On the Front Lines at The FTAA Protests Sara Ahronheim

Last April 18-22, I volunteered as a street medic at the Quebec City protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Over the five days I spent at the third Summit of the Americas, I witnessed so much I hope to never see again, I treated hundreds of injured people, got tear-gassed, felt the stinging effects of pepper spray, and endured the kind of turmoil that a peaceful society ought never to experience.

Throughout the event, police appeared to target medics: wherever my partner Leigh and I were treating people, tear gas canisters landed right beside us. Some medics were hit by rubber bullets. On those front lines we treated a lot of people through clouds of tear gas.

Retreat and fear

Friday, April 20, was a particularly volatile day. My friend Sean was kneeling amidst a tear gas cloud as he treated a patient when a canister fell right under his face and exploded. After inhaling so much tear gas there, he tried to stumble to his feet — only to narrowly miss getting hit in the head by another canister. Still another impacted the wall behind him, bounced, and hit him in the back, knocking him flat to the ground. A final canister rolled by his face again and exploded. He was rescued by another medic team and spent the next two days recuperating in the medic clinic on Cote d'Abraham.

We kept having to retreat more and more to avoid the gas. At one point a canister exploded right next to me. I can't begin to describe the agony induced by tear gas; it suffocates you. I began to walk very quickly, barely restraining the panic, as I coughed and choked, I thought I would die; I feared that at any minute my asthma would kick in. Everywhere we turned there were more riot police, more gas, and no safe space to calm down and decompress. My eyes were okay, sealed behind swimming goggles, but my skin burned as if on fire. Finally we managed to find a corner without gas and I got my breath back.

However, fear had set in. I was scared to go anywhere near the police. But I was there to provide a service — to treat injured people in pain. Now that I knew what that pain was like, I had to return to the fray.

As we reentered the chaos, we came upon a girl who had been hit by a canister of gas, which exploded all over her body. Medics were treating her by stripping off her clothing and pouring liquids all over her. She was crying and screaming in so much pain. Around us were clouds and clouds of gas, and police advancing on all sides.

The police began shooting canisters high into the air, into the back of the crowd where we were. There were only peaceful protesters in our area. We weren't near the perimeter fence, and we weren't involved in the black bloc (the small group of protesters armed with rocks, concrete, plywood and molotov cocktails which forms spontaneously at demonstrations). We had a clear space full of people being treated for various injuries and trying to recuperate. Yet still we were bombarded by dozens of gas canisters!

We had to furtively watch the sky, hoping the canisters wouldn't hit us in the head or land on those being treated. We had to continually stand in the centre of the action, screaming at people to "walk, walk, walk" to avoid being trampled by a frightened mob. It's so hard to stand still or walk slowly when tear-gas canisters the temperature of boiling water are raining down upon you. I broke down emotionally so many times during the fracas, I feared I was either going to die or be incapacitated or arrested.

Once we were in the middle of a city block when a fire truck came through and the protesters attacked it. At the time 1 couldn't understand why they would attack firefighters. Later it was explained that the firetruck was going to be used by the authorities as a water cannon against the protesters and that was why people tried to trash it. Finally the truck went through-but not before all of its water was emptied and equipment taken.

Later a row of riot police formed at one intersection and lobbed gas canisters to seal off the end of the block. There was no escape route for my partner and me or the dozen or so protesters still in the area. Again I began to choke and almost panic, but we ducked into a driveway. When I saw the pain of others, the adrenaline kicked in, and I began to treat them. I didn't think about my state. I didn't feel the gas once I saw injured people that needed my help. We managed to escape through backyards onto another block.

Five days on the front lines

Throughout my five days on the front lines I felt like I was in the middle of urban civil war. I saw third degree burns. I treated so many burned hands, from people who wore thick gloves to throw tear gas canisters back at the cops or away from the crowd, yet got their hands burned anyway. I flushed hundreds of eyes with water and sometimes with LAW (a liquid antacid mixed equally with water). When we were safely distanced from the gas, I treated skin contamination with mineral oil followed immediately by alcohol (MOFIBA) to relieve the pain.1 I treated so many injuries from people hit by tear gas canisters and also those hit by rubber or plastic bullets. I saw back injuries, head injuries, broken fingers, leg wounds, and so much more.

