In fact, the monochrome organizing wasn't a surprise. The activist scene here is already somewhat divided along linguistic English/French and tactical ('violence versus non-violence') lines. And in general, Quebec is still struggling (understatement?) to reconcile 'multiculturalism' with its nationalist project to counter historic British imperialism. So not only is racism strong in Quebec, but addressing the original colonization of First Nations' land, and more recent racist immigration policies, has political complications unique to Quebec.

Anti-Racist Organizing: Reflecting on Lessons from Quebec City

by Pauline Hwang, May 2001

“Parlez francais ici, hostie! Go back your country! Go back your country! C’est mon pays, pas ton pays.” [Translation: “Speak French here, &%$/*! Go back to your country! This is my country, not your country.”]

These are the words a Montreal activist of colour heard from riot police, who were beating and choking him during April’s demonstrations against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Another prominent activist, Jaggi Singh, was singled out as a leader, kidnapped, and beaten — in part because police say his “Hindu origin” (if anything, it should be “Punjabi origin”, but…) made him easily noticeable. Police intimidation also caused a planned alternative summit on Indigenous Peoples and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) to move off the nearby Huron Reserve, according to organizer Tony Hall.

The blatantly racist police repression at Summit protests is one reason that these mass mobilizations have not represented most First Nations activists or activists of colour — a point made over and over by these activists. Unfortunately, it is not the only reason. Subtler, systemic racial exclusion in our organizing is still present (see essays such as Elizabeth ‘Betita’ Martinez’s “Where was the Colour in Seattle? Looking for reasons why the Great Battle was so White“). Those of us in Quebec had hoped that lessons learned since Seattle would have changed the face of the Quebec City mobilization. And despite all the hard and exciting work that went into the event, we still seem to have a long way to go in developing anti-racist, multiracial organizing.

Helping organize against the FTAA made clear to me how difficult and crucial it is to close the gap between radical anti-racist theory and practice. Many activists may see ‘globalization’ as a newer version of the centuries-long, racialized, imperialist project to exploit the vast majority of peoples and environments. The fight against globalization is not just a hope to reverse “corporate rule,” but a long, international struggle for full social, economic and environmental justice.

Here, however, I wanted to reflect on race issues in the process of organizing, not in content of issues raised (though the both are important and related). For context, I mostly organize with the Shakti women of colour collective, Immigrant Workers’ Centre, and a loose coalition of other Montreal-area community groups. For the anti-FTAA protests, I was also a member of a campus-based FTAA-Alert from the beginning. The campus and community experiences were very different.

Though many activists have been introduced to anti-oppression principles, some still don’t see it as central to social change, and still others (myself included) must challenge ourselves further to apply these principles to our everyday practice. I echo Helen Luu’s point that “a movement that is dedicated to bringing down all forms of oppression simultaneously with challenging global capitalism is the kind of movement we must endeavour to work towards, if we are truly serious about fighting for a world that is free and just for all.”

Setting the scene

On campus, anti-FTAA publicity was massive, well-resourced, and successful — hundreds of students jumped on the anti-FTAA bandwagon. Several groups at McGill alone pitched in over $3500. But if we had called a people of colour caucus among the organizers, the members would have been counted on one hand. Other central organizing groups, such as FTAA-Alert Concordia, Groupe Opposé à la Mondialisation des Marchés (GOMM), SalAMI, and even the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, consisted largely of white activists, including many campus-based activists. This is not to say that other groups were not interested in or preparing for the demonstrations; but they were not — for whatever reason — part of the central coordination and planning of the demo.

In fact, the monochrome organizing wasn’t a surprise. The activist scene here is already somewhat divided along linguistic English/French and tactical (‘violence versus non-violence’) lines. And in general, Quebec is still struggling (understatement?) to reconcile ‘multiculturalism’ with its nationalist project to counter historic British imperialism. So not only is racism strong in Quebec, but addressing the original colonization of First Nations’ land, and more recent racist immigration policies, has political complications unique to Quebec. It is difficult to bring folks together to talk about anything, never mind to self-reflect on racism in progressive movements. (These aren’t excuses, just context.)

