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A Few Thousand of my Closest Friends

Letter from a Montreal night demo

by Dru Oja Jay

A Few Thousand of my Closest Friends
Last night, I went for an evening stroll with a few thousand of my closest friends. Actually, I went to the demonstration alone, on a whim. But here's why, in the absence of words that don't exist yet, that still feels like the right description.
 
It's 7:45pm. Walking on the recently uncovered pavement to the metro (subway) station, I could feel something in the air: the city feels more alive, more alert. But then again, maybe it's just me. Through the doors of the station, I pass four high school-aged girls who are sharing pieces of gum. There's something in their manner that tells me they've got more purpose that an outing to a movie or a club. They hurry past me, and get on the train in the same direction. Maybe it's not just me. I look around at the others on the train, and try to spot the ones who are going to the same place I am.
 
I get off at Berri-UQAM, and it's definitely not just me. Hundreds of people are milling in the central meeting area, waiting for friends. The average age must be about 20. Clusters of police observe the scene.
 
I join a stream of bodies heading for the Ste-Catherine exit, and the collective energy builds. Outside, what looks to me like hundreds of people are humming with expectation, like a symphony tuning up its instruments. My heart beats a litte faster, and I take a breath of still evening air. Clusters of friends and political tendencies are chatting, and activists are distributing flyers about coming events and what we should do if the police attack. 
 
We're enjoying each other's company in the light snow, waiting for something to happen. We know something is going to happen. The Facebook event I was invited to is titled OSTIE DE GROSSE MANIF DE SOIR: PRISE DEUX, which roughly translates to "Fucking huge night demo, take two." The prophesy has self-fulfilled, and it looks like the crowd is close to a thousand.
 
Drums, horns and vuvuzelas sound the rhythms of well-worn chants and songs, in little bursts of anticipation. Signs are held by the folks from more radical groups, speaking mostly to the other demonstrators. A mass-printed sign from a union-sponsored demonstration reads "let's refuse austerity" and someone has added, in red ink and a stylish hand: "...and nationalism;" and on another: "...and patriarchy;" "...and the petro-state;"...and colonialism." Bits of hockey gear cover various body parts in anticipation of police attacks.
 
We are surrounded by police in body armour. Periodically, an intensely amplified voice from a police truck informs the crowd: "you have the right to demonstrate, but no infractions will be tolerated." Boos, vuvuzelas and drums rise in a cacophonous response, drowning out the loudspeaker. Translation from the universal language of rebellion: we don't need your permission, calisse!
 
After a half an hour, cheers go up as the march begins to move. As we turn up rue Berri, I realize that we've become a much bigger group. The crowd fills the street for several blocks. We are, as they say, legion.
 
This isn't just people going to a demonstration. This is a movement, where people have carved out different roles, political positions and formed relationships that occupy something beyond the role of friends. (Have we quite decided if the word comrade is still a thing?) We've been to these marches and events together before, and we'll be there again. Our ideas might be quite different in some cases, but our fate is shared. We're thinking together and changing our minds; we're not quite as fluid as the destination of this march, but there's a sense of possibility.
 
There's the middle aged guy waving a Quebec flag and calling for independence, and there are the anarchists who reject nationalism. There those who body check riot police to stop them from making an arrest, and those who exhort each other to sit down in the street. We're all here because we know that changing the direction of an entire socio-economic order takes more than a group or a leader; it requires the society itself to be in motion.
 
The student-led anti-austerity movement knows this. During the 2012 student strike, a commonly-heard claim was that students were selfish. "They just don't want to pay their fair share" was the refrain from government, and reactionary observers. Probably many casual observers thought the same thing. Nevermind that it wasn't true – the benefits would go mainly to future generations of students – but it was the best of the dwindling list of excuses for putting students "squarely in the red."
 
This time, no such claim can be made. Students are putting off their educations, suspending their collective future to fight for everyone. They're hitting the streets multiple times per week to stop a global attempt to redraw the lines of society in a sort of neo-feudal motif, and developing plans for a wholly different arrangement. They're putting it on the line, waiting for the public sector unions – who are in the midst of fiery contract negotiations – and other social forces to join in.
 
The irony hanging over the whole exercise is that the police are part of the same fight. Many of them have their own version of the red square – red stickers reading "we didn't steal anything," a reference to massive corruption at the city hall that is now cutting their pensions – adorning their riot gear: shin pads, shields and helmets.
 
The demonstrators make constant reference to this, chanting the aforementioned police union's slogan and "if the police follow us, it's because they support us."
 
The videos that get shared by thousands online tend to be of the most action-packed or harrowing moments, but none of them capture the essential experience. Walking with thousands of others, chatting, chanting, smoking, singing: this is the embodiment of a society in motion. The path is made by walking, and we're taking a trip together – from there to here, and beyond.
 
No camera is going to capture the feeling of light spring snow, lit by street lamps, falling lazily from an empty sky to melt on thousands of rosy cheeks moving in the same direction. No analysis piece or interview can tell you what it's like to feel, for a minute, like you and your multiple thousands of comrades have the ability to make your own fate, together.
 
And if there ever was a time when societies need to be moving, now would appear to be such a moment. We're standing on the precipice of a climate collapse driven by the inexorable greed of our increasingly sequestered and unhinged rulers. We're in the streets for dignity, and justice, but survival is lurking in there somewhere too. That's not lost on student organizers, who declared their first demonstration of the spring "against austerity and the petro-economy".
 
We have to move, because the way we relate to each other, the city, our work -- none of it makes sense. We have to walk ourselves out of these roles, these rules, these economics and into something else entirely. This metamorphosis is ongoing, but the night demo might be the most joyful public, collective expression of it that I've experienced.
 
Red squares or not, tonight, the police were not willing to risk their six-figure salaries to switch sides. No one has numbers on how many police have quit, but we can be sure that the ones who are given the tear gas guns and sound bombs to use against kids who are fighting the common enemy who gives them orders are selected for their sociopathic tendencies. 
 
These police, we can be sure, are themselves the product of violence and trauma – if not the violence of being asked to physically hurt people whose crime is walking in the streets without a permit, then something further back. But that's why they get paid the big bucks. Just like oil and mining CEOs who get bonuses after they preside over environmental disasters, police are well-compensated for their odiousness. Physical violence does overcome the psychological weakness and the process of self-dehumanization that being a police officer in Montreal entails... but only for a bit.
 
State violence has its purpose: to discourage certain activities and make them less appealing, and ultimately to control an entire society by limiting and shaping its activities. But it can also have the effect of strengthening bonds between people beyond the clique, the cohort or the classroom. With every launch of a tear gas canister, they produce a thousand moments that will become shared history. Shared history becomes shared destiny, and shared resolve. In a word: solidarity.
 
Eyes stinging, ears ringing, I don't have to think twice to know that my multiple thousands of friends and I will be back out there again soon.
 
For information about anti-austerity movements in the rest of Canada, check out www.uniteagainstausterity.ca.
 
For more coverage of anti-austerity organizing in Quebec and elsewhere, visit this page.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
Montreal
Member since Janvier 2008

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Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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