Les mutations du code vestimentaire

[Extract]

When I emerged from an underground parking lot into the wild energy of Quebec City on Saturday afternoon, April 21, I realized that the FTAA Summit and the protests against it all amounted to a kind of super-performance. I’d already watched the ritualized territorial dance of fence-crashing anarchists and teargassing riot cops on television the night before. But television failed to convey the electricity of being there, in a zone – an entire city! – where for a certain span of time, all the normal rules of conduct had been suspended. There was a distinct and palpable atmosphere of contestation, where ordinary people – career cops, politicians, students, anarchists, socialists, environmentalists, feminists, artists, workers unionized or not, and the local inhabitants – were thrown into a crucible that recast them in relation to the social forces clashing that weekend over issues of trade, democracy, transparency and social justice.

The permeability of normal social structures was violently disrupted by the erection of the infamous wire-and-concrete fence, which surrounded the site of the Summit and was defended by over six thousand paramilitary police. It was the willingness of direct-action advocates to blockade conference sites – a strategy which helped shut down the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in November 1999 – that led the forces of ’law and order’ to resort to fencing off the entire Quebec City Summit site. The sheer numbers of protestors and the perceived possibility of violent actions led the Summit’s security architects to employ tear gas, plastic bullets, water cannons and incarceration as means of ’crowd control’. The resulting polarization of those on the ’inside’ and those on the ’outside’ had interesting effects in terms of how contesting forces defined themselves. Circumstances caused significant sartorial mutations on both sides of the fence.

Over the past four years, the protective gear employed by Canadian police officers engaged in ’crowd control’ has become increasingly alienating. During the 1997 APEC protests in Vancouver, it was still possible to see the features of infamous RCMP Sergeant Hugh Stewart as he hosed down protestors and journalists with pepper spray. Only four years ago, while they struggled to keep protestors out of sight of the heads of state attending the APEC conference, the police still had faces, although at times they were behind plexiglass helmet visors. Not so in Quebec City, where riot police resembled atomic energy workers, or Star Wars storm troopers. Gas mask, helmet with visor and neck guard, body armour, overalls – all served to completely dehumanize the police, an effect further enhanced when they marched in tight formation like Roman centurions, rhythmically banging on their shields with their riot sticks and stamping their heavy boots.

The appearance of the protestors – especially those engaged in direct action – has similarly undergone a certain amount of dehumanizing. Anarchists led the way in wearing masks, scarves, hoods – to avoid being identified, and as protection against pepper spray – and some went as far as arming themselves. After the initial clash in Quebec City, where the fence was breeched at Parc de l’Amérique-française, the police immediately stopped distinguishing between protestors who might pose a threat and those who were peaceful. Police repeatedly and indiscriminately gassed protestors who simply sat on the street in their colourful clothes, holding up their hands in futile peace signs. Soon enough, protestors who confronted the fence were resorting to scarves, towels, ski masks, rags soaked in vinegar, dust masks, paint fume masks, army surplus gas masks, ski goggles, swimming goggles – all in an effort to protect themselves from the gas. As the scene grew more chaotic over the weekend, police tactics also eliminated any distinction between protestors and average citizens who happened to step out of their houses at the wrong time, and in the vicinity of the mobile police lines. This effacing of both protestors and police was going on while the heads of state from thirty-four Western hemispheric countries spoke of instituting globalization ’with a human face’. One could certainly see the faces of the leaders – on television. As they contemplated the Free Trade Area of the Americas and carried on their business in peaceful tranquility, the television viewer might have noticed another sort of uniform, the business suits. Many men, and a few women, in business suits, engaged in the business of business without any fear of being arbitrarily gassed.

I was nowhere near this exercise in conformity. I was far beyond the fenced security zone, beyond the contesting lines of protestors and cops, below the cliff separating the upper and lower towns; I was watching the officially sanctioned "Marche des peuples d’Amérique" advancing down Charest Street. I had arrived with my friends in a crammed ’communauto’ with nothing in mind except to be there, to witness, to take part. Among our group was a writer, a performance artist, a poet ... prepared neither for street battle nor for art action, we were there to lend ourselves to the mass of protestors AGAINST globalization. Even at that distance from the fence, the prevailing wind was blowing tear gas down from the escarpment and into our midst. An occasional gust would produce gasps, tearing eyes, and a distinct tingling of the exposed skin.