On Friday night we ended up under siege in our medical clinic as the cops advanced down Cote d'Abraham, firing rounds and rounds of tear gas. The air was so contaminated that we had to breathe through vinegar-soaked bandannas even inside the clinic. We had all the lights turned off and spoke only in whispers. It was so scary; I thought that we were going to be arrested for sure. Finally we managed to evacuate down the stairs outside and got away.

But Saturday night was a different story. I was in the field at the time,2 but I heard the frightening story from many medics who were there: The cops advanced down Cote D'Abraham, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets down alleys and driveways. When they reached the clinic they marched everyone who was in the alley (the decontamination space) out at gunpoint. This included many medics and their patients, even seriously injured ones. The cops forcibly removed almost everyone's protective gear, including gas masks, vinegar bandannas and any goggles, saying "No more protection for you guys!"

They also took the medical supplies and equipment that were in the alley or being carried by the medics. Then they marched people, hands in the air and at gunpoint, out into the gas. They made them walk one way, then changed their minds and marched them another direction. My friend Sean said that one guy next to him was hit in the head with a rubber bullet, and the cops wouldn't allow him to stop and assess the person. Finally they let the group go, without any arrests. The clinic was evacuated and set up in a different location.

I heard about other injuries from medics: Derek and his partner treated a guy who was severely beaten by police. He had a skull fracture, was in serious shock and had a compound leg fracture that made it almost severed. They waited in clouds of tear gas, with more and more canisters being hurled at them, for the ambulance.

Another medic treated a guy whose finger was torn off as he tried to scale the Wall of Shame — the ten-foot high, 2.3-mile concrete and chain-link fencing authorities had erected to keep protesters from any contact with trade officials. One girl's shoulder was dislocated. I treated a guy who got hit in the back with a tear gas canister. One guy got hit in the Adam's apple with a rubber bullet and underwent an emergency tracheostomy. My teammate Leigh had a serious asthma attack in the clouds. There were many victims of beatings at the hands of police — serious injuries from police batons. One guy had his earring ripped straight out of his ear by a riot cop. I can't remember many of the injuries. The mainstream media (i.e. the Montreal Gazette) reported only 300 injuries, total. That's laughable: I treated that many myself (and there were probably 50 medics treating that many injuries each).


While we medics were holed up inside a shack that was being used as a "Free Space" in Ilot Fleurie (they let us use it as a makeshift clinic), a guy was brought in with a serious asthma attack. He had been having the attack for about a half-hour, and his breathing was extremely laboured. I sat him down and attempted to calm him, but it only got worse. I could hear the wheezing and feel his body shaking with every effort, and I knew the pain he was in because of my own experiences with asthma. I recognized his panic: he also didn't have his ventolin inhaler.

As I sat there by his side I went over my options in my head — and realized I had none. An ambulance wouldn't come into such a "hot" area, the cops had just busted our clinic, and I had no ventolin or adrenaline for him. So in a moment of clarity I realized I should try my only other option — an acupressure point I had learned the week before that supposedly stops asthma attacks immediately. I admit that before Saturday night I was very skeptical of these techniques, but when I was confronted with this guy's obvious need, faith just kicked in. I knew it would work, I just knew it. Maybe because I believed it so much, maybe because of something else, it worked.

Within seconds of my pressing that point on his hand, his breathing began to slow down. Within a minute he was calm, and walked out of the clinic. That moment for me was magic — without any Western medical techniques or medication of any sort, I managed to help take away this man's pain. Unbelievable. I began to cry as soon as he walked out — I was so shocked and so relieved.

Bright moments

Amid all this chaos, fear, and pain there were bright moments. On Thursday, I was present at the start of the Women's March, which was colorful, beautiful, peaceful, and magical. There were huge puppets and decorated artwork that the women wove into the Wall of Shame, amid other adornments of brassieres, balloons, flowers, and messages directed at trade leaders.

That night I walked with the Torchlight Parade all the way from Universite de Laval to Ilot Fleurie. Along the entire route, for many hours, marchers sang songs, chanted, drummed, and danced. Such slogans as "This is what democracy looks like," "Whose streets? Our street," "Ain't no power like the power of the people and the power of the people won't stop," and "So So So, Solidarite!" were repeated over and over. There was a festive atmosphere, with many residents waving from their homes and calling out their support to the crowd.

