Montreal, QC, May 25, 1998 -- In what is likely the largest such non-violent resistance action staged to date against the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment), 99 people were arrested and criminally charged in Montreal on May 25 at a protest outside the Conférence de Montréal. Participants in the blockade came from all over Quebec &emdash; Jonquiere, Chicoutimi, Quebec City, Joliette, Sherbrooke, Asbestos, Hull, Ste.-Hyacinthe, Ste.-Anne-de-Bellevue, Longueuil and Montreal &emdash; as well as from Ottawa, Toronto, Peterborough, Guelph and Vancouver.
Operation SalAMI (in French, literally, bad MAI or bad friend) brought over 500 people out to protest the fourth annual gathering dedicated to economic globalization and the supreme rights of corporations. Headline speakers included Bank of Canada President Gordon Thiessen and OECD chief and MAI proponent Donald Johnston, just returned from the latest round of Paris talks on the global corporate rights treaty. Also present were the right-wing governor of New York State, US State Dept. representatives, and sponsoring corporations Bell Canada Enterprises, the Power Corporation, Hydro Quebec and the La Presse and Globe and Mail newspapers.
Despite being asked not to participate at a conference which featured registration fees of over $1,000 &endash;and invited instead to address the protesters&endash;federal NDP leader Alexa McDonough chose to hobnob with the organizers of economic globalization as dozens faced bail hearings Tuesday morning. McDonough's panel, "Capitalism &emdash; European or American?" featured a former Thatcher cabinet minister and executives from the Power Corporation and Bombardier.
Operation SalAMI was launched officially at midnite, May 1st, with a street party outside the Montreal Stock Exchange (in conjunction with a similar party in Paris). Unofficially, the origins of SalAMI go back to the "G Plan" when, in a similar action, hundreds of demonstrators shut down the government of Quebec for a day by blockading the huge G Complex in Quebec City, the hub of the Quebec bureaucracy. The G Plan was in opposition to the neo-liberal policies of the government of Quebec.
Following a weekend conference on the globalization of injustice and the last in an ongoing series of non-violence trainings, demonstrators awoke at 5 am May 25 and trekked to a park within site of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel (site of the "food grab" last fall which saw police arrest over 100 people for eating food taken from the hotel's banquet table; also, as one demonstrator reminded us, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their bed-in for peace in 1969). At 7 am, demonstrators were in place across the street from the Sheraton, and shortly thereafter began blockading entrances to the hotel. The blockades lasted until about 2 pm when, due to arrests and the consequent thinning of lines, the blockade was lifted.
Throughout the morning protest, a celebratory mood captured this chunk of downtown, as Raging Grannies, the Works in Progress Circus, hundreds of striking hospital workers dressed in nuns' habits, and countless others turned the area into a greed-free zone. Singing and chanting, the offering of daisies to riot police, and the sharing of food and water were the order of the day, as Montreal's riot squad surveyed the situation and prepared their formations. Once they were ready, the police gathered in a line from one end of Stanley street to the other. They began advancing slowly, deliberately, tapping their batons on their riot shields, moving slowly and surely into the crowd. They took their time arresting people, applying painful pressure grips to sensitive areas of faces and necks, bending wrists, and making sure that the next one to be arrested saw exactly what was going on. Psychological abuse is often as intimidating as physical abuse, and in Montreal, the police have it down to a fine art. After the compliance grip has been held for some time, a resister is thrown on the stomach, face ground into the pavement, and tight plastic handcuffs applied.
As police took over Stanley Street, they began letting through some of the hundreds of anxious businesspeople who had been waiting for hours in a nearby park. While many got in, demonstrators went in behind police lines and set up another line of blockade. Police quickly re-formed and ran into the new lines, who sat down, stopping the police flat.
As preparations were made to arrest two lines of street blockaders, police turned their attention to a crowd of some 100 non-blockading supporters, who were shoved backwards out of view, hit in the legs with batons. (Some demonstrators reported the use of cattle-prod-like instruments which gave off electric shocks).
As the last group of arrested resisters sat on the sidewalk awaiting a police wagon, having been hogtied, the final group of conferencegoers was escorted down the sidewalk, walking past and attempting to ignore the soon-to-be-incarcerated individuals lined against the wall of a building.
Inside the Montreal cop shop, the mood was anything but dismal, however, as each resister was greeted with loud cheers upon entering their cells. And for a good twelve hours, it was hard to catch a few winks for all the joyful singing, chanting, and dancing which would spontaneously erupt. Reports would occasionally come through about extensive news coverage, about the numbers arrested, about comments which various officials had made during the day regarding the blockade. Each was greeted with a new round of celebration, of chants about refusing to be bowed or quieted.
All of the arrestees face four criminal charges each: mischief, unlawful assembly, resisting arrest, and causing a disturbance. Six southern Ontario residents&emdash;one from Guelph, and five from Toronto, including three members of Toronto Action for Social Change&emdash;were among those arrested.
"In terms of the political fallout, the day was undeniably a success," said Philippe Duhamel, one of the organizers of Operation SalAMI. "The promoters of the globalization of injustice cannot say that their programme of huge profits, the destruction of social programs, and the impoverishment of ordinary people has any longer a consensus in Quebec. Today, Montreal has done its part for the globalization of resistance. We're proud of what we've done."
Echoing Duhamel's sentiment was a Montreal Mirror report that stated this year's gathering was a far cry from previous editions of the conference. Reporter Jacquie Charlton wrote "the swagger was gone out of this year's edition...the contrast with the conference two years ago was striking. Then, illustrious economists and overpaid CEOs gave long, dull speeches to other economists about how profitable and innovative they were. Press accreditations were handed out as freely as business cards. There was a sparkle in the air: of the success of an economic system that had finally shaken off the restrictions imposed on it by misguided persons of dusty political persuasions."
Instead, hundreds of businesspeople were forced to wait out the five-hour-plus blockade two blocks away in Dominion Square. And when they did get inside, the mood was gloomy, reflective of the backlash against the global economy. And the front-page pictures of police violence against non-violent protesters were everywhere, with journalists constantly asking questions about it. Donald Johnston was forced to admit that the MAI was not dead, but he compared it now to a Sisyphisian struggle. "By the time former Thatcher-era Minister Michael Portillo took to the podium to talk about the crisis in capitalism, it was all beginning to feel redundant. The crisis was staring them in the face. Every other speaker talked about how the world needed a more equitable distribution of wealth to keep it from exploding. Perhaps they heard the firecrackers going off outside."
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