One of the strengths of this recent, North American ‘anti-globalization movement’ is that it’s drawn from various established movements — labour, environment, human rights, feminist groups, students against sweatshops, etc. However, this particular strength comes with its difficulties: many of these movements have not yet fully addressed structural racism (not to mention many other forms of oppression) historically present within them.

In my experience, this meant (and means) racial exclusion and oppression in anti-FTAA coalitions. A couple obvious examples: a woman in a ‘feminist’ space argued that “people of colour just need to get involved,” and that “we” should “stop complaining [about the racism in groups] and do something about it” (When I called her on it, she said I was was “overreacting and susceptible”). Elsewhere, I was told the off-campus issues I was working were not “directly related to globalization” — in other words, ‘globalization’ means white college students protesting, not the issues of working class people of colour.

In addition to blatant comments such as these, our group of people of colour and immigrant workers faced more structural challenges to meaningful participation in Quebec.

Mobilizing communities of colour

Some groups started to form a loose coalition/caucus among communities of colour opposing imperialist globalization. We had networking meetings, community forums, and made links with labour and immigration struggles. But this time spent on explicit “anti-globalization” was limited because of more immediate campaigns.

At first we had hoped to share demands at the Peoples’ Summit, at least. But it was during the week, and no one could afford to miss work, abandon children and family, and go ‘represent’ the group. For similar reasons, we could only go to Quebec City for Saturday, and even then many people could not make it. And because we had no control over the bus schedule, we ended up being in Quebec so briefly, and could not rally with the people of colour contingent from Toronto/elsewhere (in fact we spent most of the time looking for each other, having been sent in two separate busloads). Because of the physical and legal danger near the security perimeter, we went on the legal march, which was a long walk to a distant stadium. Despite our safety precautions, however, some youth of colour dropped out at the last minute — likely because of expected police violence and/or Friday’s TV coverage.

I say all this not to ‘complain’, but because it struck me how difficult it was to fully enjoy a mobilization seemingly designed for, and managed by, particular types of activists. As activist/writer Chris Dixon points out, “A key problem, then, with the focus on mass mobilizations is the underlying idea that we, as people who seek radical social change, must each take great risks and make huge commitments in very prescribed ways — and that all of us can afford to do that. Yet this just doesn’t face reality.”

We were also at odds with many other groups because we hadn’t (and couldn’t) put all our energy into Quebec City. If we had, we could have mobilized even more people and raised more money. Luckily, some community organizers kept their perspective, choosing to reserve resources for necessary ongoing work. But last-minute calls for funding for the mass mobilization caused activist groups to shell out big money (some of which we received, but ironically probably could not have accessed for ongoing campaigns). I’m glad the mobilization was a success. I also can’t help thinking about the incredible difference even half those resources, energy, and people power could make, if invested in local, shoestring-budget campaigns (also fighting globalization, though differently).

The dynamics of inclusion

From my conversations with community organizers before and after Quebec City, there are problems with basing ‘the movement’ in groups that have historically alienated, and poorly represented, “marginalized” communities. Particularly when many members still have trouble listening non-defensively to these criticisms.

(An incomplete summary…) Some of us:

  • are turned-off from the get-go, uninspired by actions and tactics that seem so exciting for mostly white, male, middle-class activists
  • have little sense of equal partnership, and feel unrepresented by the spokespeople and writers who are said to speak for the movement
  • don’t want to be “special interest groups,” lobbying the movement to include “our” issues
  • must often work with problematic and oppressive “allies”; often spend time/energy fighting racism within activist groups, which could be spent mobilizing in the community
  • must still appease those who control the resources (and so must do the anti-oppression education, so the work we do will be validated, recognized, and funded)
  • are tired of being accused of “identity politics” or “dismissed as soft, bitchy, counter-revolutionary, or PC” (from the call-out for ‘A Critical Dialogue…’ see below)
  • are caught between wanting to demonstrate radical opposition to global capitalism, and needing to protect one’s safety, legal status, job and earnings, family, health, etc.
  • prefer changing socioeconomic realities to debating ideology
  • etc., etc.

