It was spring, 2001, and the wintered streets of New York crackled with unsettled whispers.
Jeremy and I and eight strangers sat in a circle on the patinaed hardwood of a small sparse apartment somewhere in Manhattan. Jeremy, stout and filthy, eighteen, a freshman like me, had brought us here. The others, much older and old friends, were devising “a new language of direct action.” It was exciting. Everyone chose fake names. I chose Priscilla.
A month from then, the Third Summit of the Americas would meet in Quebec City, the heads of thirty four States would talk about removing trade barriers in the Western Hemisphere; we were among thousands mobilizing to protest.
“So, yeah,” said Fancy, “you take a traffic cone and cut it up. Then you want to put carpet padding or some kind of foam underneath, strap it together with duct tape, and you’ve got arm guards.” Armor, helmets spray painted orange, inflatable shields, catapults loaded with stuffed animals.
“I’m going to use a toilet seat as a chest plate,” said Moniker.
Red circles of light formed from the street below and melted across the dark walls and their silkscreened posters, a photograph of a woman with a machine gun and a baby strapped to her back.
Across the room a voice broke a long silence, “I want to hear what the quiet girl in the corner has to say.” I looked up from my lap. Nina’s eyes were on me.
“Oh. Well, it sounds pretty cool,” I said, naive, idealist. I had no comparison. Quebec City in one month would be like what I had heard Seattle was two years ago. Close to 100,000 people had arrived to protest the World Trade Organization. There had been major riots. Riots sounded exciting. But I had no idea what Seattle had been like. Eighteen and new in New York, I was game for anything, and I trusted these people. They seemed to know what they were doing.
The light from the kitchen silhouetted Ed’s frame. “We have to be careful,” he said cautiously, “People could get hurt.”
“We’ll have armor,” said Moniker. “I’ve got a helmet Priscilla can wear.”
I told my professors I was going on a trip. I might get arrested and I might miss class. I laughed at the absurdity of getting arrested in Canada.
“On the weekend of April 20th to 22nd the ruling elites of the Americas will gather in Quebec City to discuss the implementation of the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) and, to a large extent, the future of us all. The FTAA represents essentially an expansion of NAFTA to include the entire Americas region. … The [Third] Summit of the Americas is an attack on all of us and must be treated as such. We must show the ruling elites of the Americas that we are ready to resist their attacks and fight back. … It’s time for the revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Offensive!”
-Unidentified propaganda. page 5. NY, spring 2001
A twelve foot wall, concrete and chain-linked, was erected to surround the Summit’s meeting place.
The barricade encircled La Colline Parliamentaire, and part of Quebec’s Old City — enclosed dozens of government buildings, residences and churches. Only those attending the summit, special journalists and residents would be allowed through the fence. Police would guard it from the inside.
Border guards at Canadian crossings would be on high alert, would follow the books to a tee. In fact, they had since January. Six hundred inmates were moved from Quebec City’s prison to make space for protester arrestees.
Prepared, but afraid, and with each barricade,
Some activists crossed into Canada at far provinces: Manitoba, B.C.
Some waited for hours before they walked through.
Some converged and crossed enmasse.
The air had changed as the ten of us drove North from Manhattan to Vermont. Spring had gotten colder, but through still leafless trees, the land seemed uninterrupted and fluid.
In Burlington, I followed the others into a large round room, wood paneled with balconies, and stood at the crowd’s outer circumference to listen.
“Thank you everyone for coming to this spokes council meeting to discuss tomorrow’s Day of Rage at the Akwesasne reservation Three Nations border crossing over the St. Lawrence River…” A disembodied voice came through speakers behind me. Representatives from this Mohawk community and activist groups from Cornwall, Kingston, Burlington, Philadelphia and New York began to hash out a plan for four hundred of us to cross into Canada from the U.S.
I was reeling in the warmth of bodies, our animal smell, and the adrenaline of potential action. A woman with pink hair whispered to her neighbor. A man crouched, his back pressed into the wall, his head in his hand, listening. Jeremy and I wandered outside as the streetlights blinked on and the moon came into the sky.
Mohawk people from the land now called Vermont, New York, Montreal, and Ontario had used the shores of the St. Lawrence River for thousands of years. At Kahnawake, they had traded with each other and eventually with the British. But by 1754 Kahnawake was rum-drunk and depleted, so a smallfaction, a handful of Onkwehonwe families of the Mohawk tribe, moved south along the river, The Big Waterway, Kaniatorowanenneh, and founded Akwesasne on its islands and shores. The French and Indian war came; the Onkwehonwe lost, but survived. Akwesasne grew, and formed allies with the British, the Abenaki the Oswegache who came to Akwesasne for refuge. Akwesasne prospered, a new community, a convergence. After a hundred years, it was something of a capitol to the Mohawk peoples.
