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Yesterday marked the hundredth day of Quebec student’s strike, the fourth day since the Quebec government passed an oppressive law intended to break the strike, and, as hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets in defiance of the law, possibly the single largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
In New York, student groups and other activists made common cause with the Quebecois strikers, picketing the provincial government’s offices in midtown, holding a teach-in, and marching through Manhattan, filling the streets.
First, quickly, some background: Quebec has the lowest tuitions in Canada, a legacy of the province’s quiet revolution in the 1960s. But a year and a half ago, the government decided to jack tuition up by 75 percent over five years. Student efforts to negotiate went nowhere, and the government ultimately revised the increase up to 82 percent over seven years.
In February, student groups launched what they expected to be a short strike, but it instead turned into a “limitless,” open-ended strike. WIth negotiations still stalled, the strike turned into a rolling, day-and-night demonstration, and a massive police response filled the streets of Montreal with tear gas, sound grenades, and rubber bullets.
Then, on Friday, the government further upped the ante, passing BIll 78, which requires a permit for any protest of more than 50 people and institutes steep fines for engaging in protest activity. Under the law, even encouraging others to protest can lead to a penalty. Quebecois responded with defiance, staging the largest protests yet.
In New York, where educational debt is a growing issue and students at Cooper Union, CUNY, and across the SUNY system are facing their own tuition hikes, the Quebec strike clearly resonates. A crowd gathered yesterday afternoon outside the Quebec government’s offices in Rockefeller Center, holding signs that read “”Quebec / CUNY students unite! Same struggle, same fight.” and “Quebec, New York, Chicago — police repression has got to go.”
“The Quebec government doesn’t want to negotiate,” Marie-Héléne Graveline, a visiting student from Montreal, told the crowd. “Since Friday, it is illegal to protest against tuition hikes. We should always be free to protest.”
Later in the evening, a few hundred people met in Washington Square, discussing issues of education funding and student debt on both sides of the border. Volunteers handed out red felt squares to pin to clothing, a symbol adopted by the Quebecois strikers to demonstrate that tuition hikes put them squarely in the red.
Gregory Rosenthal, a doctoral candidate at Stonybrook who teaches in the SUNY system, said it’s a message he can identify with. His students are facing their own five-year “rational tuition increase.”
“A lot of my students are the first in their family to go to college,” Rosenthal said. “All these kids are working their way through college, working two or three jobs. You might say ‘SUNY’s only $7,000 a year,’ but for a lot of students, especially students who are mothers or fathers, that’s a lot.”
A little after 8 p.m., the crowd, a mix of students, Canadians and Occupy Wall Street protesters, set off on a march, immediately seizing the center of the street and disrupting traffic. The handful of police on hand appeared unprepared for this, and the march swerved up Broadway, running north against traffic for blocks, before turning east, still in the middle of the street, all the way to Avenue A.
As the march moved south, the police presence began to grow. The marchers found Tompkins Square Park closed and garrisoned with police. An officer told legal observer Sarah Knucke the park was closed because “because a mob, a demonstration,
some kind of mob” was “on its way” and the police had been ordered to
temporarily close the park “for about an hour.”
Gideon Oliver, New York President of the National Lawyers Guild, said the police action was unlawful.
“The summary closure of a public park, when New York City rules require that park to be open, flies in the face of those rules, and the rule of law more generally,” Oliver said. “Here, the NYPD again used pre-emptive policing, at cost not only to the protesters’ rights, but to the rights of others who may have wanted to use and enjoy Tompkins Square Park tonight.
As the march turned west again, police claimed the street, forcing protesters onto the sidewalks of St. Mark’s Place. Then, on Great Jones just east of Broadway, police announced through a megaphone that “The sidewalk has been temporarily closed,” and ordered the demonstrators to leave. The march turned around, ultimately making it to Union Square. Six people were arrested.
Danna, a former student at Concordia University in Montreal, said the importance of the march goes beyond showing solidarity for the Quebecois strikers.
“It’s also about what’s going on here,” she said. “Here, there, and everywhere, the authorities are threatened when students begin to organize and stand up. It’s a critical point, the time when people are introduced into the debt system. If you threaten that, it makes some people really nervous.”