Postcard from Montreal — students in the street

Hundreds of thousands of students and supporters protested in Montreal on May 22.
May 24, 2012

In Occupy-style, they are pop-up and pop-out protesters on Montreal's streets.

A jester threw juggling clubs high in the air, a masked face beamed — the sweat of the warm day glistening over her make-up — and the nose of a clown tilting up to figures on stilts, occasionally twisting round in a dance-trot.

An impromptu band shook beans in glass bottles and beat drumsticks, while an accordion played old favourites.

Whistles tried to organise the crowd. Dogs menaced one another, tying themselves up in their leashes as their owners passed by.

It was a merry, almost medieval, scene with residents out on their balconies raising their fists in solidarity or staring quizzically at the merriment at those protesting against hikes in students fees and rising debts, as well as Quebec’s new Bill 78 aimed at quelling student protests.

With the threat of university fees almost doubling by 2020, parents and educators readily joined the students’ challenge to the intransigent Liberal government, which has already been forced to replace its education minister.

As if marshalling a funeral procession, police cars and trucks contained the small band — still there were hundreds of us — as we wound our way through the streets of Montreal.

It was not a new sight. May 22 marked 100 days of students’ tying up police resources with such pop-up actions and marches through Montreal’s commercial, office and residential quarters, including at night.

When the spring weather was warm enough, they walked half-naked. Along with other colleagues, I joined them on May 19 —the last day of the international Degrowth in the Americas conference.

On 22 May, about 200,000 took to the streets, in response to which the police barred any protest that night. When a few thousand protestors appeared — violating Bill 78's requirement to submit the time and route of proposed actions for police permission — they were accused of illegal assembly.

Police tear-gassed and baton-charged them. There were 113 arrests, many for wearing masks (including painted faces) — a practice now outlawed.

The next night, a record 450 arrests ensued, each demonstrator facing a minimum $1000 fine. (Social media videos showing the protests and police brutality can be found here.)

The government relented on meeting students about the fee hikes. But the new education minister signalled that Bill 78 — now a major issue for those living in Quebec — is non-negotiable.

With all the chatting and singing in French as we walked along that afternoon, I thought of the 1848 revolution in France, solidarity and the frozen revolution. The latest tactic by Montreal householders is to beat pots and pans outside their homes at 8pm each night, a tactic used regularly in South America since the 1970s when popularised as a middle-class protest against the socialist Allende government.

The world is really international. We share our tactics, country to country. But, even with this alternative form of globalisation, can we succeed? Is our vision clear?

If you can’t join the Quebec students on the streets, you can still pin a red square to your lapel, showing your solidarity.

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