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Anti-Globalization's Disappearing Act

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Issue: 5 Section: Environment Geography: Quebec Montreal Topics: police, trade agreements, social movements

August 8, 2003

Anti-Globalization's Disappearing Act

Hundreds of "Green Zone" protesters arrested during WTO ministerial in Montreal

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

From July 28th to 30th, finance ministers from 25 countries and the European Union, gathered in Montreal for a 'mini-ministerial' of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Despite the declaration of Canada's Trade Minister, Pierre Pettigrew, that "the anti-globalization" movement had "completely disappeared," thousands gathered in Montreal to express their opposition to the WTO. A day later, it seemed that Pierre Pettigrew had been right; hundreds of activists had indeed 'disappeared' from the city's streets. Over the course of two days, police arrested 342 people, many through what NDP leader Jack Layton called "indiscriminate" mass arrests.

If the aim of the protests was to "Shut Down the WTO," as the central web site proclaimed, then the demonstrations were a clear failure. "The march had been dispersed by rushes of riot police and arrests before the WTO masterminds had even begun drinking their morning coffee," said street medic Lynne Hood. And although organizers of the protests held public teach-ins and other outreach events, the mainstream media's focus on windows broken at a local Burger King and Gap also called the protests' educational success into question .

Taken at face value, the anti-WTO protests in Montreal could be seen as an appalling failure, perhaps signaling the end of a movement that firecrackered onto the North American scene in Seattle,1999. As one article in the Montreal Gazette, titled "Weak Protests are Good News," gleefully proclaimed "...the public, in Canada at least, seems to be coming to accept globalization holds more promise than menace."

Many participants in the Montreal protests would argue, however, that the 'menace' of corporate globalization and their opposition to it, remains unchanged. The change lies in the increasing 'menace' of the justice system and the criminalization of protest in Canada.

The vast majority of arrests in Montreal took place in the "green zone." Miles from the marches and security perimeter, this space was being used to distribute free food, hold workshops and provide a place for people to learn and hang out together. On July 28th, at 10 a.m., over 200 people, who were gathered in the green zone, were ordered by police to disperse. The group attempted to leave, only to find themselves already surrounded by riot police and arrested en masse.

Rob Maguire, who had been talking with friends in the green zone before he was corralled by police and arrested, found that his experience in jail did little to restore his faith in the justice system. "The notion that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty is nothing but a myth, a political prisoner's pipe dream. Your rights are not only continually denied, but you are laughed at, threatened and punished by cops for daring to assert them. My refusal to provide personal information other that the mandatory name, address and date of birth was met with threats of indefinite incarceration ('you'll never get out of jail unless you tell us'), while my insistence on reading my release conditions before I signed them led them to throw me back behind bars for a few hours ('we don't have time for games... you're going to the back of the line')."

In order to be released, those arrested had to sign a list of conditions to be followed until a court date several months away. The list of ten conditions includes, "You shall not protest on any public land or property unless the protest should be legal and peaceful." The conditions are disconcerting for protesters arrested for participating in something they did not see to be illegal or violent to begin with. Hood still feels conflicted over whether or not she should have signed the contract. "The conditions for my release made me feel as though I had given into the idea of having committed a crime. "

For many protesters, their experience in Montreal was an eye-opening one. "I learned that we are not innocent before proven guilty but guilty in the eyes of the police...I did not commit any crime by speaking out and taking to the streets," said Hood. Yet by arresting protesters in a random and indiscriminate manner, by treating those people with little respect in jail, and by releasing them only upon the signing of a list of conditions, police led many in Montreal to believe that the simple act of protesting had become a crime.

This is nothing new. Hundreds were arrested during the FTAA protests in Quebec city in 2001, and over 300 in Montreal during a march against police brutality in 2002. Mass arrests, not to mention tear gas and pepper spray, are becoming the norm at protests in Canada, making demonstrating a right that some people cannot afford to risk claiming. According to activist Leigh Herbert, "the issue of police accountability will have to become an integral part of the whole [anti-corporate globalization] campaign--or else the movement may 'disappear' into an abyss of court dates and clouds of tear gas."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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