Quebec City: A Love Story

vieuxcmaq, Viernes, Mayo 18, 2001 - 11:00

Emma Wolfgirl (

A sing-song tail of what I saw on the streets of Quebec.

Quebec City
A Love Story

Emma Mirabella-Davis
Friday, May 18, 2001

Inside the medic building, I lay shivering in the blanket. Across from me is a kid who got hit in the neck with a rubber bullet. Spine damage. He is immobile, his checkered legs curled up against an invisible mamma, frozen in that state of pain and paralyses. The ambulance comes, large hospital workers shuffling into activist subterranean territory. A half-hour later I help one medic do detox from chemical exposure in the ally.
“Could you please take your outer layer off, and put your shoes there?”
A tear-gas case with eyes running red stumbles in to the gravel walkway. He hold his shoulders high, arms extended from his body with a look of shock and open-mouthed suffering. He’s been hit in the stomach with a flaming canister so close that the chemicals have bonded to his clothes and skin. A chemical ice cream smear from the waist up. Shockingly he has a cape on which only adds to my empathy, as if he went out there in good humor and met a harsh reprimand. We are unable to even stand next to him without our throats and eyes burning. He lifts his shirt to reveal a bloody mark on his abdomen where the canister struck, the flesh is burnt and cut, he looks at the amazing mother of the medic center, Moe, with weeping eyes silently begging an explanation.
“Moe’s the kinda person who just takes your shit and-” A medic extrapolates with spiraling gestures, and it’s true. As the kid with the Mohawk in front of me and sagging long johns affirms, Moe is the saint of the medic block. Firm, serious and emotional, she supports the crew. Dealing with the shit. If you’re ever tear-gassed, find your way to Moe. She’ll deal with you.
“It was really brutal out there. Really brutal”
I nod, tears running down my face. I have just entered the medic center for the first time, separated from my group, and shaking from the recent effect of the gas and concussion grenades. The shell shock of war reverberating in my ears. I’m a sensitive creature and putty in her arms.
“But I left them! I left my group! The canisters were exploding all around us! They were just firing and firing like they didn’t care, like they were going to cut right through us!”
“One thing I’m serious about is that I don’t want to hear anymore beating up of yourself. It was brutal out there. People are good at different things. Why do you think I work in here? No more beating up.”
“O.K.” I sniff
“I’m really serious about that.”
The medics are an amazing bunch, hearty, well communicated, with spirits of gold. Radical med. students in overalls, stethoscopes wagging around their necks as they rush from room to room. Sensitive punk rockers holding blasted activists hands repeating, “If there is anything you need, I’ll be right here.” Dumpster divers by day, healers by night. Ma, I’m going to be a medic. In the face of chemical exposure I don’t do so hot it seems, but I’m really good at holding hands and flushing out people’s eyes. I’ll be there, supporting the troops on the front lines with hugs and a water bottle. Ta da! Look for me!
The next day the police busted into the center and forced Moe and her tribe of angles out into the tear gas at gunpoint. Even in war, there are rules against attacking the medic centers. Not here. No place is a safe place here, remember that.
At night my friends find me, jittery in my socks. I stand out side for a little and we hug and share the day’s adventures. They had been tear-gassed more times then they can count. The police are firing two kinds of gas now. The strong stuff and the really strong stuff. The really strong stuff comes out of a puff of mushroom corporate guns that is so toxic you’re gasping like fish and clawing your skin.
BOOM! BOOM! Up the streets we see the battles have moved down here to the thin walkways of old city, like fires burning in the night. Concussion grenades explode a block away and flash-bangs hiss at their feet. The police have also attached flares to their tear gas canisters, which explode in light and chemicals above your head.
The screech of tires on the other side of the street reveals two undercover cops jumping out of a fish-belly white van. They pin down this one kid, his head bent at an odd angle against the street.
Now in a super-market, open along the way to the university where we are staying, I drift through the isles like a ghost nobody believes in. The products around me seem impossibly violent and offensive in this atmosphere of war and moral famine.
“Puffy Marshmallows! Kids love ‘em!”
“Jelly-beans are for Easter!”
“Buy one get one free!” Frozen grape nuts. Nothing could terrify me more at this point as I glimpse existential symbolism in every candy-corn. This phantasmagoria of assembly line, fun-lovin, finger-lickin’ foodstuffs seems like such a moot point. How could anyone whose been hit with tear-gas or beaten or seen the shades and tides of this corporate incision and cruel horror infused with the mundanely of evil ever eat…. Corn-nuts.
Through the isles the others make jokes and I find that I have nothing to say. Stunned into silence by something looming before me, dressed in riot gear, looking like G. Dubya, and stepping on the sensitivity of humanity… the smell of tear-gas is everywhere.
My lover and I attempt a talk about the break on the street and end frustrated. It had happened earlier:

