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26 April 2001 Edition

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The Battle of Quebec: Free trade and plastic bullets

Globalised resistance

Members of the Quebec-Ireland Committee were at Quebec City last weekend for the anti-globalisation demonstrations (getting tear-gassed in the process) and present this eye-witness account:

Plastic bullets, clouds of tear gas, water cannon, snatch squads, and hundreds of militant youth trying to bring down a ``wall of shame'' - Belfast in the good old/bad old days? No, this was historic Quebec City last weekend as the leaders of all the countries in the Americas (except Cuba - excluded to placate the US) and several corporate leaders met to discuss a free trade area for the Americas.

The framework and terms of the negotiations were kept shrouded in secrecy, so that even elected members of governments were not privy to the contents. Symbolic of the exclusive nature of the Summit of the Americas, a huge wire fence, costing 12 million dollars, was constructed around the conference area and 6,000 police were mobilised to protect it. The free trade agreements already in place between Canada, the US and Mexico have brought job losses, environmental degradation, a decline in social services and, of course, greater wealth and power for the rich. The gap between rich and poor in these countries has increased greatly since the North American Free Trade deal went into effect over a decade ago. An especially sinster aspect of these agreements is they give the right for corporations to sue governments if a government policy, such as environmental regulation, interferes with the company's profits. Critics suspected that the proposed Free trade Agreement for the Americas would be more of the same.

Reaction to the proposed Free Trade Agreement for the Americas brought an unprecedented mobilisation of civil society, with a counter ``Popular Summit'' attended by over 2,000 delegates from all over the Americas, including representatives from Cuba. A march organised by unions, as well as environmental, human rights and women's groups attracted 45,000 people united in saying no to a free trade agreement with a corporate agenda.

Meanwhile, over two days, thousands of militants demonstrated in front of the fence barrier calling it ```the wall of shame''. To the great embarrassment of the police, young people succeeded in toppling a good section of the perimeter fence with relative ease. Police responded with tear gas, water cannons, plastic bullets and snatch squads, often targeting group leaders rather than stone throwers. On a number of occasions, witnesses saw police shoot tear gas canisters directly at paramedic teams treating injured demonstrators. The most flagrant incident was the kidnapping of anti-globalisation leader Jaggi Singh, a Canadian, who was away from the confrontation area when three plainclothes police jumped him, dragged him into an unmarked car, and drove away. Singh, no stranger to police harassment, has been charged with possession of a weapon: a large catapult that some protestors were using to lob teddy bears and confetti over the fence in the vicinity of his arrest. Pictures taken at the scene of the arrest show that Singh was not involved in any illegal activity.

Protestors were undeterred by the repression and succeeded in breaching the barrier on two more occasions. Large sections of old Quebec were flooded with tear gas and several protestors were hit by plastic bullets, with at least one reporting a broken wrist. This is the first time that Quebec police have used plastic bullets as a crowd control technique.

Despite this massive repression and the arrogant attitude of several political leaders (Vincente Fox of Mexico said the demonstrators were rich kids with full stomachs - blithely ignoring that the recent march of Zapatistas to Mexico City voiced the same demands as demonstrators in Quebec), most commentators admit that the counter summit and the protestors largely succeeded in forcing the government leaders to respond to their agenda and address such issues as transparency, human and environmental rights, and democracy. Indeed, the summit has produced a ``democracy clause'' and has vowed large sums of money to tackle poverty. For those present at the demonstrations, however, the most important thing to come out of the process was the sense of solidarity and the links that were built over the week of struggle. As Warren Allmand, president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development put it to the 45,000 marchers, ``Resistance has been globalised!''

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1