Collective power

A retrospective photo essay

The main strategy of the police during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001 was to use so much tear gas that the protesters would stop trying to take down the high chain-link fence around the Convention Centre. Youth in sweatpants and running shoes, wearing tear gas masks, lobbed the tear gas back over the fence as fast as the police shot it into the crowd. At one point there was so much tear gas getting into the Convention Centre area that giant fans were brought out to try to direct the gas back towards the protesters. Minutes after taking this shot, I was hit with a tear gas canister and knocked to the ground.

I have been covering demonstrations, protests and sit-ins as a photojournalist for many years. Documentation of protest was part of my work as the coordinator of the East Timor Alert Network between 1986 and 1992.

One of the salient features of the modern state is the disconnect between the centralized bureaucracy of government and its largely fragmented citizenry, who have very little influence on decision-making between elections. Western liberal democracies in particular, while championing individual liberties, have no concept of collective rights and feel threatened by large groups of people organizing to oppose government policies. Whatever form they take, whatever the issue, mass demonstrations are a unifying experience in a culture that thrives on feelings of isolation and powerlessness.

In addition to telling those in power that we disagree with their decisions and want them changed, demonstrations raise our spirits and bind us together as human beings. There is an energy and a synergy that arises when large groups of people get together. Demonstrations empower us with their potent physicality and assure us that we are not alone; that many, many others share our convictions, our beliefs and our hopes for a better world.

In June 2002, just before the G8 summit in Kananaskis, I was put on a non-accreditation list by the RCMP. I have never been able to find out why. This means I cannot be employed to cover international conferences and events such as the climate talks in ­Copenhagen and the upcoming Olympics.

In retaliation I am working on a book of photographs and text about the importance and limitations of demonstrations as a means of social and political change.

On the morning of December 1, after demonstrators had successfully shut down the WTO meetings the previous day, the Seattle police had cordoned off the business section from a large and growing group of protesters. The acrid smell of tear gas was in the air, but things were relatively quiet. Small groups of bankers, executives and office staff tentatively emerged from their glass towers to peer curiously at the highly unusual sight: hundreds of protesters on one side of the barrier and heavily armed police and armoured vehicles on the other. To me, this photograph speaks to the close relationship between the police, the state and the institutions of wealth and privilege.

Anti-WTO protests, Seattle, 1999

Anti-WTO protests, Seattle, 1999

As the protests were much larger than police expected, the security zone around the WTO talks was enlarged every day, defended by a ring of police and riot squad vehicles. The security zone around the Washington State Convention & Trade Centre had increased by several blocks by Wednesday and now included some of the best malls and shops in the city. As Christmas was only three weeks away this was a real crisis for the pre-Christmas sales market. With almost all public transit at a standstill, shoppers braved protesters, tear gas and police lines to get to the centre of town to shop. Police lines opened and closed again to allow bewildered shoppers to scamper through to the mall.

On the second day of the demonstrations against the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City, I arrived quite early at the fence surrounding the Convention Centre. Things hadn’t quite started yet. The officer in charge was walking up and down lecturing his officers on his side of the chain-link fence, while on the other side, the anarchists were preparing their assault on the fence. As the momentum built, one of young anarchists and the officer in charge locked eyes. Both men, an older one and a younger one, walked over to the fence and shook hands. A moment of chivalry. Then battle commenced.

The narrow cobbled streets of old Quebec City made it difficult for police to spread out; they were often forced to advance in formation. I took this shot just moments before the police broke into a run to chase protesters away from the fence. In less than a minute the visibility was near zero because of the tear gas in the air. This is one of my most iconic police shots and was widely published across Canada.

Elaine Brière is a Vancouver-based documentary photographer, filmmaker and writer.

Readers like you keep Briarpatch alive and thriving. Subscribe today to support fiercely independent journalism.