Casserole Contra Baton
May 30, 2012
Back on the streets of Montreal after a few weeks away, the most immediate and recognizable change in the student movement is the manif casseroles taking place each night in neighborhoods all over the city. Echoing the cacerolazo—used in Chile in 1971 during Salvador Allende’s rule in Chile, and then against Pinochet little more than a decade later—thousands of people armed with pots and pans emerge from their homes at 8 PM each evening to bang and clang and make as much noise as possible. These gatherings are illegal under Law 78, the provincial government’s emergency measure to quell the student uprising by limiting the protesters’ right to assemble. But they often morph into hours-long demonstrations and ad hoc neighborhood assemblies where citizens voice their concerns and listen in return.
Throughout the student strike, now more than one hundred days strong, an ongoing battle for control over sonic space has persisted. It is because the provincial government refused to listen to what the student leaders had to say about the tuition hikes that those same leaders called on students to make themselves heard on the streets. Once the amplitude of the protests reached a decibel deemed dangerous by the government, legions of riot cops were sent in to force those assembled to be silent. The frequent police brutality, and the provincial politicians’ continued disregard for it, only inspired greater numbers to gather in defiance. Thwarted by the escalating demonstrations, the Québec legislature then adopted Law 78, the antidemocratic law that represses the freedom of assembly, the freedom of expression, and the right to protest.
During the nightly student marches, riot cops beat their shields with their batons, in unison, before violently charging the assembled protesters. This is a well known intimidation tactic police use to magnify their presence. Montreal’s casserole protest is so effective because it seizes that aural space from the police in an act of civic reclamation. The state-sponsored weaponry of baton and shield are defused by otherwise innocuous domestic cookware. In the hands of the city’s residents—students, children, parents, and seniors alike—these simple utensils seem indomitable.
Multigenerational Casserole Orchestras
May 30, 2012
On May 22 we hit the streets: 400,000 Montrealers marched downtown in support of student strikers, and against Law 78. That night, I returned home to hear the beginnings of a very different kind of protest—les manif casseroles. It started with a couple of pings and pangs, then some clinking and clanking coming through the window. I went to my balcony, listening to the sporadic polyrhythms of neighbors hitting pots and pans with wooden spoons and spatulas. I grabbed a pot and followed the noise into my back alley. A couple of kids playing in their backyard saw me and, getting nods from their parents, came out with their own pans. Together we walked, clanging and smiling, toward the next street, drawn by louder metallic rhythms. Parents were sitting on their front stoops with newborns. Seniors were sitting on their balconies, banging vintage cookware. Kids were climbing each other’s shoulders to bang on a stop sign. Everyone was smiling, accidentally making music together: a multigenerational casserole orchestra.
The next night, at 8 PM, when the music started again, my partner and I took our daughter down into the street. We strolled around the neighborhood, seeing friends and meeting strangers while the music got louder and louder, magnetically bringing more and more people together. Eventually one hundred of us were lined up along St. Viateur, the commercial street at the end of the block. And then we started marching. It felt completely unplanned, spontaneous, and totally natural: the music had drawn us down from our balconies, and now we were flowing through the streets.
There was a strange beauty in the collective noise: some people were clanging in rhythm, some riffing off one another, some doing their own individual thing. The sounds occasionally coalesced into a collective rhythm, prompting our bodies to move in tune with the crowd, before the pattern fragmented back into chaos. The improvisational music that brought us together had an undeniably anarchic feel. ??There’s something wildly exhilarating about walking down the middle of the street with an accidental group of neighbors. We didn’t know where we were going, but on each block more people joined us, coming down from their balconies, leaving café terraces. Growing to three hundred, we turned onto Avenue du Parc and transformed a busy road into a ragtag musical parade. There were no police, no escorts, no plan: it didn’t feel anything like a downtown demo. There were grandparents walking arm in arm, families with babies, bachelors with dogs, kids of all ages: it felt like, well, everyone. The crowd was loose, playful, and open—a direct consequence of multigenerational participation. Drivers couldn’t help but smile and honk along with the music. There was no anger, no demand, no confrontation—just the splendid anarchy of public assembly.
We were marching right out of our neighborhood, toward the Plateau, when we finally saw the twirling lights of a police car approach us. We felt a moment of hesitation until we saw what was behind the car: a massive orchestra of thousands turning off Rue St-Denis and coming toward us. A wave of exhilaration rippled through the crowds as we came together, cheering and laughing. Our neighborhood parade beamed happily as we turned around and became the head of a raucous orchestra of thousands and thousands. It was the most joyously anarchic formation of a mass that I’ve ever experienced, so joyous that we’ve come out every night since.
