March 26, 2013

Heavy-handed police tactics in Montréal

By J. Boyden

On March 22, I was unexpectedly kettled by Montreal police at a student demonstration together with about 60 protestors. We have all been charged a $625 fine for participating in the "illegal protest," held to mark the anniversary of the start of last year's student strike. Almost 600 arrests have been made in Québec over the past few weeks.

Kettling, also known as corralling, is an increasingly used tactic of mass detention. Police ‑ often in riot gear ‑ will cordon off a street, blocking all exits, and then arrest everyone in between.

In our case, the police announced the demonstration was illegal at exactly the same time as the kettle began. There was five minutes of chaos and panic, then about three hours of limbo.

When riot police charge a crowd they exploit the moment for maximum intimidation. They dress in black, faces covered, holding round shields and pounding them in drum beat. You can hear their stomping heavy boots.

My partner and I turned just before the charge. We were looking for the rest of the Young Communist League, who had fortunately escaped just in time as two lines of riot cops blocked either side of the street. Then an officer smashed his baton across my knuckles ‑ throw down your banner! Moments later we heard the police captain scream at one officer: "stop being so gentle with them!"

Within a few minutes we were backed up against a large store (ironically a travel agency) and shoved into a knot of people. It had been a sunny afternoon when the protest began. But after half‑an‑hour in the kettle it started to get dark. Then it started to snow. A cold wind whistled down the street.

Several shift‑changes of the riot cops surrounding us took place, including a team of horse police at one point. I heard a young woman's teeth start to chatter. "Please just arrest me!" she said. She was wearing in a thin jacket, black polka dot skirt, and heels. Almost three hours...

Finally an all‑female team of officers arrived, processed us for about four minutes each, and doled out the fines. We were shoved across a yellow police cordon. Go! Get lost!

The charges may be dropped, thrown out or defeated in court. The bylaw we were charged under is P‑6, a complimentary municipal regulation brought in basically at the same time as the Charest Liberal's anti‑democratic Bill 78.

Like that now abolished law, P‑6 is almost certainly a violation of our constitutional rights. But that isn't the point. Through our detention we have already been punished.

Québec Solidaire has renewed its calls for a public inquiry, and the progressive ASSÉ student union has condemned the new wave of arrests, which began at the annual march against police brutality.

At the beginning of last year's student struggle the YCL made a conscious decision to actively participate in as many demonstrations as we could, including those declared "illegal" under Bill 78, but to join in a disciplined way because there was nothing to be gained from an arrest and restrictive bail conditions.

At our last YCL meeting we checked‑in about our policy towards arrests, which are sometimes viewed romantically as badges of honour in the youth and student movement. Our approach remained unchanged. But in just a few days Nicolas, our club organizer, Marianne, our magazine editor, myself and another member of our new club at a French‑language college have all been arrested and charged.

What has changed? The demonstrations are smaller now, but the force of the police has stayed the same and thus is proportionally much greater. Our ruling class opponents are well aware the student movement is still re‑grouping and somewhat tired. They are giving us a hard kick while we are down.

Seeming to recognize the intention was to break morale, our kettle held up a proud face. First we launched into the familiar chants. Then, as the temperature dropped, the group began to hold "jumping" to warm up. I saw an elderly man (somebody said he was a university professor) make a few smiling leaps. Anarchopanda ‑ the CEGEP professor who dresses in a giant panda suit ‑ was also there, as well as one of the "Rabbit Crew" who wear bunny‑eared masks to demos. It was like a reunion.

A hip hop artist came forward and began to rhyme. People started to dance. A drummer and a man with a cow bell joined in the music. Then the entire kettle was moving, bouncing around a circle. Somebody began singing popular songs. Classics from Quebec and France, from the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Soon we were all singing. Near the end we took a group photo. It seemed somehow appropriate.

Johan Boyden is the General Secretary of the Young Communist League of Canada

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