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<nettime> Malav Kanuga: "We didn't know it was impossible, so we did it!"

"We didn't know it was impossible, so we did it!" The Quebec Student
Strike celebrates its 100th day

   Malav Kanuga

   Origins of an unlimited general strike ("grève générale illimitée")
   Students in Quebec are marking their 100th day of an unlimited general
   strike on Tuesday, May 22nd, the culmination of the most stunning mass
   protest movements of recent months and North America's largest student
   movement in years. In fact, the mobilizations in Quebec might just be
   Canada's[9] Arab Spring.

   Students have been organizing against tuition hikes for nearly one and
   a half years, when the Quebec government first proposed to raise
   tuition fees by 75% over five years (amended to 82% over seven years by
   the government at the end of April). Before the general strike began in
   February, protests, demos, trainings, letter writing campaigns and
   attempts to negotiate in good faith with the government were
   consistently met with obstinate silence from the Charest
   administration. For the students there has been a growing sense of
   urgency and a shared recognition that increased tuition means a heavier
   student debt burden, hundreds of more hours a year spent working
   instead of studying, less access for working class and lower class
   students, and a shift in university culture toward the market, the
   commodification of education, the financialization of student life, and
   the privatization of the university.

   Even if fees increase, Quebec students would be paying less than other
   provinces in Canada, a gap the provincial government has been aiming to
   close. But so far every time the administration has proposed to do so,
   students have gone on strike. Deep in the Quebec struggle is a culture
   of solidarity and security, a social fabric, a sense of community that
   endures and mobilizes a powerful defense of their commonwealth. Call it
   what you will, it is precisely this that Margaret Thatcher declared war
   upon on May 1st 1981 when she said that the project of neoliberalism is
   to change the heart and soul of a `collectivist' spirit, and its means
   is economics. Indeed, the Finance Minister of the Quebec Liberal
   government recently called its austerity policies "a cultural
   revolution" and they are not shy about their plan to reorganize
   Quebecois life through fiscal discipline. The Modèle québécois of
   social collectivism (in its traditional social democratic sensibility,
   but also, and more importantly, its directly democratic ethic that has
   emerged in the course of the last 14 weeks of strike) is the target of
   these policies, specifically through education and health. This is what
   explains the Charest government's attempts to break the strike and
   destroy the student unions.

   Student unionism is particularly strong in Quebec, and for a reason:
   they are inherently political, engaging, and participatory, using
   principles of direct democracy in weekly general assemblies. A
   dispersal of power, where students have a direct role in shaping the
   culture of university life through the policies and activities of the
   unions has been the backbone of the growing movement against tuition
   hikes, and the secret to why it has been able to mobilize such a broad
   and popular base. Yet, while a rejection of political parties and
   emphasis on direct democracy and militancy infuse the movement, there
   are in reality a range of unions--from the combative wing of the
   movement, such as the [10]Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale
   Étudiante (ASSÉ) that demands free education, to more corporatist and
   mainstream student unions that integrate with bourgeois political

   But this struggle represents more than students. It represents an
   attack on the middle class and lower income families, their sense of
   social cohesion, and the social entitlement and equality of access to
   public services amid rising cost of living. The strikes register across
   these domains of everyday life, in the university, in the family home,
   the workplace, and the hospital, where increasingly the same growing
   resentment of the imposition of austerity measures in Quebec emerge, as
   the tuition increases coincide with the first ever "health tax,"
   alongside a 20% increase in hydro rates, the raising of the federal
   retirement age to 67, as well as mass layoffs.

   A chronology of the last weeks of the movement

   On November 10th, over 200,000 students went on a one-day strike, and
   30,000 took to the streets. 20,000 of which marched directly to
   Charest's Montreal office to demonstrate against rising fees.
   Hundreds, including the Quebec Women's Federation, shut down the
   Montreal Stock Exchange in mid-February, a site dear to the 1%, and
   where the Charest government, who had so far been ignoring the budding
   movement, would certainly devote its rapt attention.