From: efrim manuel <XXXXXXX@XXXXXXX.com>
Subject: Re: anarchopanda
Date: 1 June, 2012 3:24:51 AM EDT
THIS ANARCHOPANDA THING IS, FOR REAL, FUCKING NUTS!
he’s a philosophy professor
and near the beginning of this whole beautiful insurrection,
when every night was ending with thee olde stale smashed windows/teargas pantomime,
he decided that his calling
was that weirdly empathetic panda suit
and free hugs for anyone who wanted it.
he’s like a rock-star now,
and is out every night.
last night he was at the front of the huge casserole that me and jess were in—
there’s some fluke to his costume where it exaggerates tired shoulders
and he wears a knapsack that sags also,
and it was fucking hot and humid last night
the way it is between summer thunderstorms,
so HE MUST’VE BEEN SWELTERED,
and at some point, right as people were dwindling,
he made his exit—
but he exited by walking from the front of the march all the way to the back
and people were rushing him and hugging him all the way along=
tired anarchopanda hugging all those beaming kids, and not-kids, and grandparents.
so many teary moments in all of this
i’m crying all of the time
and smiling all of the time
i know it’s going to end
i don’t want it to end
today the talks between the govt. and the students got shut down by the govt.
our corrupt premier held a press conference and blamed the students, and said that the ‘menacing’ of montreal would no longer be tolerated.
things are about to get heavy in a bad way.
there’s no media coverage of what’s happening in the streets every night,
how many of us that are there are banging on shit and SO FUCKING HAPPY
the diversity of ages and races
or the number of people who are stoked when the casseroles pass through their neighborhood
(so many folks rushing to their windows and balconies, and dancing, banging pots furiously and smiling)
i mean we all know it, we know the media lies, but there are these moments where you really fucking know it,
and you feel dismayed and proud at the same time.
the same old dismay that we are all born into,
but this pride also,
because goddamnit we write our own fucking narratives in spite of,
and because there’s some beauty to the lines being so clearly drawn, without any jaded nuance=
joy on one side
and fear on the other.
(the words “silent majority” are being hurled all across this province’s editorial pages so much that i feel like we’re in amerikkka circa nixon ’71.)
but then people in the street
so many people in the street
all of them happy to find out how many of us there are
in the street
making stupid noise
about how many of us there are in the street.
i weep all day long.
things are really about to get fucking heavy in the flashbang/kettling sort of way,
(AND THEY WERE ALREADY HEAVY THUSLY)
the provincial govt. and the montreal chamber of commerce want the city of montreal to shut the fuck up,
and they have A LOT OF POLICEMEN with a lot of non-lethal bullshit to shoot at us.
i want things to end well
but mostly i don’t want it to end.
we’ve been going with ezra to the park at the end of our street at 8 PM every night (it’s when the casserole starts)
he has his bath and we put on his pajamas and grab our fucking pot lids and wooden spoons
and i guess there’s going to be a whole generation of kids raised in this ridiculous neglected jewel of a town
who’ll have fuzzy memories about the month they got to go to the park that one summertime
when all the grownups were making noise with pot lids
and all the kids were too
and everyone was serious
but everyone was smiling too.
Subject: re: “joy”
Date: 3 June, 2012 2:51:50 PM EDT
To: efrim manuel <XXXXXXX@XXXXXXX.com>
hey boss, ??a quick thing. i feel like I didn’t get it out right when we talked the other night and what i wanted to say is something along these lines . . . i’m wary of the way people bring (or don’t bring) joy or joyfulness into political stuff like the strike (or whatever we want to call what’s going on right now) from different sides. like, on the one hand, it seems like so much Serious Activism is completely devoid of any personal or emotional investment aside from the monstrous, overbearing guilt and/or insecurity that governs people’s actions. (and one of the biggest problems facing formal activist projects is the way that drives people away, right?) but on the other hand, there’s also a danger that people start acting like personal transformation via activist projects is the ultimate goal, like the battle is won if we feel more positive about the world or whatever. that’s obviously a beautiful thing, and a necessary thing, and the alienation and hopelessness that people feel is a part of capitalism as much as material inequality and everything else. (and as such fighting that alienation together is a way to fight capitalism. i still believe that!!) but I feel like it’s easy to cast “the struggle” (yeesh, I know . . . ) in terms whereby a collective endeavor gets individualized through that kind of language. i’m thinking about longer-term encampment-style actions or multi-day marches or even some of the Occupy Montreal things, when some people come out because they’re stoked on the idea of collective living and the political issues are totally lost. or like how every conversation i had about anarchism when i was a teenager made it sound like the worst thing about capitalism was that work is boring, and that we could bring down the state via non-monogamy. does that make any sense to you? i just feel like there’s never ever enough attention paid to rooting activism in people’s actual lives. but on the other hand, activist projects that are rooted in people’s everyday lives have a way of getting depoliticized really quickly.
