Quebec City A Love Story Emma Mirabella-Davis

Quebec City, 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 paralysis. The ambulance comes, large hospital workers shuffling into activist subterranean territory. A half-hour later I help one medic in the alley do decontamination from chemical weapon exposure. "Could you please take your outer layer off and put your shoes there?"

It was brutal

A tear-gas case with eyes running red stumbles into the gravel walkway. He holds 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 superheated canister so close that the chemical has 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 centre, Mo, with weeping eyes silently begging explanation.

"Mo's the kinda person who just takes your shit and …" a medic extrapolates with spiraling gestures, and it's true. As the kid in front of me with sagging long johns affirms, Mo 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 Mo. She'll deal with your shit.

"It was brutal out there. Really brutal."

I nod, tears running down my face. I have just entered the medic centre 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 gonna cut right through us!"

She spoke slow, stern, soft: "One thing I'm serious about is that I don't want to hear any more beating up of yourself. It was brutal out there. People are good at different things. Why do you think I work in here?"

"Okay," I sniff.

"I'm really serious about that."


The medics

The medics are an amazing bunch — hearty, good communicators 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 frontlines with hugs and a water bottle. Ta da! Look for me!

The next day the police busted into the centre and forced Mo and her tribe of angels out into the tear gas at gunpoint. Even in war there vare rules against attacking the medic centres. Not here. No place is a safe place here. Remember that.

At night my friends find me, jittery in my socks. I stand outside for a little and we hug and share the day's adventures. They had been teargassed more times than 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 as a cloud of mushroom from corporate guns. It's so toxic you're gasping like a fish and clawing your skin.

Up the streets

"BOOM! BOOM!" Up the streets we see the battles have moved to the thin walkways of the 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.

A screech of tires on the other side of the crosswalk precedes two undercover cops as they jump 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 supermarket along the way to the university where we are staying, I drift through the aisles 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 such a moot point. How could anyone who has been hit with tear gas or beaten or seen the shades and tides of this corporate incision and cruel horror infused with the normalization of evil ever eat … corn-nuts?

Throughout the aisles the others made 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 to talk about our separation on the street and end frustrated. The same thing had happened earlier.

The first time

The first time it happened was, well, the first time. We were too close. Near a tree. The cops in their inhuman gear, standing like juggernauts across the way, were just popping them like fireworks. 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 blasted from a gun and angrily hovered above our heads, people shifting back and forth, pointing to where it was going to fall. "Right here! Right here!" The first chemical ghost grabbed 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 in from your skin, your hair. It took away your smell. It was everywhere. In Philly and at 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. The tension between us is too great. I feel scapegoated because I don't wanna go back in there."

"We came 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 frontliner. I'm not. I do civil disobedience without chemicals — blocking traffic, street theatre, media, theory, and medic work. I don't excel on the frontlines, and I'm not supposed to. I'm sensitive to it. I'm a recounter, a storyteller."

"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.

"All right. Let's do it."

I just wanted to leave the red zone

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 flushed people's eyes. 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 up which the cops were advancing. 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 all right. I just wanted to leave the red zone. As the explosions neared, it all seemed to be some horrible tapestry backdrop counterpointing my relationship issues with Jordan. All this shit was coming out in the streets of Québec, amid 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 alongside it. Jordan and I crushed each others' lips in kisses and repeatedly swore our love. I suddenly just wanted her to be safe from all this blasting.

"Come with me," I pleaded with her with tears in my eyes.

Misunderstanding my concern for her as need for myself, she wept back, "I'm not your caretaker, I love you." The car sped away like a top into the fray, as her form blurred and whipped behind me into the crowd like over-exposed video particles. My life was certainly taking a turn for the epic!

There must be eight thousand people here

The university where we were staying is there, a thousand goblin forms wandering around the night. Weary after the first day we walk into the hall around the corner, down the steps and… "Oh my God!" We are stunned into silence by the sight.

