I attended a Chicago Teachers Union rally and the local Trump and Bernie Sanders political rallies earlier this year, so I thought I knew what to expect when I stumbled upon a labor protest in Paris on Tuesday afternoon. I was wrong.
The first explosion struck so unexpectedly that my head instinctively whipped towards the source—an IED detonated by a demonstrator clad in black, including a dark mask that concealed his face. I was somewhat terrified, but no one else around me seemed to be. For the thousands of protesters gathered in the center of Invalides plaza, the sound was an emboldening rallying cry. Antigovernment and pro-union signs were raised high as a marching band launched into a spirited song.
The French riot police responded quickly. They’d already barricaded the perimeter of the neighborhood and surrounded the park with hundreds of what appeared to be well-equipped soldiers carrying Plexiglass shields and batons. I watched as they moved in to disperse the crowd. An armored vehicle inched forward, spraying protesters with high-pressure water cannons and accompanied by squadrons of police marching in rigid formation. Occasionally one of the officers would use a handheld canon to launch a tear-gas canister into the crowd.
The most hard-core protesters remained undeterred, setting a few trash Dumpsters on fire and using others as makeshift barricades from which to throw bricks, bottles—whatever objects they could find—at the police. Every few minutes an asynchronous tug-of-war for territory would ensue: an aggressive pack of demonstrators would charge towards a group of policemen; then armored cops would respond with a brief counterstrike. Sometimes they’d clash violently, leading to injuries on both sides.
I wondered how ugly this battle might get—or at least I did until a few minutes before 6 PM, when an officer aimed his cannon and fired a shot my direction. A cylinder arched high into the air and broke into four pieces before raining down on us. The fragments landed about seven to ten yards from me, and tear gas quickly enveloped me and the protesters around me. I’d tied my shirt around my face in an effort to shield myself from the chemicals, but it didn’t seem to help. Tears welled in my eyes and my throat burned like fire. I coughed fiercely while jogging toward the edge of the park, sat on a bench, and tried to suppress a wave of nausea.
Shortly afterward, hundreds more police officers came to beat back the protest. Since I didn’t have a dog in this fight, being tear gassed and the threat of arrest were reason enough for me to leave the scrum.
But France’s robust union system has reacted to these proposals with strikes and protests. When I tried to take public transportation into Paris from the airport last week, I was told that some of the trains were out of commission due to a rolling strike by national rail company, SNCF. Meanwhile, heaping piles of trash clogged Parisian streets due to a 14-day work stoppage by trash collectors. Taxi drivers and airline pilots followed suit. On Tuesday, the Eiffel Tower actually closed because its workers left the landmark to join what was meant to be trade unions’ biggest show of anti-labor-reform sentiment yet—a million-person march through Paris.
I can’t help but feel simultaneously inspired by the French resistance and sad when thinking about how much union activity and support has atrophied in Illinois. Chicago is often considered the birthplace of the modern labor movement: if you enjoy the traditional eight-hour work day it’s because a weeklong city-wide strike in 1867 ground Chicago to a halt and forced the Illinois legislature to approve it. Labor battles continued in Chicago from the Haymarket Riot of 1886 to the bloody Memorial Day Massacre of 1937.
But over the last generation, unions have become an endangered species in the U.S., victims of antilabor laws, the movement’s own complacency, and cultural changes—many white-collar professionals perceive them as dinosaurs of the preinformation-age economy that should bow to the forces of globalization and technological disruption.
It’s not hard to see why there are so many mixed feelings about high-profile labor battles in Chicago, whether it’s Karen Lewis and the CTU pushing back against a union-busting Democratic mayor or service workers rallying for $15-an-hour minimum wage: many of us are lukewarm on the idea of people swimming upstream against the mighty market.
I’m not advocating violence, but I do think people should feel empowered to respond to dehumanizing government and corporate policies beyond the voting booth or Facebook. France’s gritty, ballsy, fuck-you labor protests could provide an much-needed example. During my plane ride back to Chicago on Wednesday, I feverishly imagined hundreds of thousands of Illinois workers marching on Springfield to protest the governor and the mayor’s continued degradation of state and municipal workers.
Sadly, the average Illinois worker probably didn’t see the protests Tuesday. The only news exported to the U.S. from France that day was about a policeman and his partner killed by a suspected ISIS fighter. The fact that tens of thousands of people marched through the historic streets of Paris after weeks of strikes, the fact that dozens were arrested and 40-plus police and protesters were injured were no match for a murder. If it bleeds, it leads, but it’s got to bleed really hard—and preferably via terrorism. That brings a tear to my eye, one that comes even when a policeman’s gas grenade is nowhere to be found.