This just in, from one of our far-flung correspondents:
Here's your Senior Merkin Correspondent in Montreal reporting on the situation.
Hours away from New York City, the site of the first Occupy event, a far more effective movement has caught the government by surprise.
No, I’m not talking about the U.S. government. I’m talking about the Quebec government, where the 17 week long student strike has become the longest lasting strike in the history of Quebec.
The strike was called back in February in response to the government’s move to raise college and university tuition by $325 a year for the next consecutive 5 years. The three major Student Federations in Quebec mobilized and called for a strike vote. The schools that got the majority vote went on strike and put up the picket lines. As of now, well over 150,000 Quebec students are on strike. Since then, there have been massive demonstrations, countless violent clashes with the police (two students suffered the loss of an eye), mass arrests, and nightly protests. Here’s how Jesse Rosenfeld sums up the situation in his article in AlterNet:
“More than 100 days of strike for 160,000 students has brought hundreds of thousands people into the streets. The backing of professors' unions, major labor federations and community groups has bolstered the movement. It is a conflict that has seen fierce clashes with police in Montreal's streets, at the governing Liberal Party’s congress meeting and on campus picket lines. As police use rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, concussion grenades, batons and mass arrests, protesters have dug in their heels. Police charges have been increasingly met by overpowering numbers of protesters repelling or swarming their lines, returning teargas canisters or hurling rocks and bottles as the riot squad forcefully attempts to end protests.”Unlike the Occupy movement, they have a clear and concise demand along with a formal plan on how to achieve that. Not only they are rejecting the fee hike but also they have presented a detailed plan to the government on how to get the needed funds in lieu of the tuition increase. They do have leaders although they call them “spokespersons” who are elected democratically by the Federation members. During negotiations with the government, they did not accept or reject a weak compromise that was offered by the government. Instead, they put it up to the members’ vote who rejected it.
All along the support for the student cause has been mixed. At one point the public support totally plummeted when a few students put out smoke bombs in the metro stations and shut down the entire Montreal subway system for hours (I guess they missed the French version of Chris Hedges' denunciation of violence!).
But then the government overplayed its hand and passed "Law 78", which became a turning point for the students’ movement. Believe it or not, up until then, Quebecers had the right to assembly anytime and anywhere without having to get permits or notify the police. I will never forget when I first arrived here and for the first time in my life I saw consecutive daily demonstrations. I remember at the time I thought to myself, wow, these guys are pretty efficient, they get their demonstration permits pretty fast! Little did I know that they didn’t need a permit. Law 78 changed that altogether and it now requires demonstrators to notify the police of their route in advance.
That’s what infuriated the Quebecers and turned them around. As Jesse Rosenfeld states in his excellent article:
“Outraged at the law and the police violence and mass arrests during the night time demonstrations, impromptu evening neighborhood marches of residents banging pots and pans has taken off. Inspired by the Argentinian protest against austerity following the 2001 economic collapse, the marches quickly spread across the city and province, carrying social frustration against an increasingly isolated political elite into the streets.”To top it off, the city of Montreal passed a law that made it illegal to wear masks and heavy makeup during demonstrations!
Needless to say, that didn’t stop the protesters; instead, they got more creative with their disguise. The mascot of the student protests has now become Anarchopanda, who in real life is a philosophy professor but puts on a giant panda costume and marches with students. His identity was only revealed last week when he filed a suit at the Superior Court to challenge the anti-mask law. The Student Federations and their lawyers also filed a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Law 78 couple of weeks ago.
So where do we stand now? Well, there’s certainly an impasse although the government has come out of this badly bruised. The nightly protests are not going away and in fact, this week, when Montreal is hosting the Grand Prix Formula 1, they have attracted the anti-capitalist and environmentalist activists in their effort to disrupt “business as usual”. Last night, despite the heavy police presence and riot squad, they managed to disrupt the Grand Prix festivities.
See for yourself here:
Merkin in Montreal