In the back of the van, sharing a seat with our armor, gas masks, sleeping bags, I watched the landscape change again. The trees new shoots glowed in morning’s orange light as we drove north from Burlington and crossed Lake Champlain and the invisible line back into New York state. Due west, parallel to Canada and finally northward again toward the border, the Akwesasne casino, the Wolf Clan gift shop. I watched the forests turn sparse and then to dust, wide dry dirt, trailers, fences, long lots of broken cars. I caught the moment, the space, the line where a blighted place, the reservation, depressed and depressing, began.
In a large room with gilded walls in Paris, 1784, England and the American Colonies agreed to the end of the Revolutionary War and to Colonial independence. I imagine them warm in silk stockings, and tormented by the itch of wigs on their bald heads.
“And that all disputes which might arise in future on the subject of the boundaries of the said United States [with the Canadian colonies] may be prevented, it is hereby agreed and declared, that the following are and shall be their boundaries, viz.; … that angle which is formed by a line drawn due north from the source of St. Croix River to the highlands; along the said highlands which divide those rivers that empty themselves into the river St. Lawrence, from those which fall into the Atlantic Ocean, to the northwestern most head of Connecticut River; thence down along the middle of that river to the forty-fifth degree of north latitude; from thence by a line due west on said latitude until it strikes the river Iroquois or Cataraquy; thence along the middle of said river into Lake Ontario; through the middle of said lake until it strikes the communication by water between that lake and Lake Erie;…”
- Article II: Treaty of Paris 1784
Due North. Due West. Along the middle of said river: decided an ocean
away: the land, Akwesasne, divided.
“On April 19th, a group of Mohawks from the Traditional contingent of the Mohawk people will open the bridge at Cornwall to activists wishing to go to Quebec City. Canadian radicals and trade unionists are supporting this action on the Canadian side while several different mobilization groups from the U.S. are planning a caravan from the Burlington Convergence to Quebec City through the [Akwesasne] Mohawk reservation. This is not a blockade. In solidarity with the Mohawk nation’s grievances toward the Canadian and U.S. governments and their action upon that day, the caravan hopes to travel without harassment and unfettered to Quebec City.”
- Unidentified propaganda. page 5. NY, spring 2001
Mohawk faces, full, rectangular, framed by shining dark chestnut hair greeted us, a parking lot full. Large tinfoil trays of fried fish lined long plastic tables by the road. A woman, middle aged and tired, gazed at the converging crowd.
A centuries old community, cut in half by an edict made across an ocean, across a language and a history, still struggles for rights of passage granted one hundred and fifty year ago.
“…No Duty of Entry shall ever be levied by either Party on Peltries… nor shall the Indians passing or re-passing with their own proper Goods and Effects of whatever nature, pay for the same any Import or Duty whatever…”
- Article III Jay Treaty 1874
Behind a chain-link fence, leafless trees protected the border: a bridge and a river to Canada. I walked toward it, across the packed dirt, past a small section of winter-dry grass. I crept to the edge, watchful of the US border office nearby.
In 1953, an Akwesasne Mohawk man is charged fees to bring a used refrigerator home across the border. In 1969, the people of Akwesasne block the border to protest infringement of duty free passage given in Jay Treaty. In 1988 Grand Chief Mitchell and four hundred Mohawks on foot, bring goods across the bridge to Canada in an assertion of their sovereign rights. Mitchell is charged in violation of the Customs Act. Ten years later, Mitchell vs. the Minister of National Revenue is ruled in favor of the Mohawk rights granted in Jay Treaty. Harassment and fines continue.
I imagined binoculars behind the mirrored windows. I imagined my movements under surveillance. I imagined as I looked through the fence and bare trees to the ravine and the river below, climbing over the fence, making a run for it. I imagined, through the squares of chain link, swimming across the St. Lawrence.
A river community supported for centuries on fishing and farming, suffers the pollution of upstream factories and barge bilge. Cattle die. Crops wither. Poverty and unemployment run rampant. People without power: the smuggling of tobacco and other goods across the border becomes a viable source of income.
We would cross soon. We would get to Canada and on to the FTAA. These people had promised to open the border for us.
“The Summit of the Americas, which brought world leadership together for a meeting in Montreal, also brought protesters from the United States hoping to use the Akwesasne border crossing as a stage for their political ‘Day of Rage’. Akwesasne police services with the assistance of other aboriginal and external agencies protected this border crossing and the people of Akwesasne from any potential acts of terrorism.”
- Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Tim Thompson, 2006
We drove over the bridge. The line in the river passed far below, easy like water, invisible, malleable and fluid.
At the roadblock we waited, the air between us impatient and anxious. We were hundreds, a flood of migration. At the meeting they had agreed, our attempts would be enough. Our mere presence was a statement against borders. They had agreed at the meeting to make no trouble. They had agreed not to push through. We had already seen how hard their lives were.
When the border patrol turned away the first person without legal papers, we too turned back.
I searched again for the line in the water.
Some hid on boats. Some swam across the St. Lawrence in the night.
Some crossed on foot, moving like deer to trick electronic traps that line the forested border.
We drove east the next morning, along the border as the sun came up. I watched the yellow shapes of street lamps form and melt across my lap. We would try again. We all had paperwork, we’d all been to Canada before.
The car slowed to stop, and I watched Ed pass our IDs through the window. I wondered what they were learning about us, what I didn’t know about myself.
The officer told us to pull into the parking lot and get out. “It’s ok,” Nina said, my face a betrayal of panic. We watched him opened the back of the van. I put my hands under my armpits as he pulled out our bags and clothes. Then he found a gas mask.
“What’s this for?”
“I’m a painter,” said Ed. Paint fumes, tear gas, the respirator didn’t discriminate.
“What are these for?” the guard asked lifting up our orange helmets.
“Biking,” said Jeremy, “duh.”
But there were no bikes, no paint, just suspicion. He told us to come inside.
In a huge square room partitioned into cubbies and cubicles, we sat in colored plastic chairs and waited. The clerks laughed and joked with each other. I laughed and joked too; as far as I could tell, the worst case left us back in the US.
Then began the interrogations. One by one, we followed the officer behind a gray partition.
“Do you know you are traveling with known terrorists?” He asked me from a swivel chair, his head bent into his papers.
“Do you know they tried to cross the border six times in the last twenty four hours.”
“No.” He was lying, trying to divide us. He was trying to make me scared of my friends. But I worried, had they tried without me? Five times in the night?
“Coming into Canada is a privilege, not a right,” he said, “Why are you intending to enter Canada?”
“To peacefully protest in Quebec City.” I had been told to tell the truth. I started to wonder if wearing helmets to a protest was illegal, or catapulting stuffed animals at the police.
“Do you know anybody in Canada?”
“How much money do you have?”
“Where are you going to stay?”
“Thank you, that is enough. You may go back and sit down.”
Some people took trains.
Some people flew.
Some people lied about what they were going there to do.
We compared notes.
They badgered Ed about his recent trip to Mexico, demanded information about the elusive Subcomandante Marcos. They learned Jeremy was Canadian, and even though they wanted to, they couldn’t keep him out of his own country.
An officer approached us, a glint of metal in his hand. “You are under arrest,” he said. The lawyer would tell us later, our charges were those “they only ever use for Hell’s Angels”: reason to believe we would commit crimes within Canada. It was bullshit. Jeremy went back through the doors to hitch a ride on the highway. Ed, Moniker, Nina and I shuffled outside through a different door, passed our car, passed Jeremy with his thumb out, and climbed into vans.
Inside a locked plexi-glass box big enough for one, inside an armored van, I wiggled my child’s wrists out of the handcuffs and touched my fingers to the metal grate that framed tiny squares of landscape passing outside. I was lost. Not Canada, not the U.S.; I rumbled down the road, trapped somewhere inside the border itself.
Behind the twelve foot fence and the throngs of protestors, behind closed doors, in a huge room with blue walls and balconies, chandeliers and crown molding, the Summit had begun. The heads of every state of the western hemisphere (except Cuba) talked about borders. I imagine them full-bellied and sleepy. I imagine them warm in wool suits, silk socks, watching the cold Canadian April through the windows. I imagine them sitting behind tables on tiers, name placards arranged like a classroom. I imagine them daydreaming.
A female guard unlocked the handcuffs as each of us entered the prison at Montreal. I smiled and dangled mine into her hand. They searched our things, confiscated my shoelaces and barrettes, took our pictures and sent us into containment. The men went to a building I would never see. Nina and I moved past a wired-glass security booth, through a waist-high metal gate, and a door —double-thick with a small dense window.
We passed two women sitting at one of three small tables; one wore a headscarf, the other had hair like a dark dandelion. Drab walls enveloped us and the floor made a grid of flecked linoleum tiles. We passed two wood paneled vending machines filled with tobacco and custard pies. The women nodded and watched us, as the first of their new activist roommates, shuffled into a hallway that flickered in dim fluorescent lights.
The door clicked shut.