On Friday things went bad as soon as the next march from Laval reached the perimeter, but I saw some beautiful things through the clouds of gas. A group of women joined hands and danced in a slow circle, singing hopeful songs about peace and nonviolence. They were angelic, young and old, a vision of quiet amid a thunderstorm of pain.

Feminist peace activist Starhawk led her pagan group with blue banners and an aura of calm straight into the tear gas. I saw them go by and felt safe for just a moment. I heard later they advanced straight through the gas and the bullets and sang and danced right by the row of riot cops. Apparently some were later treated for injuries. Their courage and conviction was inspirational to many, including me.

On Saturday, down at Ilot Fleurie, a party went on all day long. in this area — supply the "Green Zone" (safe, non-confrontational, nowhere near the front line) — a booth set up by Food Not Bombs provided sustenance all weekend. Everyone was welcome to come and eat for free any time of day. A wash station was nearby where people were expected to rinse their food containers when finished. There was also an area designated where artists could fashion their work to use in the protests.

By late afternoon a huge bonfire, with people dancing around it, was burning in the street. Many ripped down street signs and used them as musical instruments — a steady beat went on for hours and hours, late into the night. There was a group dancing to the rhythm, and everyone felt so free and joyful, it epitomized the kind of society I want to live in — that is, until the authorities arrived and the fear returned. A whole phalanx of riot police stood their ground at the top of the stairs looking down on Ilot Fleurie, accompanied by six helicopters that circled above. They were an intimidating presence for hours on end — from approximately 5:00 PM until they gassed us at 2:30 AM.

What I witnessed during those five days in April — what I went through and what I saw other people endure — has made me realize how much stronger am than I previously understood. Throughout the protests I kept saying to myself: 'If I can get through this moment, I can get through the next, and the next, and then whatever life drops on me." And I got through it ail, without serious injury and without arrest. But I didn't get away scott-free. My heart hurts. My mind hurts. Most of all, my soul aches with pain and disbelief.

Eyes washed clear

I can't believe how people injured and abused each other. I am shocked by the violence I saw over the span of just two days — Friday and Saturday. I can't believe the ferocity of chemical weapons, and that a government would allow its police force to use such arms against its own people. I fully appreciate the cops' need to defend themselves against the concrete and plywood wielding protesters, but each of these cops was heavily armed and protected, and a handful of them could have easily surrounded the small group of armed protesters and dealt with them instead of affecting the peaceful demonstrators: instead tear-gas was shot deliberately at the peaceful demonstrators at the back of the crowd. They used the militants as an excuse to curb everyone.

I am writing this story because I believe that the mainstream media is very biased. I want you all to know what really went down. I haven't even told you the half of it in this story, but I've tried to give at least a taste of the pain I saw this weekend. I am having a very hard time processing and dealing with this — the feelings I am experiencing are similar to those I had when I came back from the death camps in Poland. I cannot function adequately right now, and writing this is part of my healing process. I want the world to know what went on in Quebec, how undemocratic and unfair and immoral and oppressive the situation was.

Yet I also want people to know that a better world is possible - through the gas and the pain and the fear I also glimpsed the possibility, the hope, of that new space. People from all walks of life, backgrounds, ages and races came together in Quebec to fight against corporate rule, and to fight for basic human rights, environmentalism and fair trade. We have a vision of a future where things will be better. I don't stand with the anarchists who want to break this society in order to form a new one, and I don't stand with the protesters shouting "Revolution" in the armed sense. But I do stand with the ordinary individuals, grandmothers, kids, labourers, environmentalists, and other humans who want to change things.3

As we said in Quebec City, Be Safe.


Sara Ahronheim, "On The Front Lines at the FTAA Protests." Humanist, July/August 2001, Vol. 61 Issue 4, p13-17.

Sara Ahronheim has a B. Sc. in biology from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, and has been providing first aid and lifeguard services for a number of years. She can be e-mailed at moc.liamtoh|miehnorhaaras#moc.liamtoh|miehnorhaaras.

Also published in 2001 in different forms as "In a War Zone." Forget Magazine, April 26; "Medic's Report from the Front." Canadian Dimension, 35(3); and "Blood, Sweat & Tears." Ms, 11(5).

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License