Police making their way up de Pins. This photo courtesy of Benoit Falardeau
By now anyone paying attention to the news knows that there was a demonstration against police brutality Sunday in Montreal. 221 people arrested, $200,000 in damages, and plenty of media hype.
Sunday marked the 13th International Day against Police Brutality. Le Collectif Opposé à la Brutalité Policiere (COBP) has organised the annual protest in Montreal since 1997. This year’s edition carried a particular significance: it was the first to follow the incendiary killing of unarmed Fredy Villanueva by Montreal police.
I made my way down to Mont Royal metro yesterday, not knowing exactly why. I’d heard various accounts of previous demonstrations against police brutality, but never one that started with “and then I saw…”
A moment of confrontation between protesters and police at St. Denis and Mont Royal. Sorry for the shaky camerawork.
I decided to attend as a resident who finds the structural brutality of racial and economic profiling unacceptable (let alone its resultant physical violence), but also as one who believes in the necessity of a regulated police department.
Beforehand I discussed with a friend the roles of police presence, the COBP, and the protest. Undoubtedly there is a certain element of brutality in the mere presence of helmeted, shielded, and armed police. They appear larger than human, especially when mounted on horseback. A violent uprising at such a high-tension event may be sparked simply by their aggressively-attired posturing. This left me with the question: what if the police stood up their annual date with the protesters and made a no-show? Would violence ensue?
The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the astounding amount of technology: my puny digital camera was no match for the hefty Canons clutched by salivating journalists. Crouching in various awkward poses, they appeared to be shooting a punk-rock fashion show. Activists and police carried cameras too. At least today, no brutality would go unrecorded.
Mounted police surveyed the mixed crowd of activists, families, and a few masked protesters. All ages were represented. The Anarchist Marching Band was delightfully in full swing, and the open sugar-shack added to the air of general spring euphoria.
As I climbed upon a concrete pillar behind the police, one of their ranks approached to ask me to not stand behind them, SVP. I noted that I could see his face through the clear visor, perhaps a small touch of crowd-control diplomacy?
The speeches and pamphlets delivered by the COBP were dedicated to Fredy Villenueva. The pamphlet impressively cataloged police intolerance and abuses. It offered insight into resisting police brutality, such as the SPVM’s recent switch to diminutive vehicle numbering which makes it harder to report errant officers.
At 2:30pm, the march began. As it made its way to St. Denis, a couple dozen of the group immediately engaged a line of bicycle police. Airborne vegetables and glass bottles scattered the line, and shield-wielding riot police took their place. Someone brandished a roman-candle firework, adding to the clamour. It was clear that any police entity, shielded or not, was the target of paint balloons and less-forgiving debris. I saw that one aggressive protester was pepper sprayed, another arrested.
Meanwhile, the rest of the march proceeded southbound on St. Denis. The atmosphere maintained its spring-time feel, with the band playing and onlookers enjoying the sight. The police, as if in answer to my question, were distant if visible at all (notwithstanding the helicopter presence). Minimal mischief occurred, with the odd paint balloon lobbed at a corporate store.
The Anarchist Marching Band
The feel changed as we approached Sherbrooke. There was a sense that a number of protesters, generally younger ones, were restless for a confrontation. One lone officer appeared in Square St. Louis, and a few rock-throwers ran after him. Another group of officers appeared near the Sherbrooke metro entrance, and a group of marchers surged at them. Dozens of young protesters frantically gathered rocks from construction sites and flower beds.
Two tear-gas explosions rocked the air, and it was clear that the police did not want the march to cross Sherbrooke. A couple hundred marchers detoured down a side street and re-entered Sherbrooke, headed westbound. An STM bus flashing “9-1-1 / Police” carried wide-eyed commuters through the surprise mob, it had become the target of paint balloons and angry fists. The manager of Dormez-vous? stepped outside to protect his storefront, and retreated when a brick sailed past him through the window.
I departed once the police fired rubber bullets into the crowd, dispersing it up University. On my walk home, I crossed a couple of
home-bound protesters who had dropped their sign in the street. They didn’t like that some marchers had targeted people other than the police.
My favourite part of the day had been on St. Denis, where a group of hundreds had energetically walked against the aggression that killed Fredy Villenueva. There the cops were scarce and the protesters lively. Beyond that, it seemed to be a chaotic yet well-rehearsed re-entrenchment of two parties: job security for the police, and the perpetual frustration of a few angry youth.