   By February 23rd, forty thousand post-secondary students across the
   province joined the unlimited general strike. Thousands of students
   occupied the Jacques Cartier Bridge. If the tactical approaches of the
   movement had been ignored by university administrations and the
   provincial government in its first weeks, by March 22nd, student unions
   such as CLASSE (The Coalition large de l'Association pour une
   Solidarite Syndaicale Etudiante), whose 80,000 members have been
   leading the strike, couldn't be missed. Since then, they have shifted
   focus toward targeting governmental offices, ministries, and crown
   corporations, placing strategic emphasis on economic disruption, an
   approach to direct action that has had precedence in many earlier urban
   protest movements in the last decade or so.

   On March 22nd, as over 300,000 students had been on strike, a massive
   march in the streets inaugurated the Maple Spring ("Printemps Érable,"
   a play on words in French), with university after university, and
   college after college, going on strike. Two months later, on Tuesday,
   May 22nd, the Quebec students' unlimited strike will celebrate its
   100th day, already one of the largest student mobilizations in recent
   history. During 100 days of strike, contempt, and resistance, students
   have mobilized against steep tuition increases, austerity and debt, and
   the criminalization of the right to education.

   On Friday, a friend Lilian Radovac, who has been active in the student
   mobilizations in Montreal, described a cultural shift expanding in the
   cracks of everyday austerity:

   "For years, May '68 was a dry, dusty thing other people theorized about
   in poor translations, but these last months, something like it has been
   happening in the crevices of our vie quotidienne.  How strange that it
   is just there, between bus rides and doctor's appointments and trips to
   the grocery store, a thing that is so extraordinary and so bizarrely
   normal at the same time.  The metro has been shut down by smoke bombs?

    Oh well, I feel like a walk anyway.

   Did it feel like this when OWS started?  It must have."

   Each week, in local general assemblies of student associations,
   students have voted to sustain the `renewable general strike'. With
   over 180 different unions representing some 170,000 students,
   university departments and the government can no longer hope the
   movement will dwindle on its own, and are increasingly forced to
   repress the movement actively. Indeed, days after the Education
   Minister Line Beauchamp resigned on May 14th over failed negotiations
   with student leaders, the Quebec Government enacted a special emergency

   Bill 78 specifically targets the massive student assemblies and
   mobilizations in order to break the growing strike and destroy the
   power of the student union. One member of the Quebec political
   opposition used the term "Loi Fuck" to refer to the blunt and draconian
   tool that outlaws public assembly, imposes harsh fines for strike
   activity (even tacit support), and effectively makes organizing an
   arrestable offense. The bill also gives more power to the police in
   enforcing student protest. Indeed, during the last many weeks of
   escalating street demos, police have repeatedly preempted
   demonstrations with CS gas, sound grenades, `blast disperser' grenades,
   and rubber bullets. Nevertheless, it is not clear how this law will be
   used in the coming days and weeks, or whether it will be successful in
   intimidating students.

   An emergency law announced on the previous Wednesday "suspended" the
   semester for many CEGEP (academic and vocational college) and
   university students, with provisions for classes to be postponed until
   August.[11] Provisions of Bill 78 that followed include:

     * Fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for anyone who prevents someone
       from entering an educational institution.

     * Steep penalties of  $7,000 and $35,000 for anyone deemed a `student
       leader' and between $25,000 and $125,000 for unions or student
       associations. Fines double after the first offense.

     * Plans for public demonstrations involving more than 50 people
       (originally 8) must be submitted to the police eight hours in
       advance, and must detail itinerary, duration and time at which they
       are being held.

     * Offering encouragement, tacitly supporting, or promoting protest at
       a school, either is subject to punishment.

   In Montreal, specifically, a new municipal anti-mask law accompanies
   Bill 78, and another has been proposed at the federal level. With
   Charest's attempts to legislate the end of the student movement, the
   struggle has deepened and is now at a turning point. Yet, on its 100th
   day of an unlimited general strike, the movement does not show any
   signs of slowing down or veering from its median tactic of general
   assemblies, its preferred direct action orientation, and its culture of
   horizontal democracy.