I know I’m not saying anything new, but it seems many have not yet listened. As Jane G., a volunteer with New York’s Coalition for the Human Rights of Immigrants puts it: “‘Inclusion’ obviously means different things to different people. To some it means throwing the doors open to everyone, without any kind of structured plan for involving groups who so far have been disenfranchised from the entire process. This kind of ‘inclusion’ inevitably means that discussion and decision-making will be dominated by 1) those who have email and know about it; 2) those who have the resources (time & money) to get there; 3) those who feel their opinion is more important and are therefore most comfortable dominating the conversations; etc. This type of ‘inclusiveness’ almost guarantees a lack of diversity which will be very hard to reverse later, since those few groups from outside this elite privileged clique who decide to give the process a chance will quickly be driven out when they see the dynamic.”

Leading up the Summit demonstrations, anti-oppression work we did with the campus-based groups helped. Allies helped us, in urgent situations, to get quicker respect and resources (and on whose shoulders I could cry when frustrated). Some students began to see the racialization of the globalization process (at least enough to say “capitalist globalization is racist!”) Several members began attending events like “Women of Colour Resisting Imperialism” and demonstrations to stop the deportation of a former live-in caregiver (whose only crime was to get pregnant). Fewer still saw the links to the fight for Africana Studies, and other long-term anti-racist work.

Outside of Quebec, one exciting idea was the border crossing at Akwesasne, Mohawk territory. It was a creative direct action — i.e. thinking outside the ‘shut down the Summit’ box, asserting First Nations sovereignty, and addressing border enforcement — not only for protesters but for all people.

Talking the talk

Some groups have begun referring to globalization’s racialized impact in statements, principles, or reports. A brief survey: the final declaration of the Peoples’ Summit of the Americas (a parallel NGO summit) stated “this neo-liberal project is racist and sexist…” The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) has put out a fact sheet called “Is Globalisation Colour Blind?” The Centre for Social Justice published a report on Canada’s Economic Apartheid, which was featured on CBC TV’s Counterspin (funny how communities of colour have noticed the inequity for years, but it didn’t make prime time TV then). Montreal’s GOMM referred to racism and other oppressions under their “feminist” demands. Even groups like the Council of Canadians appear to be slowly changing their official line on racism. At FTAA-Alert, we stuck a clause saying the group was “anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-homophobic” into the mandate, and managed to rid the group of a white supremacist who was stirring up the email list. But it seemed difficult enough to combat this blatant discrimination, never mind the daily organizing habits that made the group inaccessible.

Few activists challenged (or continue to challenge) more subtle, internal racism within ourselves and our groups, beyond openly noting the lack of “diversity.” The groups mentioned above were/are heavily dominated by white, middle-class activists and have not addressed the racial exclusivity in ongoing work, including anti-FTAA organizing. That is not to say all these groups have not done good work, it is just to point out areas where we still need to work.

So where are we going and how can we get there?

The call-out for “A Critical Dialogue on Confronting Oppression Within Activist and ‘Alternative’ Communities” says bluntly, “while activists rush back and forth across the continent looking for the next big event, important questions remain unanswered and complicated internal conflicts lurk in the dark corners and closets of our communities. Why is it never the right time or place to acknowledge or confront the rampant sexism, racism, homophobia, and arrogance within supposedly radical organizations?”

According to the Colours of Resistance statement, we “are committed to helping build an anti-racist, anti-imperialist, multiracial, feminist, queer liberationist, and anti-authoritarian movement against global capitalism.” This requires time for listening, learning, serious mutual critiques, and long-term visioning.

