In the Street for Social Strike

02 Feb 2013, Posted in Articles,Short FUSE, 0 Comments


By Cindy Milstein

This FUSE article from issue 36-1 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. If you like what you read, please consider subscribing to FUSE or making a one-time donation.

I offer here an account of how a group of Montreal residents, the Mile-End popular assembly, prepared “Dans la rue pour la grève sociale/In the street for social strike” on 10 August 2012. We often forget to document the histories of how we remake the world, even in little ways, and I want to linger a bit on the minutiae of preparation in order to illustrate that fine, magical line between what seems given or natural — that parking spots are for cars, for instance, or that streets are merely conduits
for getting from one place to another — and what is possible.

At the start of the day, a bunch of us from the assembly met at “our” pocket park (private property, as a sign on the adjacent building warns) at the intersection of Waverly and Mile-End’s commercial drag, St-Viateur. This is where our “orchestrole” has convened for the past five Wednesdays, and where the casseroles met before that earlier in the spring and summer. [1] The people living in the apartments around this park are clearly sympathetic to the Quebec student strike; large red squares and anti-Loi 78 banners dangle from several balconies. [2]

When we decided three weeks earlier to do a street takeover in solidarity with the student strike, many good ideas and much enthusiasm marked our mobilization group meetings and weekly assemblies, not to mention street-corner chats after the weekly orchestroles and daily exchanges of emails. We had a growing list of things we wanted to offer for free (popular education, literature, hands-on arts), things we thought were crucial as infrastructure (bilingual posters, livestreaming by the local university television network CUTV, a citywide neighbourhood assemblies’ press conference), and things we had to discuss as dilemmas (whether and when to inform St-Viateur businesses). On an ever-expanding bilingual Google Doc and Facebook event page, we announced:

On August 10th, the Mile End Popular Assembly is blocking a street in order to raise awareness about the strike, the effects of neoliberalism in Quebec, and the importance of collective action. A block party with food, music, art, workshops/teach-ins, performances, screen printing, and lots and lots of talking — all in the form of a mobilization around a social strike — will disrupt society’s business as usual by taking over the street for an afternoon to start the mobilization toward real autonomous change!

For the most part our plans congealed, thanks to the fact that most participants in this two-month-old, directly democratic assembly are go-getters and full of imagination.
At 9:30 in the morning, we trotted out a line of borrowed orange chairs from one of our assembly member’s nearby homes; the day before, others had brought the chairs two blocks from a collective space to store in her backyard. A couch appeared, with the label “pillows 4 the revolution.” So did vegan wraps and cake, along with red balloons to hang festively from trees and bike racks, red cardboard to mark our teach-in space on the concrete, a whiteboard to list the course schedule, a bunch of red-felt squares to give away, and so much more. A couple dozen of us scrambled to get everything set up in the park and on the sidewalk, as materials hovered in wait for 12:00 noon, when we were going to pull it all into the street and grab one block.

Because of looming gray clouds, in keeping with that day’s forecast for rain, it was clear that a tarp would be needed over what was going to be the on-site silk-screening station, so one assembly person raced up into the apartment building next to our park, knocked on a second-floor door, and told the person who answered that she needed access to their home. This stranger instantly let her in, and she and several other folks rigged up a tarp with ropes attached to the balcony. Electricity was run from the bookstore on the ground floor, even though apparently our new second-floor apartment comrades offered up their electricity too. Water was brought in, clotheslines for drying prints were hung, and the screens were put in place.

Besides piling a good percentage of our supplies in our private-property park to use as temporary barricades at noontime, we’d also decided to commandeer all the street-parking spots as the meters ran out and cars left. Someone at an earlier assembly had also said that if worse came to worse, and the cops kicked us off the street proper, we legally could occupy the parking spots — that is, if we fed the meters. That was Plan B. Plan A was the whole street. So each time we saw a car pull away, we ran over with orange chairs, threaded string between them, and taped a handwritten sign reading “occupé” on the string. We managed to clear most of the spots, and someone else went to each business to inform them that we’d be using the street for three hours. Most were fine with it, or already knew, since we’d heavily postered that week, but one grumbled, “Do I have a choice?” At one point, a big SUV had pushed aside some of our chairs, and the driver insisted they had to park there. Someone managed to talk them into moving, but as noon neared, a guy brazenly pulled another SUV into the spot right next to our park, removing our orange chairs with a flourish of attitude. Fortunately, these were our only problems of the day.