The first time was, well, the first time. We were too close. Near a tree. The cops in their in-human gear standing like juggernauts across the way were just popping them like fire-works. Vengeful blasts of toxic waste. A burning ball of very hot chemical reactions happening in a metal can. It smelled like combustion. Explosion… then the gas. Of course we were too close. A canister blasts from a gun and angrily hovers above our heads, people shift back and forth pointing to where it was going to fall. “RIGHT HERE, RIGHT HERE!” The first chemical ghost grabs us. Like a wall. Wham. That rag soaked in vinegar did nothing. All of a sudden I was in space without oxygen. I couldn’t breathe at all, suffocating; we all stumbled down the stairs in-between the buildings. Fuck fuck fuck. Eyes burning and chemicals clogging the tubes of my lungs. Then it was gone.
That was the worst thing about the gas. It got inside you. It became you. You breathed it on your skin, your hair. It took away your smell. It was everywhere. In Philly and other protests I could see the cops’ faces. As long as they didn’t get too close, you were fine. They could hit you, arrest you. But here, they were everywhere. Invisible.
Four of us. A meeting of the affinity group was called. They wanted to go back into the gas. I’d had enough. The blast of chemicals terrified me, and I felt my threshold had definitely been crossed. I do not excel in this area. Jordan, my lover, tried to calm me.
“Don’t tell me to calm down. I just feel that the tension between us is too great. I feel scape-goated because I don’t wanna go back in there.”
“We came here to do this kind of high-risk action. I want to go on.”
I looked at her flaming green eyes.
“Maybe you did. You’re a front-liner. I’m not. I do CD without chemicals- blocking traffic, street theater media, theory, and medic work. I don’t excel on the front lines, and I’m not supposed to. I’m sensitive to it. I’m a recounter, a story-teller.”
“But we want to go back in. Are we going to split?”
I felt like the rat. The wimp. A position I had always been proud of, but now I was holding my lover and her two friends back. I decided to give it another shot.
“Alright. Let’s do it.”
Back on the green, the canisters popped across the road. Each time we retreated down the steps, the chemicals would get closer. I did medic work and washed out people’s faces. Finally a metallic clank hit the side wall and a canister landed in our safe space. The beast was moving in.
An overwhelming terror seized me as we hit the road the cops were advancing on. I was numb with an animalistic fear deep in my throat. My instinct for survival kicked in as the dark troops with exploding poison and arms of metal advanced in riot gear. I saw red, death, and the dread realization that they weren’t holding anything back. This was a taste of war, and it was hell.
“Ohh.. oh fuck.. I wanna go. Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
“You’re just not calming down”; Jordan sobbed, “I can’t calm you down.”
I assured her that I was alright. I just wanted to leave the red zone. As the explosions neared, it all seemed to be some horrible tapestry backdrop counter-pointing my relationship issues with Jordan. All this shit was coming out in the streets of Quebec, amidst the tear –gas and concussion grenades. We stood there yelling at each other in the noxious air and high tension-wire streets of revolution, as our deepest issues surfaced like bubbles of smoke in water.
That’s when the medic car cruised by like a chariot of rescue. We got the address and I got in. As the car started moving, she stumbled down the street with it. Jordan and I crushed each other’s lips in kisses and repeatedly swore our love. I suddenly just wanted her to be safe from all this blasting.
“Come with me..” I told her with tears in my eyes. Misunderstanding my concern for her as need for myself, she wept back,
“I’m not your care-taker, I love you.” The car speed away like a top into the fray, as her form blurred and whipped behind me into the crowd; over-exposed video particles.
My life was certainly taking a turn for the epic!