A 400-metre, indoor track field spreads out before us, and every single inch of it is filled with people sleeping, like an army of ants. There must be eight thousand people here. Sleeping bags in every geometric 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 is the multitude of the discontented, the passionate, the visionaries, the walkers, the frontrunners, the children of a lost time, the athletes of our decades, the nomads, the tribes, the loners, the artists, the makers, the doers. They are pirates of a decade in the wilderness, together, alone. Dry-mouthed and wide-eyed and rearranging and sleeping; their faces are all mine and on our faces we all have the same expression, but it is only in the morning that I realize what that look is. It is the look of innocence lost. Of a grim determination, of a sullen understanding that now this is 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 run smack into the dark waves of what human beings are capable of. The dark waves of totalistic paramilitarism and the violent chemical stifling of dissent and freedom. Gone are their student groups and graffiti and youthful exuberance. Now they have the look of weather-beaten statues. They could be 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 is not a hardness of hate or lack of emotion. It is of commitment. This is the real thing now. This is serious, this is real. We are feeling in our bodies what we know to be true in our minds about the brutality of the takeover. This is our calling and our duty to do what we do best to stop them.

These kids are 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 she is freaking out. I feel deep shame at my inability to deal with the physical. She feels that I am too sensitive and is offended by my characterization of her. I confess to having been jealous of David, a friend of hers in the group. She confesses to stifling 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 frontliner 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 than sleeping on a cold, hard, gymnasium floor, snuggling your sweetie at a protest in a room filled with eight thousand activists. I fall asleep with my breath on her eyelids.

Ne touche pas.

Morning. We all agree to meet at the medic centre 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 René-Lévesque. 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. A huge ghost-head of tear gas and its thin, reaching tendrils reach from canisters exploding ahead of us. It occurs to me that, to the future tourists of Québec, this street will be 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 nurse the waves coming back, as they sob or shake, faces red. I peel back eyelits with gloved hands to flush out cleched, stinging eyes, and hand out clean, wet gauze squares for people to scrub their faces and hands.

"Ouvre les yeux. Ne touche pas. Ne touche pas."

As I sit six metres 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 behaviour. Like the sbtlety of our lives, forced into brutality. I am reminded of a scene from "Jules and Jim" in whuch Jules remarks that war deprives humanity of the ability to fight their own personal battles. Yet it seems that, in the midst of the gas and actions, that's exactly what Jordan and I are doing.

Chemical curfew

By nightfall the cops have fired so much chemical gas that, from a distance the Old City looks like a cupcake with an ice-cream scoop of tear gas spilling over the wall and down into the New City. That's what hits you — the sheer amount of chemicals everywhere. It seems somehow fitting that corporate capitalism would use things toxic, synthetic, plastic and poisonous as their weapons of fear. The air is so stifling that night that you can't go six metres outside without a mask. We are holed up in a café run by supporters. Any attempt to leave sends us skipping back inside, woofing and shaking our heads like my dog did when she got skunked.

Down the highway ramp, below the café, a huge, impenetrable ice-cream slide of tear gas is headed right for us. The cops are heading down the highway into the new city like a marauding army of assassins, gassing anything in their path.

When the gas hits the café, the windows turn white with fog. Everyone groups together in the room. Suddenly the air starts smelling like tear gas and we realize it is leaking inside.

A terrible claustrophobia grips the air. We may have to make a break for it. But there are only a handful of masks. People start taking off their shirts and stuffing them in the edges of the doors and windows to try to keep the room airtight.

They have imposed a chemical curfew on a living city, without any thought on its effect on the citizens. The saddest thing for me is seeing a little old Québécois man — in gray tweed, 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 clutches his groceries, attempting to go home through the chemicals up to the Old City. I know he won't make it, just a few turns away the shit was red hot, and canisters are popping everywhere. Right near the medic centre. He is holding his embroidered handkerchief over his mouth and coughing and gasping for breath. We try to get him to come inside the café, or at least let us give him water, but he doesn't want it and goes on into the gas, confused and lost in a new violent age.

I see kids gassed, 12- and 13-year-olds, with smirks on their faces. I see a little puppy on a leash, passed out from the tear gas, its big eyes twitching, laying on its side in the street.

And just a few blocks away George W. Bush and his corporate controllers are 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 commonplace. How tragic; how desperate a situation for our world.

I'm doing the best I can

We're all alone here in this city at the ends of the earth. Where the cycloptic eye of the media has swivelled 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 feel that through some horrible accident I misplaced my life before Québec. I see myself living blissfully unaware, as if I was looking back from death in longing. It is as if all that had vanished in the atomic bomb of corporate war. I cry for the old man on the Plains of Abraham. The future of our world. And for Jordan. So much for Jordan. I suddenly realize, like a resurrected creature, that to be alive is a wonderful thing. To be alive, to be alove and to live in peace is the most amazing thing in the history of this universe. And that is what we were fighting for in the tangled streets of Québec — 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 yell at no one in particular. And no one in particular answers.

"I'm doing the best I can!!!"


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