Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Monday Montebello Diary

My son and I arrived in Montebello around noon, after passing through two check points with barely a glance. The first thing we saw was a line of cars and buses stopped along the shoulder next to a large field. On the far side of the field was the infamous fence. There were tents set up for the media, and even a few porta-potties for the protesters.

How convenient.

The Grannies had pulled up just in front of me, so I asked them what was up. Apparently the police were trying to keep everyone here, but were finally persuaded to let us through into the town itself. I’m not sure how they ever expected to keep us out, but we got back in our cars and drove on into lovely downtown Montebello. I parked on a side street, where I somehow managed to summon up enough pigeon French to ask the homeowner, "C’est bien ici?" Apparently it was.

Our timing couldn’t have been better. Everyone was gathered in a restaurant parking lot, and soon after we arrived an announcement was made that we were going to march up to the gates of the Montebello resort to try to present a petition to Stephen Harper.

Five minutes up the road we were met by a veritable wall o’ riot police strung across the highway in front of the gates. But everything was cool. People got right up in the cops’ faces - some sat down in front of them - but everybody was under control. No shoving, no throwing things, not even much shouting other than the chanting of slogans. The police showed immense restraint, possibly because they knew their actions were being recorded by dozens upon dozens of cameras, camcorders and cell phones.

About an hour in, an announcement was made that those with kids or who were there for the "family friendly" demonstration should move back to the rally point. Now.

I probably would have done as they asked except my suddenly enthusiastic son refused to budge. I only agreed to stay on the condition that when I said "Run!", we ran. And so I watched in fascination as some people retreated, and a whole bunch of younger people wearing handkerchiefs around their necks or over their faces started moving to the front. There was also this strange smell that I recognized but couldn’t quite place.

When I first decided to go to the protests this weekend, a friend warned me to "stay away from the kids wearing the handkerchiefs". I had no idea what he was talking about, but from further reading I gathered he meant the semi-professional anti-globalization, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist activists who have become a fixture at pretty much every left-leaning demonstration for the past decade.

The kerchiefs are for the tear gas. The strange smell was vinegar, with which they were dousing their kerchiefs. Apparently it helps counteract the tear gas.

All this was rather new to me, and I would have dragged my recalcitrant son out of there immediately - except the whole thing still felt perfectly under control. I want to say ‘orchestrated’, but it wasn’t. It was more like… expected. Not condoned, and certainly not encouraged. But definitely expected.

All of these people had done this before, and knew exactly what was going to happen and what was expected of them. The police expected to be subjected to some sort of physical provocation, to which they were expected to respond with a slowly escalating sequence of counter measures. The ‘kerchief kids’ were expected to provoke the police, at first verbally and then by more physical means until the police responded, at which point they fully expected to be gassed, clubbed, and / or pepper-sprayed.

This is, of course, exactly what happened. The ‘kids’ yelled a lot, and the drums and music got louder. There may have been some pushing, although I couldn’t see from where I was. Every once in a while something went flying towards the police, mostly water bottles and fruit although I did see a couple of small rocks. Still, given the extent of the riot gear these fellows were wearing, the gesture was purely symbolic.

This went on for at least another hour. I don’t know what the final provocation was, but I thought I heard a ‘pop’ and saw a small cloud of smoke, accompanied by screams and a sudden spike in my adrenaline. I thought at first it was tear gas, but there wasn’t enough smoke and I heard that some of the folks at the front had been pepper-sprayed. This was verified a little later when the victims were brought out, water being poured over their eyes, their faces red and nearly blistered.

I still don’t know how I feel about all this.

On the one hand, every time these folks show up and the demonstration turns ‘violent’, that’s all the media talks about - even when the ‘violence’ is as minimal as what I witnessed. It’s still counter-productive, though, because the story is suddenly about the protesters and not what they’re protesting (even this story). In fact, I’m not convinced that most of them even understood what they were protesting.

On the other hand… I must admit to a certain grudging admiration for these people who deliberately put themselves in harm’s way. I don’t know a lot of people who would be willing to step up and risk a beating or take a face full of pepper spray - not for any cause. I can’t speak for their motives, and I know other demonstrations have resulted in much greater violence and damage, but what I saw on Monday took both courage and self-control.

I can't help but wonder how that courage might be put to more positive and productive use.

This is getting overly long, so I’m going to continue on this subject in a later post - not because I am especially knowledgeable but possibly because I’m not and therefore have somewhat of an outsider’s perspective. I’m mostly just thinking out loud here, so please bear with me.

In the meantime, any constructive comments are more than welcome.


  1. Protesters like those 'handkerchief kids' annoy me to no end. I don't believe that violence accomplishes anything (it's been said so many times it's almost cliche, but look what Gandhi accomplished through non-violent resistance), and as you say, anytime they show up THEY become the story, not what's being protested. Although I know it's stupid, a cynical and suspicious little part of me sometimes wonders if they're not hired by 'the other side' specifically to turn the attention away from the issues at hand.

    Really enjoying your recap of Montebello. I very much admire you for going there. Can't wait to read more!

  2. Your 'stupid, cynical and suspicious' idea was covered by the cbc, actually. See this story. It looks like there might be more to it than just paranoia!

  3. I agree with both you and lesley.

    The Kerchief Kids (cops or otherwise) give the media an easy story: hooligans attacking the police, or hooligans trashing private property. In either case, the reporters get a simple black and white story to report, instead of the hard "people object to X, Y, and Z."

    When given the opportunity, reporters, like everyone else, take the easy route.