The university was there, a thousand goblin forms wondering around the night. Weary after the first day we walked into the hall around the corner, down the steps and….
“OH MY GOD!!!” We were stunned into silence by the sight.
A quarter mile, indoor-track field spreads out before us, and every single inch of it, like an army of ants, is filled with people sleeping. There must be 8,000 people here. Sleeping bags in every geometrical position, stretching out in a panorama of activists snuggling up on cold floors, with each other, or walking in and out.
“I had no idea there were so many of us!”
Before me was the multitude of the discontented, the passionate, the visionaries, the walkers, the front-runners, the children of a lost time, the athletes of our decades, the nomads, the tribes, the loners, the artists, the makers, the do-ers. They were pirates of a decade in the wilderness, together, alone. Dry-mouthed and wide-eyed and re-arranging and sleeping; their faces were all mine and on our faces we all had the same expression, but it was only in the morning that I realized what that look was. It was the look of innocence lost. Of a grim determination, of a sullen understanding that now this was a taste of war. A civil war. These fresh-faced kids with the jittery joy of doing mischief-as-protest; impassioned anti-corporate activists had ran smack into the dark waves of what human beings are capable of. The dark waves of fascism and the violent chemical stifling of dissent and freedom. Gone were their giddy looks of fun and papers about globalization. Gone were their student groups, and graffiti and youthful exuberance. Now they had the look of weather-beaten statues. They could have been from any time period; the lost tribes of Israel or street urchins, or people trapped in power struggles over land and freedom. But their hardness was not a hardness of hate, or lack of emotion. It was of commitment. This was the real thing now. This was serious; this was real. We all were feeling in our bodies what we knew to be true in our minds about the brutality of the take-over. This was our calling and our duty. To do what we did best to stop them.
These kids were getting ready for a whole second day of tear-gas, dreams, and brutality.
My lover and I talk late into the night. She feels that she just knew she had to go on. I feel that she was not there for me when I needed her most. An affinity group should not force a member to stay in high-risk areas if they are freaking out. I feel deep shame at my inability to deal with the physical. She feels that I’m too sensitive, and is offended by my characterization of her. I confess to having been jealous of David, a friend of her’s in the group. She confesses to being too stifling of me. As we talk our fingers creep together, and through this strife, although still shaky on our feet, we are closer than ever before. I feel proud to be a wimp, and to be sensitive to all this. That’s my job. I tell her how proud I am of her ability to be a front-liner and get tear-gassed and be so resistant. She has a quirky smile on her face as we nuzzle and she confesses that she loves me and can’t explain it. Nothing is more romantic then sleeping on a cold, hard, gymnasium floor, snuggling your sweetie at a protest in a room filled with 8,000 activists. I fall asleep with my breath on her eyelids.
Morning. We all agree to meet at the medic center at sundown. We are all doing what we want to and feel comfortable with. We embrace and head out. No problem. Today is mostly legal. I’ll do the legal march.
As the march commences, thousands strong, they shout through the bullhorn in English and French: “We are marching to Reine Leveque. Be careful. There are police along the way and they may try to stop us. They are armed and dangerous!”
Back in the place where we got tear-gassed before, I’m faced with the beast. Huge ghost head of tear-gas and thin reaching tendrils of canisters explode ahead of us. It occurs to me that to the future tourists of Quebec this street is a place to relax and picnic. To me it will always be a battleground, and I’ll beam at some places and shudder at others, struck by the terror of that tree, or this earth where the chemicals spilled from our eyes.
I nursed the waves coming back, as they sobbed or shook, faces red. I splashed water off white stinging eyes, and rubbed faces and hands with napkins.