   The return of the red square and our right to assembly

   Students in Quebec have popularized the symbol of the "red square" to
   signify being financially "squarely in the red" amid tuition hikes,
   cuts in social entitlements, and the specter of spiraling student and
   consumer debt. As their movement has powerfully reminded us, we are all
   `in the red' as long as the 1% imposes upon us austerity, debt, and

   The politics of austerity and the increased policing of everyday life
   reveal themselves in these instances to be inseparably linked. We can
   see the direct link between tuition hikes and the criminalization of
   assembly in Quebec, just as we can see Bloomberg's management through
   "free speech zones" of political protest, the silencing of media, and
   the increased police aggression in suppressing the Occupy Wall Street
   movement. Thus, solidarity with Quebec students is also important work
   in defense of our right to demonstrate here and everywhere. When times
   of crisis provoke ramped up police power and allow desperate
   politicians to pass "emergency laws" that target unquiet sectors of the
   population, we are certain that the class balance of present society is
   threatened. But it is a cautious joy we should preach, along with the
   sober insight that without powerful international solidarity and
   coordination, as James Baldwin once wrote to Angela Davis, "if they
   take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night."
   The police backlash--through intimidation, repression, and wanton
   brutality--we have faced in NYC for trying to assemble is enormous. On
   May 2nd, students at Brooklyn College were met with police hostility as
   they demonstrated against policies that restrict access to education
   for lower-income students. Wherever the site of struggle, the very idea
   of opening up space for collective imagination is policed. But we are
   not battling on the plane of the imaginary. An attack in Quebec on the
   right to assemble, if unchallenged through coordinated international
   solidarity, will have real and chilling effects on our movements here.

   Solidarity in NYC

   Speaking about the Quebec students' strike in New York, there is often
   enthusiasm and support, if not bewilderment upon learning of the size
   and power of their movement, something that the media blackout in the
   U.S. has successfully eclipsed. But there is also a bit of shoulder
   shrugging. "Are they really on strike for $250 dollars?" one unmoved
   passerby queried as we were wrapping up an assembly in the park on
   Sunday. Indeed more popular education needs to be done here on the
   plight of students in the climate of this crisis. But the student
   struggle, here in NYC as in Quebec, is not only a struggle for the
   student: it is about access to education for all regardless of economic
   circumstance, a challenge to the very economic and political planning
   that has been transforming our cities into spaces for the elite over
   the last three decades.

   This past weekend, several groups from Occupy Wall Street and other
   organizations held an assembly to address these "emergency laws" and
   discuss solidarity with Quebec on Tuesday. Immediately a robust day was
   in the works: At 2PM on Tuesday, the time marches are slated to begin
   in Montreal, demonstrators in NYC will gather at the Quebec Government
   Offices at 1 Rockefeller Plaza. The Free University, which organized a
   day of free education in Madison Square Park on May Day, is hosting a
   pop-up occupation open to all students, educators, and community
   members.  At 5PM, there will be a gathering on the north side of the
   fountain in Washington Square Park, where people will paint banners,
   make `book bloc' shields, and cut red squares for the evening march. At
   6PM, there will be a teach in/speak out assembly about the Quebec
   student strike, the emergency laws, and the criminalization of dissent,
   followed by a number of self-organized lectures, workshops,
   skill-shares, and discussions.

   In coordination with Quebec students who have been holding nightly
   assemblies, there will also be an assembly and march originating from
   Washington Square Park at 8PM to celebrate the successes of the student
   movement and to march against repressive anti-protest laws worldwide.
   On this day, in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Quebec, we
   will paint the town red.

   Malav Kanuga is a doctoral student in Anthropology at the CUNY Graduate
   Center in New York, NY and editor of the publishing imprint [12]Common




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