ALANNA THAIN ‘Press play’
July 6, 2012 1 Comment
“Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it or changes a place’s destination. It makes visible what had no business being seen and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise; it makes understood as discourse that which was only heard as noise” (Jacques Rancière)
Click the link Wake up Westmount for audio file that accompanies text below.
On May 21, 2012, days after the passing of Bill 78 or la loi spéciale, the emergency law passed by the Liberal government in an attempt to thwart the right of students to assemble, protest and otherwise exercise democratic forms of dissent, the now nightly manif took off once again from Parc Émilie-Gamelin, briskly circulating through the Quartier Latin and Centre-Sud before heading west on one of Montreal’s main commercial arteries, Rue Ste.-Catherine. At the western edge of downtown, where a liminal zone of poverty, student housing and the former Montreal Forum rubs shoulders with Westmount, Montreal’s most affluent neighbourhood, the march shied away, turning north and then east back towards downtown. In a sudden shift, the crowd split up and started racing up side streets to turn once again towards Westmount. Pausing briefly at the neighbourhood’s border to regroup, the enormous mass spilled onto the main drag of Westmount, Le Boulevard, towards the home of Premier Jean Charest.
The transition from the streets of downtown, where businesses and apartment buildings crowd right onto the edge of the sidewalk, was striking. Along The Boulevard, les manifestants swelled to fill the wide street, standing 15-20 abreast. The joyful and noisy crowd was an enormous and powerful mass, but also felt strangely contained; this, despite the fact that, unusually for that era of the protests, the Sûreté de Québec’s helicopter had backed off from its omnipresent and oppressive droning, and the police presence was largely invisible save at the front and back of the march (concentrated, as we would arrive to discover, on blocking Jean Charest’s street). That sense of containment came in part from the way that the crowd remained disconnected from the space it traversed. Unusually for a neighbourhood in the densely occupied centre of Montreal, swaths of green lawn formed a buffer zone between the street and private homes, and upper Westmount’s location on the side of Mount Royal meant that the homes along The Boulevard tend to slope sharply away from the street. Unlike almost every other neighbourhood the manifs pass through, there were no people leaning out of windows or poking their heads out of doorways in support, annoyance or indifference; houses were dark and curtains shut tight. Apart from the occasional human leashed to a peeing dog, and one befuddled chap taking out his garbage, the crowd marched through a rather barren landscape.
This containment did nothing to dissipate the crowd’s energy, but it did cause it to rebound upon itself and intensify. The non-contagion of this political noise was boisterous, disciplined in the modulating waves of chants that quickly became a more formalized invitation: “Wake up Westmount!” (en anglais, a nod to the historical association of Westmount with English money and power). These were the days right before the ludic contagion of les casseroles or the “pots and pans” protests, and on this night the call and response of the crowd was a one-sided conversation.
As protesters hoofed it through the heart of Westmount, there was a sudden break from the group, as a masked, black-clad marcher took off from the crowd and began darting up a long set of stairs towards a large and silent house. An instant wave of anxiety, disapprobation, excitement and concern raced along in the wake of this single figure, and the crowd began to sonically chase him or her. The fear and potential seemed clear: vandalism, the provocation of the police, to this point barely present, and the threat of police violence once again towards protesters. The black figure raced, ninja-like, up the stairs on a crest of mounting apprehension; reaching the door, they stretched out a finger, rang the bell, and ran away. Instantly, anxiety flipped into laughter and relief; people doubled over and more and more, the edges of the crowd frayed into playful trajectories of doorbell interpellation, as others grabbed hoses off green, well tended lawns and rerouted the water supply to thirsty marchers. This march prefigured the potential of the casseroles to come: when chants failed to penetrate, the action of the street entering the home through the invitation to respond (the doorbell), with all the connotations of childish pranks, was the insistently playful recourse of the protestors. If people wouldn’t hear the message, they would at least be forced to hear the noise as an undeniable becoming-political.
Many have suggested that the sonic promiscuity of les casseroles has been a key component of their wild success, but there is also an element of happy coincidence with the architectural landscapes of the neighbourhoods in which they have taken hold. This is demonstrated in ample contradiction with the lack of sonic purchase in Westmount, which called for the polite and pointed home invasion of the doorbell ring as an invitation to the Maple Spring’s dance. The Plateau, Villeray, Mile End, Rosemont-Petite Patrie (all neighbourhoods where les casseroles really took off) are all home to the exterior staircases so characteristic of Montreal working class architecture. Here, people live in one of the most densely populated geographies in Canada, albeit where density does not come in the form of high rise buildings but rather a more intimate scale of 2-4 story buildings. Les casseroles thus have activated a dual sonic trajectory, both vectorial in the march but also vining up the fronts of buildings, luring people out onto balconies, sidewalks and rooftops to participate (and make no mistake, banging on the balcony or even just coming out to watch is participation). In this case, the sonic invite didn’t need to underline the ambiguous coming-into-politics of message versus noise. In the wake of the spread of discontent and active participation in the student strike after the adoption of la loi spéciale, critics have frequently claimed that the initial message contre la hausse has been diluted to the point of incoherence. But the manifestations have actually demonstrated the coming into discourse of noise, have in fact underlined the ways in which the government has refused to hear the political discourse of negotiation and messages as anything but background noise. Les casseroles and the ‘ring and run away’ share the same message: avec nous, dans la rue!
Alanna Thain, Department of English, McGill University, Montreal.
 Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics And Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004, 30.
 Bill 78 includes a number of anti-democratic provisions designed expressly as a response to the conflict over the proposed tuition increases and the responsive mobilizations by students and their supporters. These responses included massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Montreal (as with the demonstrations of March 22 and May 22), as well as other tactical disruptions such as unannounced protests that saw students marching onto bridges, highways and through the streets of downtown Montreal, wreaking havoc with traffic and annoying the government. The bill, also known as la loi matraque (the ‘billy club’ or ‘baton’ law) has recently been criticized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. The Canadian Association of University Teachers, who has condemned Bill 78 as an “act of mass repression”, summarizes its effects: “Bill 78 makes it illegal to engage in peaceful assembly, a fundamental freedom guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The law limits assemblies of 50 or more people, allows the government to defund student associations, imposes hefty fines on student demonstrators, and forces employees back to work. The law especially targets leaders of student associations who could be individually fined up to $35,000 for continuing to demonstrate contrary to the law. For participating in a second demonstration, the fine doubles. For a student association supporting a demonstration, the initial fine is up to $125,000 and doubles to $250,000 for a second offense.” See their statement on this matter at http://www.caut.ca/pages.asp?page=1087. The bill is currently being challenged on a number of fronts.
 For more than a month, people all over Quebec, but especially in Montreal, have taken to their balconies, front porches, rooftops and above all to the streets to participate in les casseroles, or the pots and pan protests. In the immediate aftermath of Bill 78’s attempt to quash public displays of dissent, people came out at 8pm, tentatively at first and then in great waves, armed with pots and wooden spoons to bang out their opposition to the student hikes. This “noise” has served as a great attractor for all sorts of citizens to make their dissent felt. Here’s a great video of casseroles in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wX79_6eXJU0&feature=youtu.be