Good Through Bad: The CSA's Latest

Montreal - Today, the CSA fought a battle, willingly. But beyond any personal gratification, how much did they gain? Very little I fear; this event was another example of good played out badly.

CSA stands for Centre Social Autogéré. Their goal is to re-appropriate, for social housing development, buildings on land otherwise destined for private condo projects. Needless to say, it’s hard for any city to say no to plans put forth by wealthy developers that want to convert ‘dead space’ into sure-selling and highly-taxed luxury units for well-paid professionals. However, this current building trend that’s invading lower-income neighbourhoods implies major impacts on their overall areas and infrastructures, as well as negative consequences for low-income families…

And the site fought for by the CSA is prime real-estate in every possible sense, which also makes it an important strategic target for the CSA. Those familiar with the bike bath that winds its way along the Lachine Canal—the portion in Pointe-St-Charles between the quaint, tree-covered boat rental office and the pedestrian, crescent-moon bridge that crosses over to the Atwater market—will certainly recall the now defunct candle factory that imposes itself on park space where Atwater branches into St. Patrick Street. An ideal setting for what nearly everyone already expects to find at that bustling park entrance: a combination of picturesque café, bistro, sports shop, roller-blade rental, and artsy tourist store… a perfect start or goal to any stroll and a great way to promote that greener/healthier city Montreal is quickly becoming renown for. Instead, the cit is presently reviewing a plan to convert the space into a 6 story, 53 units condo complex, which also calls for a change in zoning regulations.
This would-be-blight, in my opinion, is definitely worth fighting against.

The CSA thinks so too, so, after opting for a militant approach to their cause, they organized a 2 day manifestation that began yesterday at 18:00, June 29, when approximately 500 people gathered near Charlevoix metro station; banners, screeching megaphones, dreads, long beards, and piercings, anarchist and peace symbols, and varying street performers aplenty… But most striking was the similarity between participants, nearly all white French Canadians, who each seemed to embody activist stereotypes in his/her own way, and hence amplified my overall first-impression of ‘bitter, juvenile, and wildly idealistic’ I had had through the group’s Website (their site can’t be viewed through what they call ‘Microshit’ Explorer …). As I look back, that such a community-worthy cause should attract only a certain type of people reveals important limitations linked with CSA’s approach as well as an apparent weakness in the team’s ability to exploit communications, despite clever (but empty) ideas like using made-up names (in French) playing on Grandmaison i.e. ‘big house.’ Nonetheless, my impression was confirmed once their main (and only) strategy was played out. The manif was nothing more than a political parade to gain momentum and courage and a justifiable context for the CSA’s next course of actions, who made good on their ‘About Us’ words and literally took control of the building. Although the CSA spokespeople didn’t want to admit to it directly, the grimaces and gestures they offered me in lieu of answer confirmed that they had broken into the building illegally.
As evening progressed, about 1/3 of the protesters barricaded themselves inside the empty factory; essentially, their plan was this: break the law and hold an edifice hostage to get their voice heard and force negotiations with city officials. Having witnessed the group’s preparedness in dealing with the swat’s tactics and the intimidation of the riot-geared police—nearly all wore bandanas, scarves, etc. with which they could cover they noses and mouths and many had goggles or eye-protectors— it’s clear that they also had a secondary goal in mind; they were doing their best to exploit police action to gain public sympathy and add validity to their anti-totalitarian and anti-capitalism chants. It’s a pretty standard form of the passive-aggressive militant-martyr approach often adopted by those who loudly and stubbornly proclaim to possess zero faith in bureaucracy and politics but who aren’t willing to admit that much of their anger is based on ignorance or feelings of intimidations or helplessness a propos this sphere. Otherwise, surely they would attempt other means to gain this building… so many things come to mind, especially with the change-in-zoning-law public hearing which the city must hold, and next weekend’s Montreal Citizen Summit! (more on the summit in my next post)

On the other hand, the city of Montreal once again showed us that it doesn’t negotiate or deal with any ‘event’ representatives who didn’t submit their plan to city-hall and acquire the proper permits… even if they promise it to them.
Negotiations with police produced a specific time when, CSA representatives were promised, they would be given an opportunity to publicly voice their issues in a conference with concerned city officials.
In spite of this, whether as part of a newly adopted post-Seattle and Quebec City approach to activists or another instance of Gerald Tremblay at his two-faced best, the protesters were quick to realize that they had been duped when they opened the door at the agreed time for their agreed-on conference. A line of menacingly grim, heavily shielded, baton-wielding, pepper-spray toting, and visibly annoyed officers—one of them flaunting a gas-powered metal and concrete saw—greeted them instead of officials. At that exact same moment, the impressively swift SWAT was doing their thing on the building’s roof and dropped several cans of tear-gas.

Many of the protesters were (a bit too) quick to emphasize that the police used gas when kids were present and clearly played up the family-affair versus mean-ol’-machine aspect. One organiser told me she had her three month old daughter with her inside the building when the police ‘attacked;’ hearing her version of events and of having to run out to get her baby to safety, handing it over to a family member before running back into the building—with only one entry point, blocked by a wall of police—her ability to put a spin on a spin somehow convinved me that she has the potential to be a good politician… Unfortunately, her 'youth' barred her from seeing that this, if true, would actually harm the CSA's credibility; how can you be a responsible citizen when you can't be a responsible parent? Remember: protesters were equipped and prepared for, and were thus expecting, harsh police actions.

And the ultimate proof that their objectives were doomed from the start? None of the group's spokespeople could answer my question when asked what the next phaze would be should the city agree to hand over the building to the CSA for conversion to a self-managed social housing project. It's as if no one had bothered to think that far ahead; all I got were different soundbite-perfect versions of the group's goals, even after asking whether or not the CSA had devised a cooperative management model to be implemented in the buildings they hoped to gain. Their lack of planning is disconcerning; it implies a lack of belief in their ultimate goal and an unwillingness to attempt other, more official approaches.

In the end: police took control of the building when they felt like it. Despite a handful of protesters who, for forty minutes, faced-off with the menacing line of officers trying to drive them towards the front of the building, no one was arrested. The gang eventually regrouped into a nearby park for a celebratory picnic...
For many of the young—late teens to early twenties—CSA organizers, it was clear they believed they were on the brink of living a ‘Hollywood’ moment, even though the lack of mobilisation and official attention, and the group’s clear failure to open a dialogue denote otherwise…

And this cost tax payers how much?

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© 2009, Pascal-Denis Lussier

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