Meanwhile, our safety team distributed reflective yellow suspenders for people to wear as they took turns staffing the two ends of the block, both to welcome folks and ensure we kept the area secured. They also put up signs on the surrounding streets to redirect traffic — signs made on the backsides of Jean Charest’s political posters for the upcoming provincial elections, which “somehow” had been torn down and found their way to us.

The rain held off. At noon, everything stood ready to be dashed into the street, but there clearly weren’t enough people to do it. We decided, quickly, to delay a few minutes until we had a critical mass. Soon enough many more people showed up: folks who’d come to teach workshops, sing songs, do performance art or dance, set up a “make-your-own” red square area, play their instruments or bang their cookware, hand out political literature, and distribute yummy eats — many neighbours of all types. Some musicians with our orchestrole struck up a marching tune, the orange chairs and caution tape popped out to block the street, followed by a table covered in red cloth, then more tables and classroom signs taped on the ground.

The strike, embedded within an established and broadly supported social movement, demonstrated the possibility of experiential undertakings of resistance and reconstruction. A social strike gets at the simple but hard fact of contemporary social reality that capitalism shapes everyone’s lives — not just the lives of workers and the unwaged people who reproduce those workers. The way to strike is by collectively not doing what you’re supposed to, instead throwing a wrench into the everyday, from work to school to leisure to street life to urban space, and everything in between. It isn’t just about disruption, but also what you do during that time of disruption to create something different.

So what did we make and do for our three limited yet infinite hours of dreaming together in the newly liberated space of our one block? We socialized it, communized it, and made it anarchistic — all in the lowercase senses. That is, between the cheerful orange chairs and happy red balloons could be found an egalitarian and generous spirit, valuing everyone for what they brought into it, from each according to their abilities and passions, to each according needs and desires, all self-organized and self-managed with intention and spontaneity, without compulsion, for a delight that can only be found when we manifest it ourselves, even if it took a lot of elbow grease.

Tangibly, what we did was nothing particularly special or even unique, and involved many of the activities that are merely the stuff of regular life: eating, talking, creating, relaxing, reading, making friends, setting up and cleaning up. Even the way that we did it was nothing special or unique, at least in the countercultural circles I’m used to: everything followed a do-it-ourselves sensibility, as it does in collective projects among antiauthoritarians. It’s in events like this where the simple becomes profound, hinting at what’s essential for a new society: new social relations.

NOTES:

This text is excerpted from a blog post written in Montreal, 12 August 2012, as part of my “Dispatches from Quebec Spring” series. For the full piece along with numerous other posts and essays, see Outside the Circle at cbmilstein.wordpress.com.

[1] Editor’s note —
Casseroles demonstrations, popularized in Montreal during spring and summer 2012, were adapted from the Latin American cacerolazo, and involved large groups of people banging on pots, pans, and other kitchen implements, to create a highly audible social demonstration. During the strike,  casseroles became regular celebratory public displays of solidarity, held in the evening in multiple neigh-
borhoods all over the city. The orchestrole was a mix of musical instruments and kitchen implements providing the sound track to illegal demonstrations in the Mile-End.

[2] The widely decried legislation introduced by the Charest government during the student strikes in May 2012. For more detailed information, see Jonah Campell’s review
of the law in this issue
of FUSE.

 —

Cindy Milstein is the author of Anarchism and Its Aspirations (AK Press, 2010), and coauthor with Erik Ruin of Paths toward Utopia: Graphic Explorations of Everyday Anarchism (PM Press, 2012). She is a collective member of both the Institute for Anarchist Studies and Interference Archive in Brooklyn. Cindy has been involved in collective projects ranging from Black Sheep Books to the Renewing the Anarchist Tradition conference as well as social movements such as Occupy Philly.

 

Order FUSE 36-1/Promiscuous Infrastructures

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