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Notes from the Baby Blocpdf

Gretchen King

 

For months, the Montreal skyline buzzed with police helicopters. As a parent with two young children, I found it hard to ignore. I was also a student on strike at McGill University, and the 2012 student strike in Québec became a daily topic of discussion in my house. My children, 6 and 3 years old, are very inquisitive; we talked often about why mommy was on strike, and spent too many mornings talking about the police violence. They asked me what pepper spray feels like and why the police use sticks and poison gas. Both of them have been to protests since before they could walk, but neither of them had seen such consistent (at times, daily) violent repression of demonstrators.

Throughout the strike, actions and protests often included children. Indeed, there were a diversity of groups showing their solidarity with the students and against the government in the streets, including Mères en colère et solidaires and Parents contre la hausse. CLASSE called family demonstrations on March 18th and April 14th that I attended with my kids. There were also actions planned by and for parents and their children. These included kids and parents occupying an office of Québecor (the largest private media company in Québec), taking over an administrative office at l'Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and claiming the space in front of then-Premier Jean Charest's office for a dinner party and outdoor movie screening. Many of these actions were supported by the Comité de soutien aux parents étudiants (CSPE-UQAM), which also organized a baby bloc for the anti-capitalist May Day demonstration.

A baby bloc is a child-friendly space within demonstrations and protest actions. In Montreal, the baby bloc has a historical presence at anti-capitalist May Day and other marches. Building on the success of the May Day baby bloc, several parents started organizing baby blocs for the night demonstrations that began as the student movement became a broader social movement. We wanted to reclaim the streets as a safe space for our children, for student strikers, and for our allies. Baby blocs can provide a safer way for children and others to participate in a demonstration, while providing an extra layer of protection for the demonstration by delaying police aggression. With good organization of security protocols for the baby bloc, participants can avoid clashing with the police most of the time. During the May Day demonstration, stuffed animals tied to a yellow rope bordered the baby bloc, and yellow flags and balloons attached to strollers signalled our presence and movements. At most nightly demonstrations, we just stuck together at the rear of the crowd, with a plan to disperse at the first sign of police aggression. When the police did unleash concussion grenades, tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray on the demonstrators, the baby bloc simply broke away from the march moving quickly to safety. To those who claim demonstrations (especially anti-capitalist ones) are too dangerous for children, I would respond that our baby bloc experience at the nightly demonstrations suggests that it is the police who are often the source of violence, and not the protestors.

baby bloc at a night demoProtestors in motorized chairs and wheelchairs as well as cyclists who had dismounted and were walking with their bikes often accompanied the baby bloc at the nightly demonstrations. Being at the rear did mean that we were followed directly by police, often on horseback and/or bicycles. So we made a game with our kids of counting the police or waving at them. Though police on horses and their militarized gear in general frightened most of the children, participating in the baby bloc helped my kids overcome their fear of the police.

Prior to the departure of the night's demonstration, parents and children gathered adjacent to the meeting place to form our baby bloc. We did face painting with the kids and used chalk to write messages and make drawings on the sidewalks. These child-centred activities clashed dramatically with the intimidation tactics of police, who were often observing and walking through the gathering crowd in full riot gear. We took this opportunity to talk with our kids about how the police and the laws were being used to repress the strikers and our rights. Learning about the police gear and weaponry and criticizing the violence they inflict helped our kids understand the stress and fear they were feeling at the sight of riot police. Throughout the bloc, various children were able to begin to understand issues about racial and political profiling, and/or ways that a group, like the baby bloc, can keep you safe in the face of police violence.

A particularly powerful experience of the baby bloc for my children and me occurred at the night demo following the passing of Bill 78 into Law 12. That night about five families with small kids, some in strollers or bike trailers, gathered for the demonstration. Before we even took to the streets, two police officers warned me about my children's safety in the demonstration. This was the first time any officer had approached me at a demonstration about my kids. I assured them I was not worried for their safety among the demonstrators gathered in the square. As the protest moved into the street, it was declared illegal by the police over loudspeakers. Just then, two other officers, one on a bike, came to me to urge me to leave the demonstration as it was illegal. I was frustrated by their appeals but not frightened, so we continued to march at the rear of the demo with the baby bloc. Just before the corner, a line of riot police marched up behind the baby bloc. One large cop dropped his shield and baton to speak to me from behind his protective visor. He yelled at me, asking if I understood that I was in a riot and that I was threatening my security and the security of my children by remaining there. I insisted we were not leaving, because we were not doing anything illegal. He asked me again, coming closer to perhaps hear me better in the noise of the casseroles. At this point I got angry and a bit scared, so I yelled at him, "Leave us alone, we are staying and the real threat is you!" I added very loudly, "Stop intimidating me. You are stressing my kids out." He backed off and several demonstrators stepped up, helping distract my kids from the intensity of the moment. Other protestors assisted the baby bloc in turning the corner, navigating strollers and trailers through the car traffic that also blocked the riot police from advancing. As we moved up the street demonstrators asked if we wanted to stay or go, but the baby bloc wanted to stay and so we moved on together. The police did not approach the baby bloc again. This moment, and others like it, was a direct example for our kids of how parents and people can challenge authority and unjust laws.

We have every right to attend demonstrations with our children. Participating in the baby bloc at the nightly demonstrations was the best way for me to show my kids how they can respond when their rights are being taken away. Some argue that bringing kids to a demonstration imposes political choices on them, that children cannot understand what is going on or, worse, that they will be scarred for life. But people who do not bring their children to demonstrations also make political choices, and are teaching their kids that passivity and non-engagement is the way to participate and live in society. In contrast, our children were able to witness firsthand how the state reacted to the students and their allies. And they expressed how that made them feel—through the chants they made up and through the images they drew in chalk on the sidewalk or painted on their signs. Plus they enjoyed the costumes, clowns, and fireworks that made the nightly demos festive.

Ultimately, baby blocs afford an opportunity for our children to directly witness the manifestation of people power. We can talk with our kids about being strong children and full participants in this society, but I believe it is also important for them to have their own experiences demonstrating in the streets. We form baby blocs so they learn to think very concretely about the more abstract concepts that we try to teach them. From the baby bloc at the nightly demonstrations, our kids saw firsthand thousands of individuals acting as a group and making political demands from the streets. This nearly yearlong uprising in Québec has offered a tremendous opportunity to teach our children about struggle. Thanks to all those on strike and in the streets, your resistance made the 2012 Printemps érable an excellent time to be a radical parent.