Tearing Down the Wall

Two Views of Democracy Battle in Quebec City


In the Upper Town, on Friday, workers hammer protective boards across shop windows as surveillance helicopters whir over the security perimeter. Paper doll cutouts, balloons, and flowers decorate the hated fence, and graffiti appears more quickly than it can be scrubbed off: "Smash Capitalism," "Freedom Can't Be Fenced," "Quebec City or Berlin?" McDonald's has removed its golden arches and painted the storefront with yellow daffodils, making it look abandoned. Demonstrators linger by the fence, pulling at it now and then to test its strength.

Thousands gather at the Université Laval, among them jugglers, Lady Liberty on stilts, and the radical cheerleaders, who skip rope to anti-FTAA chants. "Welcome to the carnival against capitalism," shouts a man through a bullhorn. The crowd divides into three groups: Greens (no arrest risk) head for the Lower Town; yellows (nonviolent direct action with some risk of arrest) and reds ("diversity of tactics") march toward the fence. Yellows and reds are mostly young, students and nonstudents, from across Canada and much of the northeastern United States. Marie Jacques, a student from Toronto, wears a bar code on the back of her black leather jacket: "With the FTAA we will become commodities, not people," she says. "Our genes will be for sale."

At Boulevard René Lévesque, a man scales the fence to the sound of riotous cheers mixed with the heavy footsteps of police moving into formation. He hangs over the top, as those below begin to shake and rock the fence. It takes a mere five minutes to pull a 150-foot section down, and as demonstrators stomp upon the fence and begin to push into the security zone, the first of countless canisters of tear gas are tossed into the crowds. But the wind blows the gas back at the police, toward the Congress Center. Protesters lob snowballs, hockey pucks, and a stuffed Barney doll at the police.

Inside the Congress Center and nearby hotels, staffers shut the ventilation systems to keep the gas out. The buildings are "locked down"—no one can go in or out, but because an underground mall connects the buildings, delegates roam freely from one to the next. Police sit glued to TVs in an underground bistro, watching the battle. The activists have succeeded in delaying many leaders: President Bush has made it, but his meeting with Caribbean heads of state is canceled; other meetings are impeded as well. The opening ceremonies begin one hour late.

Venzuela's president Hugo Chávez, a leader who arose from the ranks of the poor, stops to talk to reporters outside the Hilton. In Venezuela, he says, "We will give the people a referendum to say whether Venezuela should be part of FTAA." Asked about the protests, he comments, "If we don't listen to the people, then democracy is a farce. I'm very sorry about all the tear gas, it is too much, but I understand why they feel they must use it."

The word "democracy" is on everyone's lips, presidents and demonstrators alike. But the meaning seems to change depending upon which side of the fence one stands. Chávez's words, for instance, can be interpreted two ways. He speaks as an elected populist, but has worried some Venezuelans by suspending the courts and rewriting the constitution. George W. Bush, for his part, uses "democracy" as a synonym for free trade and freedom. But who benefits most from this freedom—the peasant who finds low-wage work at a U.S.-owned factory, or the multinational corporation unshackled from pesky domestic laws?

President Francisco Flores Pérez of El Salvador warns that the longer developing countries must wait for this trade agreement, the more vulnerable they become to losing democracy to dictatorship. "But maybe the leaders are to blame for these protests," he adds, "because distribution has been so unequal."

On Saturday, the second day of demonstrations, an estimated 30,000 people gather at the port for a peaceful march. Approximately 5000 head toward the fence. The police toss tear gas as the first person begins to climb it. This day, each time a canister lands amid the protesters, someone snatches it and lobs it back at police. When the water cannons arrive, the crowds cheer as one man is whooshed off the fence in a flooding stream. The sound of a bagpipe drifts through while gas and water flow. The air throughout the city is thick and noxious.

Elsewhere along the fence, members of the Black Bloc, a self-described anarchist collective, have penetrated, but take only a few steps through the hole before a police officer cracks one with a baton. They retreat. When the fence beside the St. Matthew cemetery comes down, a man hops into the graveyard, finds himself alone, ducks behind tombstones, then flees, stomping merrily on the fence as he exits. Police, exhausted, sit in doorways eating Power Bars; all they have is water, one complains, when what they need is Gatorade.

Inside, the leaders gather atop the Citadel for their group photo. The acrid smell of tear gas hangs in the air as they smile. They have agree on one thing by now: They will include a "democracy clause." It will say that nations failing to adhere to democratic principles will not be able to participate in the FTAA, and that nations may be thrown out if democracy is threatened.

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