“Ouvre les yeux. Ne touche pas. Ne touche pas”.
As I sit 20 feet from the heat eating my last peanut-butter sandwich, I realize that the horror of war is exacerbated by the fact that in the midst of it human beings still stick to their behavior. Like the subtly of our lives, forced into brutality.
I am reminded of a scene from Jules and Jim in which Jules remarks that war deprives humanity of the ability to fight their own personal battles. Yet it seemed that in the midst of the gas and actions, that’s exactly what Jordan and I were doing.
By the night the cops had fired so much chemicals that all of Old City from the distance looked like a cup-cake with an ice-cream scoop of tear-gas, spilling over the wall down into New City. That’s what hit you. The sheer amount of chemicals everywhere. It seemed somehow fitting that corporate capitalism would use something toxic, synthetic, plastic and poisonous as their weapons of fear. The air was so stifling that night that you couldn’t go 20 feet outside without a mask. We were holed up in a café, run by supporters. Any attempt to leave would result in skipping back inside, woofing and shaking our heads like my dog when she got skunked.
Down the highway ramp, at the bottom of which the café was located, was coming an huge, impenetrable ice-cream slide of tear-gas, headed right for us. The cops were moving down the highway into New City like a marauding army of assassins, gassing anything in their path.
When the gas hit the café, the windows turned white with fog. Everyone grouped together in the room. Suddenly the air started smelling like tear gas and we realized that it was leaking inside.
A terrible claustrophobia gripped the air. We might have to make break for it. But there where only a handful of masks. People started taking off their shirts and stuffing them in the edges of the doors and windows to keep it airtight.
They had imposed a chemical curfew on a living city. Without any thought of the effect on the citizens. The saddest thing for me was this:
A little old Quebecois man in gray tweeds, a pork-pie hat and pleated pants like those old timers I love so much who sit on park benches, staggering through the poisonous air. He was clutching his groceries, attempting to go home through the chemicals up to Old City. I knew he wouldn’t make it, just a few turns away the shit was red hot, and canisters where popping everywhere. Right near the medic center. He was holding his embroidered handkerchief over his mouth and coughing and gasping for breath. We tried to get him to come inside the café, or at least let us give him water, but he didn’t want it and went on into the gas, confused, and lost in a new violent age.
I saw kids gassed, 12 and 13 year olds, with smirks on their faces. And once, a little puppy on a leash that had passed out from the tear gas, its big eyes twitching, laying on its side in the street.
And just a few blocks away George Bush and his corporate cronies were talking about democracy. It makes you want to vomit but you’re too dehydrated from tear-gas. The worst part is that this hypocrisy is becoming common place. How tragic. How desperate for our world.
We’re all alone here, at the city of the ends of the earth. Where the cycloptic eye of the media has swiveled in its socket and left this city of space and time still and alone. It’s a pocket in time, where the battle of the future rages.
I felt that through some horrible accident I had misplaced my life before Quebec. I saw myself living blissfully unaware as if I was looking back from death in longing. It was as if it had all vanished in the atomic bomb of corporate war. I cried for the old man on Rue D’Abraham. The future of our world. And for Jordan. So much for Jordan. I suddenly realized, like a resurrected creature that to be alive is a wonderful thing. To be alive, in love, and to live in peace is the most amazing thing in the history of this universe. And that what we were fighting for in the tangled streets of Quebec is for everyone to have the right to live in peace. To live full, free lives, free of poverty. Free of war.
“I’m doing the best I can!!!” I yelled and no one in particular. And no one in particular answered.
“I’m doing the best I can!!!”

Emma Mirabella-Davis is a filmmaker, activist, cartoonist, zinster. Ze lives in NYC.

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