Within their blue painted walls, atop plush blue carpet, the men of the West were, in truth, fighting. I imagine fists shaking over imaginary lines drawn across the land. Trade barriers, metaphorical containment: the U.S. wanted to reduce tariffs on goods, while increasing the geographic scope of intellectual property rights. First world countries would agree to regulate agricultural exports, but pharmaceuticals would cost first world retail prices, and labor of Central and South America would be available for outsourcing; US jobs could be sent to Chile or Honduras as easily as they were to Mexico under NAFTA, and the factory slums of Mexico’s maquiladoras could extend all the way to Cape Horn.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, called it a “tool of imperialism.” Evo Morales, who would later become president of Bolivia, said it was “an agreement to legalize the colonization of the Americas.” For the third time, the third summit, they argued.
Locked away, but warm and full-bellied, we had our clothes, our books, cigarettes. We read. We talked. We daydreamed.
Inside our little compound we could move freely. We had a gray room with three boxy chairs like the ones in my dorm, a box of toys on gray carpet, and a ceiling-mounted television. We had a bathroom with doorless gray stalls, a long row of mirrors and a wall of sinks. We had two bedrooms, and any one of fifty iron framed beds, lined up in rows like an old orphanage.
We had a door, double-thick and locked, to outside, and a playground encircled by a twelve foot tall barbed wire fence.
The guard let us out to the playground. The other women never wanted to come. We played like children, we swung on swings. I peered at Canada through the chain link, from inside a little blob of border that had migrated to Montreal. We could only run in straight lines, we couldn’t run very far, we couldn’t do very much. We did yoga.
The woman with a covered head, the woman with hidden hair, head bowed, eyes closed, head to the floor, prayed as I passed the TV room; her head graced the closed box of toys, the gray carpet. Her brown palms touched her head, touched the floor. I passed and passed again: the head, the floor, the flickering florescent light: prayer from inside a box. I wondered what those silent words meant. I wondered what her closed eyes saw.
Sometimes I saw her sitting alone in the cafeteria while I ate my dry toast and beans. Sometimes I saw her with the other woman. By the third day, none of us had spoken to her because nobody spoke French. I spoke French, but I was embarrassed of my accent.
In the TV room we watched the protests on the nightly news. We cheered as they tore down the fence, as they rushed through the hole. I squinted to find Jeremy in the throngs, but the covered faces and the squatter’s camps, the chants and cheers, all melted together in dots of color and static. The camera cut back to the news anchor.
I imagine she saved all the money in the world. I imagine she took everything she still owned, bought a plane ticket, a visa. I can’t imagine what she might have done for the money.
I imagine she convinced the Canada Border Service Agency at the airport she was there to visit a friend. She got a job. She worked for a family, or a man or a woman, inside their house. She worked and lived in that tenuous space between home and work, between employee and neighbor, between her past, and her current, alien, situation. The self she knew was not made for this place, must have groped for a foothold.
What landed her here was translated simply by the woman with the dandelion hair: she didn’t like the way she was treated and so she complained. I imagine it was more complicated. I imagine shouts echoing on hardwood and crown molding. I imagine her delicate frame shaking with anger and frustration. I imagine her still unable to understand something cultural, something basic. I imagine her lost this world of new rules and new masters. Or maybe she stole something. Maybe she asked for more money.
The other woman told us, “she complained, and her employer called the authorities.”
The Summit adjourned after three days, having produced a paltry document of generic statements and having planned a meeting for Miami, two years later.
“…The Summits of the Americas exist to serve people. We must develop effective, practical and compassionate solutions for the problems that confront our societies. We do not fear globalization, nor are we blinded by its allure. We are united in our determination to leave to future generations a Hemisphere that is democratic and prosperous, more just and generous, a Hemisphere where no one is left behind. We are committed to making this the century of the Americas.”
-Declaration of Quebec City 2001
The guard led Nina and me through the double-thick door, the wired-glass guards booth, the waist-high gate.
We followed her through an atrium to a room within a room, freestanding, windows on two sides. We could see desks and chairs and a man in a suit waiting for us. It felt ominous, Orwellian. She locked the door when she left.
“You are free to go,” the lawyer said, as simple as words. “You have about twenty minutes before they will come and return you to the border.”
We passed the woman sitting with her cigarettes. We passed the woman in the small gray room with the box of lonely toys. I paused for an instant and watched her hands and her head touch the gray carpet. I paused.
I would wish for her amnesty with every dandelion, every eyelash. Never again would I pity myself. I passed through the hallway to collect my clothes and toothbrush.
Inside a plexiglass box, inside an armored van, not the United States, not Canada, we rumbled down the road, toward the place where the border would release us again.