denis (and even arrested a random woman). When the cops erected a barricade, quite possibly to kettle people in and arrest them, protesters set it on fire.

Regardless of whether or not you think going all St-Jean on the barricade was a good idea, I think we can all agree that the right course of action by the authorities would have been to put the blaze out right away. Instead they let it burn for a while, just enough time to get headlines about protesters burning things into the major corporate media.

It was for effect. Just as the attack on random Saturday night drinkers was for effect. Sure, they may explain it away as being some rogue cop acting inappropriately, but I think the real motive is to let people know that if the protests continue, they too may become a target.

The problem for them is people aren’t stupid. We’re savvy around these parts. We know that with this law, we are all targets automatically.

Because of law 78, this is no longer just a student struggle. It’s everyone’s struggle. Unions are coming on board and there’s a major march planned for Tuesday. Opposition politicians are urging civil disobedience and asking if the government has lost its mind. Xavier Dolan brought the movement to Cannes. The Arcade Fire brought it to Saturday Night Live. Ordinary people are waking up, too. Jean Charest woke them up.

I don’t think they will go to sleep until this law is removed from the books. At least I hope they won’t. We can’t afford to lose our most primal political rights. We are all red squares now.

You know what’s really scary? I think Jean Charest, Gerald Tremblay and their colleagues actually believe what they’re spinning about the ongoing student strike.

For months I thought that they were merely both cynically toeing party line in hopes of holding out long enough to avoid having to pass the debt they are trying to pin on students onto their rich buddies instead. Charest had his “pay their fair share” angle while Tremblay just kept repeating how we Montrealers need to “take our city back” from the protesters.

But at education minister Line Beauchamp’s resignation on Monday, something looked different about Charest. He looked genuinely upset and determined, like a pissed-off man on a mission.

Could this be true. Did he genuinely feel like he was the victim. Did he think the two offers his government made to the student groups were an actual compromise?

What about the violence? Does he think the police violence in Victoriaville and elsewhere was justified? Is it worth it to let the streets turn into a warzone just to enforce a small tax hike on students when there are clearly other ways to get the needed revenue, namely by listening to proposals like those of the CLASSE that would see a freeze on administrators’ salaries and raised taxes on the banks?

Let’s look at Tremblay. Last Thursday night, he called a press conference to address the coordinated smokebomb attack that prompted a shutdown of Montreal’s metro system earlier that morning. Instead of addressing the specific issue, the mayor spent about fifteen minutes talking about the student protests and the affect they have had on the city.

The problem here, and it’s a big one, is that as the mayor was speaking, there was absolutely no proven link between the incident and the movement. Since, some of the suspects have turned themselves in, but there is still no proof that they were acting on behalf of anyone but themselves and maybe a group that thinks the CLASSE isn’t radical enough.

Even in the unlikely event that a stronger link comes to light, Tremblay’s speech and especially his condescending remark that parents and grandparents should tell their kids to “go back to school” are off-topic at best, uncalled for and offensive. But you could see it in his eyes that he believed what he was saying and felt he was doing the right thing.

For him, there is no validity to this protest, the activists have had their fun and should give up so we can get back to the more serious, grown up matters of commerce, demolishing buildings and banning masks at protests. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one who feels this way.

The usual suspects are all present. Sun News released a “comedy” segment asking if Charest has the balls to stand up to protesters (sidenote: if he had balls, he’d stand up to his corporate and mob buddies and give the students what they want) and only referring to the activists as “student rioters.” CTV Montreal executive producer and guy I’ve agreed with maybe once in five years Barry Wilson went on a diatribe against the students, even blaming them for the police violence in Victoriaville.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Now, following the scare in the metro and constant anti-student talking points in the media, ordinary people, even some whose views I respect on many other issues, are getting on board with Charest and company. I think it has to do with the emotion that those in power are now speaking with.

It is real emotion, too. You see, this is no longer about a few hundred dollars in fee increases. It is an ideological war. On one side you find neoliberal austerity, corporate kickbacks and bureaucratic defense of the status quo. On the other, you find a fairer society, progressive ideas and the voice of the future.

It’s no wonder people like Charest and Tremblay are so passionate about protecting their interests in this matter. Their very authority and way of life are at stake. It’s also no surprise the students are passionate as well. Their future and the global revolution that started with the Arab Spring and spread to North America with the Occupy movement is being challenged here at home. That’s why they won’t cave, no matter how many cops and editorial comments the establishment throws at them.

The time has come for everyone else to take sides. The time has come for everyone else to realize that this isn’t about a few hundred dollars in fee increase. It’s about what kind of future we hope to have.

* photos by Phyllis Papoulias