Monday, May 28, 2012

Pots and pans and the rising power of social protest in Canada

You won't read much about it in the Australian press but the demonstrations and protests taking place in Montreal  and other towns and cities in Quebec (and other parts of Canada) are now among the largest and longest demonstrations in North American history.

The student strike has passed 104 days and last week an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 students, workers and their supporters took to the streets of Quebec to to protest hikes in student tuition fees and the passing of a draconian anti- protest law- known as Law 78- which bans un-permitted marches and any un-permitted gathering of more than 50 people.

Law 78 requires that marchers obtain police approval and restricts demonstrations to certain places. It also threatens organizers, and participants of such gatherings with enormous fines. The Law also makes it illegal to wear masks or otherwise hide your identity during demonstrations.

Law 78 was a direct response to the growing popularity and legitimacy of the student protest movement which has grown stronger each week and mobilizes more and more people.

What started as student protest and marches against the rising costs of university tuition and the crushing impact of student loans has transformed into a major social protest movement.

Since the passage of Law 78 last week the nightly gatherings and marches have got larger and expanded from a focus on the concerns of students to a broader concern about the right to protest and dissent and to oppose state crackdown on citizens' rights and the repression and brutality directed at the protestors by the Police and the state.  The marches  have also galvanized into a people's movement expressing opposition to the Conservative Government's austerity measures and repressive policies and deep discontent about inequality and current economic policy.

Not only have the marches and protests grown in numbers and legitimacy they have also become more innovative and high energy drawing in more and more people through everyday acts of spontaneous  resistance and solidarity.

The marches weave through residential neighborhoods and entertainment precincts and draw in people in bars, restaurants, shops, neighborhoods and apartments. The banging of pots and pans- "les casseroles"- has become an act of solidarity to express and signify people's disgust at the actions and intransigence of the Government and Police.

A movie of protesters of all ages taking to the streets with their pots and pans has gone viral (you can see it here). Initially marches were led by drummers or a cow bell but in recent marches the pots and pans protest have become a call to arms.

The pots-and-pans protest has its roots in Chile, where it was used as an effective, peaceful tool to express civil disobedience. The noisy "cacerolazo" tradition actually predates the Pinochet regime in Chile, but has endured there and spread to other countries as a method of showing popular defiance. The 2011-2012  student protests in Chile have been a catalyst and inspiration for the student uprisings in Quebec.

What is remarkable is that Law 78 and the crackdown on protest has galvanized hundreds of thousands of people and turned what was a student struggle into a people's movement, the likes of which  have not seen in over 40 years of social and political activism in Quebec.

The Quebec demonstrations and marches are now extending to other cities and towns across Canada and also building connections with the US Occupy movement.

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