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First Person: Transforming the Streets
One protester's reflections on Quebec


2 p.m., Tuesday, April 17

It is an unusually cold day when we leave Knoxville. Quebec City is 1,300 miles away. I'm in the back seat of a car with Hobbes in the front passenger seat and his father, Gary Haaby, at the wheel. Gary is 55, a semi-retired school principal and teacher and an inveterate road-tripper. He has driven himself and his family all over the United States, Canada and Europe. He's full of stories about the time the VW van broke down in the Midwest, or the time border officials questioned a 9-year-old Hobbes about whether Gary was kidnapping him. He's coming along out of curiosity, for some father-son bonding, and maybe just in case something bad happens to Hobbes again.

We're going to the international economic policy protests in a white Acura Integra.

When I mentioned to friends and acquaintances that I was going, I mostly got a collection of blank stares. Almost nobody, including the political junkies I know, was even aware of the summit, or of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. For the record, the FTAA is essentially an effort to extend the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the entire Western Hemisphere, all of North and South America. If ratified as planned, it would abolish most trade barriers and protections from Cape Horn to the Hudson Bay. President George W. Bush and the 33 other national leaders who gathered in Quebec City (the only one not invited was Fidel Castro) hope to have a treaty signed by 2005. Bush wants "fast track" authority from Congress, which would mean Congress could only vote the treaty up or down, not amend it in any way.

I am interested in this, but it's not why I am going to Quebec. What I really want to know is what combination of personal and political motives is bringing young people from the most prosperous generation in the most prosperous country in the history of the world out into the streets to protest. Or, as more than one person asked me before I went, "What's their problem?"

On the way up, we hit snow in Virginia and again in Pennsylvania. But in one of those weird spring jet-stream flukes, it actually gets a few degrees warmer as we head north. The ride settles into an easy rhythm, with Gary doing most of the driving and most of the talking. He is likable and easy-going and no stranger to political unrest. The son of a United Nations diplomat and University of Tennessee professor, he spent part of his adolescence in Chile and saw students and workers protest during extended strikes in Santiago in the early 1960s. As an undergraduate at UT, he was friends with some of the activist student leaders and walked in anti-Vietnam War marches on campus. One of his first professional jobs was as principal at a school in Richmond, Va. during the first year of forced busing in that district. He's a Bob Dylan fan, and he turns up the volume on a Dylan tribute album when "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" comes on.

"Now where have you been, my blue-eyed son," a singer rasps out. "And where have you been, my darling young one..."

"I think he writes like you do," Gary says to Hobbes.

Hobbes half-listens, nodding occasionally but mostly reading a thick book. I ask him what it is.

"Walter Benjamin," he says, pronouncing it precisely as ben-ya-meen. "He's sort of the grand old dude of the Frankfurt school—a radical materialist with quasi-Zionist, quasi-Marxist leanings." Hobbes talks like this a lot, in a self-conscious mishmash of slang and political philosophy. He's aware of it; he's even self-conscious about his self-consciousness. He talks at length about living in an era of "cynical ideology," when every experience comes pre-packaged for us, when irony is the knee-jerk reaction to any display of sincerity. That includes political protests.

He worries that the demonstrations he's been to in Seattle and Washington and Philadelphia have a fascist quality, "an anti-capitalist, anti-modernist veneration of youth and passion...You could almost think you were in Italy during the 1930s. I think there's a difference, but sometimes when you're out on the street, the difference gets blurred.

"In Seattle," he continues, "they had chants. 'Tonight/ We're going/ To fuck shit up!'" He frowns and then shrugs. "It's catchy."

After an overnight at a motel somewhere in the Pennsylvania mountains, we hit the road early, hoping to make Quebec City by nightfall.

As we close in on Canada, we start joking about the border crossing, a sign that we're all a little nervous. In the past week, we've read news stories about would-be demonstrators being detained and questioned and sometimes turned back, their belongings searched and political literature seized. We figure that between my press credentials, such as they are, and Gary's chaperoning, we shouldn't have much trouble. But Hobbes isn't taking any chances. Before we leave the hotel, he changes out of his tights into slacks with a shirt, tie and sweater. He combs his hair. His father laughs.

As it turns out, we have reason to worry. At the Plattsburg, N.Y. border checkpoint, a Canadian official directs us to a parking lot in front of the customs and immigration office. It takes an hour of questions and scrutiny of our IDs and police records before they let us pass. It strikes me, not for the first or last time this week, that all this talk of "open borders" is a relative thing. What saves us, I think, is that when a young but stern woman in the office asks where we're going, we say, "Quebec City." Her face softens. "You are the first ones today to tell me the truth," she says. "All day, everyone says, 'Oh, I'm going to Montreal, just to walk around.' I'm a little tired of being lied to. Is O.K. to go to Quebec, you know?"

In the car, across the border into brown prairie country punctuated by road signs full of words I halfway remember from college French classes, Hobbes mentions that he heard on the radio that the Canadian government had given border officers complete discretion this week. "They can turn back anyone who might be going to Quebec City with anything other than the purest of motives," he says.

Gary laughs, almost gleeful. "That's us," he says. "The purest of motives. That would be a good headline for your story."

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May 10, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 19
© 2001 Metro Pulse