Keeping Us Out Before We Get There

March 21st, 2001
By Naomi Klein

"I am worried that free trade is leading to the privatization of education," an elementary school teacher in Ottawa tells me. "I want to go to the protests in Quebec City, but is it going to be safe?"

"I think NAFTA has increased the divide between rich and poor," a young mother in Toronto tells me. "But if I go to Quebec, will my son get pepper-sprayed?"

"I want to go to Quebec City," a Harvard undergraduate active in the anti-sweatshop movement says, "but I heard no one is getting across the border."

"We’re not even bothering to go to Quebec City," a student in Mexico City says. "We can’t afford to get arrested in a foreign country."

If you think that the next big crackdown on political protest is going to take place when 5,000 police officers clash with activists outside the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City next month, you are mistaken. The real crackdown is already taking place. It is happening silently, with no fanfare, every time another would-be protester decides not to publicly express his or her views about the proposed free-trade area of the Americas.

It turns out that the most effective form of crowd control isn’t pepper spray, water cannons, tear gas or any of the other weapons being readied by Quebec police in anticipation of the arrival of 34 heads of state. The most cutting-edge form of crowd control is controlling the crowds before they converge: This is state-of-the-art protest deterrence—the silencing you do yourself.
It happens every time we read another story about how Quebec will be surrounded by a three-metre-high fence. Or about how there’s nowhere to sleep in the city except the prisons, which have been helpfully cleared out. A month before the summit, post-card perfect Quebec City has been successfully transformed into a menacing place, inhospitable to regular people with concerns about corporate-driven trade and economic deregulation. Protesting, rather than being a healthy part of democracy, seems like an extreme and dangerous sport, suitable only for hard-core activists, with bizarre accessories and doctoral degrees in rock climbing.

More protest deterrence takes place when we accept the stories in the newspapers, filled with anonymous sources and unattributed statements, about how some of these activists are actually "agitators" who are "planning to use violence," packing bricks and explosives. The only proof provided for such inflammatory allegations is that "anarchists" are organizing into "small groups" and these groups are "autonomous," meaning—gasp!—they don’t tell each other what to do.

The truth is this: Not a single one of the official groups organizing protests is planning violent action. A couple of the more radical organizations, including the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, have said they respect "a diversity of tactics . . . ranging from popular education to direct action." They have said they will not, on principle, condemn other activists for their tactics.

This admittedly complicated position has been distorted in this paper and others as tantamount to planning violent attacks on the summit—which it most certainly is not. The position has also been a source of frustration for many activists who argue that it would be easier if everyone just signed on to a statement saying the protests will be non-violent.

The problem is that one of the fundamental arguments against the FTAA’s Darwinian economic model is that it increases violence: violence within poor communities and police violence against the poor. In a speech delivered last year, International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew helps explain why. In the New Economy, he said, "the victims are not only exploited, they’re excluded. . . . You may be in a situation where you are not needed to create that wealth. This phenomenon of exclusion is far more radical than the phenomenon of exploitation."

Indeed it is. Which is why a society that blithely accepts this included/excluded ledger is an unsafe society. It is filled with people who have little faith in the system, who feel they have nothing to gain from the promises of prosperity coming out of gatherings such as the Summit of the Americas, who see the police only as a force of repression.

If this isn’t the kind of society we want—one of included and excluded, and ever higher walls dividing the two—then the answer is not for "good" activists to pre-emptively condemn "bad" activists. The answer is to reject the politics of division wholesale. And the best place to do it is in Quebec City, where the usually invisible wall of exclusion has been made starkly visible, with a new chain-link fence and crowd-control methods that aim to keep us out before we even get there.