but ANYWAY, the point of all that was just to say that I’m REALLY STOKED about right now because it feels like NEITHER of those things are happening, right? like people are being totally joyful and playful and loving and going out in the streets and meeting their neighbors and all that, but it’s remained totally politicized. the manif casseroles are still about the same things the big marches downtown are about. and I’ve really never seen that before and it’s blowing my fuckin’ mind.
i’ve been thinking a lot about how this is going to resolve itself. (I know we all are.) and how people are already suggesting the casseroles turn into weekly block parties or whatever. and I mean, that’d be totally awesome. but i’m also wondering how the neighborhood-togetherness vibe might stay politicized (or at least engaged) once the present context has changed.
anyway, i feel like I wasn’t explaining myself very well the other night and didn’t want it to sound like I think joy is a bad thing or something . . . ??sigh.
—Graham Latham and Efrim Manuel Menuck
Manif Casseroles Come to Toronto
May 31, 2012
The problem with the politics of joy is that it sets us up to think feelings are the best arbiter of justice. Which is different than saying feelings aren’t important. I was thinking about this yesterday while rummaging around in my cupboard for a sonically ideal pot and spoon combo. The manif casseroles had come to Toronto, and having just returned, reluctantly, from a joyous, riotous week of demonstrations in Montreal, I was ready for an insertion of feel-good clanks and bangs to usher my neighbors and me into the night.
Last Tuesday, I was among the some three or four hundred thousand Québecers who took to the streets in what is now said to be the largest demonstration of civil disobedience in Canadian history. It’s not enough to say it was a larger and differently spirited event than the protests I more often go to—and will continue to go to—against this or that latest degradation or violation or government theft. It was also a more brightly colored red, and better received by the drivers whose traffic it stopped. There was more repurposing of found objects as makeshift carré rouges (red squares, the symbol of Québec’s student-turned-social strike), and certainly more creative variations on the now criminalized face mask. But, really, what was most striking and exciting about the demonstration was how aware it was of its own power.
The Montreal night marches I attended shared this quality. (Ongoing since the end of April, these are distinct from the manif casserole.) As exciting to me as anything about the evening marches, as they seized the lamp-lit streets nightly, was how fast they moved. Which of course means they’re not fully accessible and that their demographics are more tightly constricted to the young and dependentless, but the exhilaration of traversing a city in huge numbers, quickly and defiantly, seemed to express as much about desire and political ambition as it did about anger or outrage. As John Berger told us decades ago, a demonstration isn’t important because of what it does (for it does nothing), but because of the metaphor it offers of a group’s collective strength: “It demonstrates a force that is scarcely used.” These were marches in which that collective force didn’t just feel great, it emboldened us. They were a feedback loop of strength and thus of power. Little wonder they are spreading.
Wednesday night’s joyous, Pied Piper-like procession through the West End of Toronto, a thousand or so strong, didn’t have what the manif casseroles in Québec seem to have. It wasn’t quite as organic—it didn’t begin with some elderly couple in pajamas leaning over their balcony to call out their neighbors with a riotous clank of a saucepan. Nor did it start with the excitement of variously aged strangers bumping up against one aother’s cacophony on the street corner and then moving forward together. But it was happy and celebratory and fun—all good things in the schema of possible feelings, and perhaps necessary antidotes to bleak days full of bad news about fewer jobs, more prisons, and higher tuition rates. Yet the feel-good of the casseroles is no rejoinder to the contrasting feel-bad politics of “smashy smashy,” or to grim-faced teenagers screaming at riot cops—that’s just the trap the media, still trying to avoid eating the whole of their lunch, have set up for us. For those of us who aren’t in Québec, but remain excited about what’s going on there, it is especially important that we not fall into this trap. Organizing joyous solidarity actions is obviously a great start. Next will be to figure out what our own similarly audacious demonstrations of collective strength are going to look like, or sound like, or both.