Most groups are much more willing to talk about racialized globalization on the international level, agreeing that developing countries are by far hurt most. Only a few have discussed the effects of globalization on the “Third World within,” i.e. on local communities of colour. I think a serious spelling-out of the local impacts of global capitalism would be crucial to building a broader, more relevant, and more powerful movement.

What I’ve learned from watching and working with community organizers around me is that building resistance and politicizing our communities takes years of thankless grunt work. I fear the anti-globalization hype has unintentionally produced ‘glory’ activism (I’ve felt it) — the romance of being on the front lines, taking up “arms,” facing the repressive state reaction, and all the attention afterwards! — and, as anti-racist, anarchist writer Chris Crass points out in his essay “Looking to the light of freedom,” this glorified activism makes it easy to forget the years of work (often hidden, and often done by women) that have gone into shaping key social movements.

As Free Radical’s L.A. Kauffman writes, “Radicals whose activism largely consists of mobilizing for one big action after another…tend to develop very different politics from those who are deeply enmeshed in local organizing. There’s a kind of rigor to nuts-and-bolts campaigning with concrete, immediate stakes – say, fighting to stop a power plant from being built in a low-income neighborhood with epidemic asthma rates — that privileges strategy over gestures. Without that grounding, it’s all too easy to make the great militant error of elevating tactics to principles, rather than seeing them as tools, and to engage in confrontation for its own sake.”

I would start by asking: where are the roots of the ‘globalization problem? How can we aim for those roots in the long term, while addressing urgent needs for better living conditions? Who needs support, and how can we best give it without taking over? What are creative, effective and accessible actions we can take, while building radically alternative ways of relating to each other? What will it mean when these actions are “successful”?

To get more concrete, here’s some sharp comments and suggestions from various organizers of the upcoming North American (NA) conference of Peoples’ Global Action (PGA), a radical, grassroots network based in the 2/3 world, the global south. One of the PGA hallmarks is: “A rejection of all forms of oppression and exploitation such as patriarchy, white supremacy and imperialism.”

Lesley Wood writes “dynamics around networks are often dependent on who is at the table when the meeting starts. And I fear that not everyone will be there.” She has suggested downscaling event costs to make them more accessible, and asking more privileged groups to send someone else – from a movement that would otherwise not be represented.

Emphasizing the years it takes to build a strong, diverse community alliances, another PGA organizer pointed out “to do alliance building does not mean that we just try to get indigenous groups or people of color to attend a PGA conference, it means that a relationship of trust has been formed due to doing work that supports these organizations… we need to be open to new ways of organizing.”

Jane G. has suggested discussing ‘diversity of tactics’ in “a room full of immigrant workers and people of color,” and delaying the immediate launch of PGA-NA, prioritizing local tours by PGA reps from the global south — “The visiting folks could talk up PGA directly with local groups here, and establish direct links of communication, thus allowing PGA-NA to build itself up without control or ownership (albeit unintentional) by the white middle-class anti-globalization crowd.”

Many other activists, such as Ottawa activist Chelby Daigle, are committed to strengthening and RESOURCING the “parallel movement” of grassroots groups in communities of colour (of course, we stay aware that not all groups in these communities are grassroots) without waiting for the more mainstream anti-globalization organizations to wake up to these needs. A People of Color Caucus in the anti-globalization movement in San Francisco has also focused on supporting people of colour in predominantly white organizations, a need some of us in Montreal can identify with as well.

These are just a few ideas to get us started, to ensure the fight against imperialist, neoliberal globalization is much more than a passing fad (ready to be co-opted by unrepresentative organizations, politicians, and even clever corporations). By addressing racism and other oppressions (which I did not touch on here, obviously) seriously and systematically in our own organizations, our strategies and activities, I hope we can work hard at building a sustained, inclusive movement in which power and leadership (which exist even if we pretend to avoid it) can be transferred to all people.