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April 2 and the future direction of the Quebec's spring 2015 movement

Social movement dynamics; the players; to go fast or slow?

by David Gray-Donald

April 2 protest in Montreal. ASSÉ (Twitter)
April 2 protest in Montreal. ASSÉ (Twitter)
It has already been a big day in Quebec today and the night demos haven't even happened yet.
 
130 000 students (including McGill Law!?!), and over 1000 professors are on strike today, and around 75 000 to 100 000 walked in an illegal protest against austerity through the streets of Montreal this afternoon.
 
At this moment there is also a flury of debate within the movement about where it goes next. 
 
Intense debate in the midst of a massive mobilization could sound dangerous and self-destructive for a movement, like a replay of every time in recent memory the left in Canada has self destructed by entangling itself in webs of petty rage. But these discussions can also be seen as a very exciting moment.
 
How many social movements, focused on such huge fundamental issues as the entire neoliberal agenda as well as the oil economy, actually get into a position that the movement realizes it could get too big too fast and so thinks to tactically slow down because both fact and enough people on its side, and only the strength of the strategy is lacking? This is rare.
 
Seeing big social movements in Canada is exciting, and also means we have to start learning about them, about social movements, how they work, who the actors are, the time frames, the milestones, etc. Occupy, Idle No More, Quebec 2012, anti-pipelines & oil by train, Printemps 2015, it's like things are starting to pick up from where they were in the anti-globalization movement days pre-9/11. And what's happening in Quebec is big, with lots of complexities, people, organizations, internal debates.
 
But mainstream media doesn't cover news from the perspective of social movements. Not yet at least. Media like The Vancouver Observer and Vice and The Guardian are getting closer, and of course various independent media, but for the most part people with 9-5 jobs don't learn about movement strategy or get updates on how they're going. We are given the business perspective, the consumer perspective, and the electoral politics perspective.
 
I'm ranting at this point, sure. But given the huge mass of things going on in Quebec and the tiny trickle of information that seeps out from inside its borders, I can't help but try to illustrate in practical terms all this abstract junk just a bit.
 
Students have quickness in all this, and ASSÉ, a grouping of student associations (like CFS in English Canada, but much more radical), has played a key role in mobilizing people, especially for today, April 2. The ASSÉ strategy is to put on a show of force, to show the size and disruptive ability of the movement.
 
Community groups, like feminist organizations and environmental groups, have been joining in, along with union local organizations. Some of these groups, many of them small, are able to join quickly and some less quickly, and they can add volume to the movement but can't make up its core on their own. 
 
If there is an analogy to a linebacker, the massive football players whose job it is to push against their opponents to move the line between the two sides, then it would be the central bodies of the public sector unions. Union centrals. CSN, Unifor, etc. At 550 000 people strong in Quebec they hold immense power, but are slow to move and not known for their agility, nor for their allegiance to social movements.
 
The Printemps 2015 committees, on the other hand, are quite agile, being composed of a fluid group of organizers and without a highly-formalized structure. 
 
Now, today, April 2nd, the argument within the movement is about how fast to go, and when. Some students in ASSÉ and other groups say that after taking over Montreal's streets today the movement will have shown it can mobilize, shown the government what it is capable of. And then it should, they argue, slow down, end the student strikes, strengthen the base of support, and get ready to relaunch in the fall, potentially with widespread unlimited general strikes. This option will be discussed at an ASSÉ congress this weekend. It is one option among several being discussed.
 
Stopping striking now doesn't mean stopping the mobilization. There are demos and actions already planned for April, cluminating in shutting down the province for May 1st as another show of force. 
 
Partially informing this strategy of slowing down for the moment is that the public sector unions, those lumbering linebackers, might be ready to go on strike in the fall. They are notoriously difficult players to integrate into a social movement. Not that it's impossible, but they have specific timelines and goals, and there is reason to believe that if they get the pay raise they are seeking they will demobilize and leave the movement. Walk off the field. Some in the Printemps 2015 committees are mad that this is being considered, and they want to go big right now. There are demonstrations taking over the streets every night in Montreal already, where it snowed this morning. What could it look like when people get outside in warmer weather? We got a taste today as temperatiures broke 10 C.
 
While the sentiment was joyous in the streets today, from some Quebec spectators there is also something close to hate for the movement. This comes from those who don't agree with it or don't understand the message or plain old don't like the disruptions. At times it comes out in angry rhetoric in support of police force, enthusiastically calling for weaponized violence to be used on peaceful citizens trying to get a message across. Addressing those strong emotions will be a challenge, one requiring popular education, which often gets dropped when everyone rushes into the streets. But it is sometimes inevitable that, by the way information is controlled, a significant portion of the population will simply never hear articulated the arguments of the movement. Media, government, and businesses as usual can all easily line up against the movement and foster hate for it. Knowing that that won't change, other ways to win are sought out. The call to the streets grows louder.
 
And waiting there are the highly militarized police. Hundreds of them. As the chant goes (translated) "the police, the police, in the service of the rich and the fascists." Or as one long-time activist put it to me, "I feel bad for the police, they are the punching bags between the rich and the rest." Innumerable articles have discussed dynamics between police and protesters, and I went there briefly before and will come back again, but that means losing focus of a big part of austerity.
 
The rich. This movement is distinctly about the rich. About the riches. About how we distribute what there is and therefore how we relate to each other. As someone from the wealthy circles of Montreal, who hears first-hand about the tax evasion, the corporate corruption, and the rapid accumulation of money in the hands of few, it's easy for me to see why people are mad, but harder to fit in and find a role. I've been taught to covet wealth, to be in elite institutions. We walked by McGill University today, my alma matter, and by the Mount Royal Club, places in the 1800s where wealthy English-speaking slave-owners would hang out while the landless poor, 70% of the population, would work the fields. Much has changed since then, and much remains the same.
 
When I talk with wealthy people now, it's not so much that they want other people to be poor (though there are some mean-spirited people who think that way, no doubt), it is that they believe the current organization of things is logical and rational and right.
 
The movement in Quebec, from what little I've seen of it, gets down to the core of those ideas and demands we re-evaluate how we see the world. The student movement tried to do that in 2012, with some success. This time, the movement, which is already much broader than students, could have fruitful strategy discussions and become a serious and strong social force, forcing conversations and changes. It could also, as mentioned at the start of this article, self-destruct.
 
But, as Fannie Poirier, an organizer with the Printemps 2015 committees said today of working with ASSÉ, "We know we will be organizing together in the way we always have, that being direct democracy, and we're going to hear everybody out and take the best decision for what's to come. I think there is a mobilization right now that is not to be devalued." 

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