Even the Green Zone Wasn't a Safe-Haven

April 21st, 2001
By Naomi Klein

"Where are you," I screamed from my cellphone into his. There was a pause and then, "A Green Zone—St. Jean and St. Claire."

Green Zone is protest speak for an area free of tear gas or police clashes. There are no fences to storm, only sanctioned marches. Green zones are safe, you’re supposed to be able to bring your kids to them.

"Okay," I said. "See you in 15 minutes."

I had barely put on my coat when I got another call: "Jaggi’s been arrested. Well, not exactly arrested. More like kidnapped." My first thought was that it was my fault: I had asked Mr. Singh to tell me his whereabouts over a cellphone. Our call must have been monitored, that’s how they found him.

If that sounds paranoid, welcome to Summit City.

Less than an hour later, at the Comité Populaire St-Jean Baptiste community centre, a group of six swollen-eyed eyewitnesses read me their hand-written accounts of how the most visible organizer of Friday’s direct action protest against the free-trade area of the Americas was snatched from under their noses.

All say Mr. Singh was standing around talking to friends, urging them to move further away from the breached security fence. They all say he was trying to de-escalate the police standoff.
"He said it was getting too tense," said Mike Staudenmaier, a U.S. activist who was talking to Mr. Singh when he was grabbed from behind, then surrounded by three large men.

"They were dressed like activists," said Helen Nazon, a 23-year-old from Quebec City, with hooded sweatshirts, bandannas on their faces, flannel shirts, a little grubby. "They pushed Jaggi on the ground and kicked him. It was really violent."

"Then they dragged him off," said Michele Luellen. All the witnesses told me that when Mr. Singh’s friends closed in to try to rescue him, the men dressed as activists pulled out long batons, beat back the crowd and identified themselves: "Police!" they shouted. Then they threw him into a beige van and drove off. Several of the young activists have open cuts where they were hit.

Three hours after Mr. Singh’s arrest, there was still no word of where he was being held.

Throwing activists into unmarked cars and nabbing them off streets is not supposed to happen in Canada. The strange thing is that, in Jaggi Singh’s short career as an antiglobalization activist, it has happened to him before—during the 1997 protests against the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit.

The day before the protests took place, Mr. Singh was grabbed by two plainclothes police officers while walking alone on the University of British Columbia campus, thrown to the ground then stuffed into an unmarked car.

The charge, he later found out, was assaulting police. Mr. Singh had apparently talked so loudly into a megaphone some weeks before that it had hurt the ear drum of a nearby police officer.

The charge, of course, was later dropped, but the point was clearly to have Mr. Singh behind bars during the protest, just as he will no doubt be in custody for Saturday’s march. He faced a similar arrest at the G-20 summit in Montreal.

In all of these bizarre cases, Jaggi Singh has never been accused of vandalism, of planning or plotting violent actions. Anyone who has seen him at the barricades, crumbling or otherwise, knows that his greatest crime is giving good speeches.

That’s why I was on the phone with Mr. Singh minutes before his arrest—trying to persuade him to come to the Peoples’ Summit teach-in that I was co-hosting to tell the crowd of 1,500 what was going on in the streets.

He had agreed, but then determined it was too difficult to cross the city.
I can’t help thinking the fact that this young man has been treated as a terrorist, repeatedly and with no evidence, might have something to do with his brown skin, and the fact that his last name is Singh. No wonder his friends say that this supposed threat to the state doesn’t like to walk alone at night.

After collecting all the witness statements, the small crowd begins to leave the community centre to attend a late-night planning meeting. In an instant, the halls are filled with red-faced people, their eyes streaming with tears, frantically looking for running water.

The tear gas has filled the street outside the centre, and has entered the corridors. "This is no longer a Green Zone! Les flics (the police) s’envient!" So much for making it to my laptop at the hotel.

Denis Belanger, who was kind enough to let me use the community centre’s rickety PC to write this column, notices that the message light is flashing on the phone. It turns out that the police have closed in the entire area, no one is getting out.

"Maybe I’ll spend the night," Mr. Belanger said. Maybe I will too.