I had come that day, in fact, to join this "Marche des peuples d’Amérique" as it moved along a route which had been approved by the security forces, and by city officials who doubtless wore suits. Here, faces were not hidden. As I stood watching on the sidewalk, thousands upon thousands of protesters went by. Cheering, dancing supporters of Haiti’s new president, Aristide, went by. Cheering, singing supporters of Cuba went by, handing out paper flags. Unions from Quebec and Ontario, from Mexico, from South America marched past waving placards. Sound trucks blaring distorted slogans passed. Beyond some minimal traffic control, there was no sign of the police. There was no need for the police, since another means of effacing these protestors had been found. The march was routed so far from the fenced Summit site it passed through the industrial outskirts of town, and ended in a huge parking lot beside a highway and a railway line.

We joined this march to nowhere, and just around the corner from Charest, encountered what seemed to be a group of young businessmen and women in suits at the entrance of a Holiday Inn. They were noisily chanting in favour of the FTAA, and held placards and banners that read, ’Young Investors Have Rights Too!’. My friends and I had noticed them when we’d first emerged from the parking garage, and had wondered if they were serious. Now we could see that they were obviously a gang of students engaging in a kind of ironic commentary. Their business suit camouflage broke down, given away by ’inappropriate’ hairstyles, athletic shoes and a clear lack of tailoring. As our contingent passed them, we broke into a round of spontaneous applause. Of course they weren’t ’real’ business people – the absurdity of their presence highlighted the fact that the business community had no need to demonstrate in the streets. They were safe behind the wall of shame, enjoying the access only multinational corporations could afford to buy for half a million dollars.

The business suit was a trope seized upon in numerous street performances. Even our designated communauto driver had worn a jacket and tie in a vain attempt to appear ironically ’establishment’. But it isn’t easy to capture the quasi-fascistic authority and the style-power fetishism exemplified in the ’well made, well priced, well dressed’ television ads for Moores, ’clothing for men’. It is a field of not-so-subtle conformism where even the ’casual’ must be quietly and confidently costly and conservative. We might briefly be fooled by students in power suits, but not for long. (This calls to mind another, more successful strategy of disguise and concealment: the undercover police who, dressed as ’protestors’, arrested Jaggi Singh and whisked him away in an unmarked van.)

In the mobile, anti-corporate environment of a protest march, the power of the business suit can be captured and transformed into satire and lampoon. Alexis O’Hara, Leslie Farley and Marc Tuters donned men’s three-piece suits and wove their way through the ranks of marchers, demented businessmen flailing briefcases and cellphones. Occasionally O’Hara and Farley would pause, face each other like two football players, and begin frenetically shaking hands and pounding each other’s shoulders, chanting, "Money! Money! Money! Dollar, dollar, pognon, pognon!" Tuters confronted protestors with flow charts indicating falling profits and shouted, "I’m drunk!" Catherine Kidd, seizing on the power of the police uniform, raced briskly along, exhorting the advancing protesters, "Move to the right! Keep to the right!" She protected the rambunctious businessmen by ordering the protestors, "Look away! Stand back at least ten feet!" Here, in a microcosm, was an illustration of the glad-handing and deal-making that was going on up above, in the heavenly precincts beyond the precipice, beyond the clouds of gas, the fence, the helicopters, water cannons, and phalanxes of riot police.

Marching behind the exuberant Mile End drummers and a giant puppet of Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, and in front of the giant Greenpeace condom, was the last of the ’suit’ spectacles that we saw that day. Members of Équiterre, an organization concerned with ecology and the environment, marched in disciplined rows reminiscent of the police phalanxes, in identical black suits, silently, their mouths sealed with bar codes. When their progress was impeded, they executed a number of tightly-choreographed gestures – jamming fists into pockets, shrugging, checking watches, crouching and covering their heads, clapping. They gyrated and twitched in front of another huge puppet, the personification of the evil moneybags.

This performance came closest to expressing my own sense of despair with the state of the world. The world leaders looming over the disciplined office workers, the worker/citizens muzzled by society’s emphasis on economic imperatives, marching into a pointless post-urban wasteland. As they neared the end of the "Marche des peuples d’Amérique" route, the silenced artists signalled that the show was over by tearing off their gags, and the surrounding protesters and witnesses joined them in an impassioned cheer.

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