Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On past Sunday's Montreal police brutality protest

Just a few thoughts on the march against police brutality this past Sunday afternoon, an event which I think holds some conceptual links to the Greek unrest - especially given that the initial wave of street actions and occupations there was set off by the police shooting of a 15 yo youth, Alexis Grigoroupolous.

Here in Montreal, those who spoke at the beginning of the rally (assembled outside Mont-Royal metro) definitely emphasized the recent case of Freddy Villanueva, shot by Montreal city police officer Jean-Loup Lapointe along with two other unarmed youth in a north-end neighborhood where they were playing craps outdoors. Lapointe and his partner were apparently touching base with Villanueva's brother, who was said to have been associating with individuals forbidden by a court order. In any case, a lot of people in the community were upset, and there was a significant march and some 'rioting' in the days that followed - as well as some articulate questions raised, and community organizing taken up in hopes of addressing aggressive patterns in police behaviour towards local youth.

The Collectif Oppose au Brutalite Policiere have held a rally against police brutality on March 15 for the past 13 years; it is also marked in other cities internationally. From the start, the police presence was overwhelming, with dozens of cars and logistics vehicles parked just to the south, mounted police, and Surete du Quebec helicopters circling overhead (which I do not recall from the past two years). The rally proceeded peacefully down St. Denis from Mont Royal after an apparent false start in which the crowd moved to proceed East on Mont Royal, but were blocked by a line of riot police. The exit onto St Denis was left open, and was to be the de facto route...once most of those present either caught on or were prompted to head that way (I saw a number of people coordinating this via celphone). From there to the Sherbrooke St intersection, protesters chanted and displayed placards and banners - and a great deal of photographs were taken. I saw a couple of paint bombs hit two windows (fashion boutiques) and two mailboxes overturned and dragged into the street. A few metal barriers from a construction site joined the march.

At Sherbrooke, helmeted riot police with shields and batons blocked the route to the south and west, and the march ground to a halt; the police presence here (with rented trucks from Jean Legare Ltee. and paddywagons) seemed to amount to a planned confrontation. And the stage was set. It is true that some then hurled rocks, one extremely loud firecracker, vegetables and a couple of beer bottles at the police lines...though I was reminded at this point of Uri Gordon's discussion of protest 'violence' in "Anarchy Alive" (2008, excellent read) which points out that 'violent' actions such as this, against police equipped such that the possibility of injury is negligible, have an almost ritual quality and seem to obviate the imputation of a real attempt to injure.

Sirens lit up, and I for one joined others in taking a distance (with a number of protesters and journalists) on the street corner, and saw a great number of people head East on Sherbrooke with police in close concert. From what I understand (I ended up weaving through the downtown core without coming across the few hundred people still keeping together) there were some who took more confrontational approaches than earlier in the day as the march wound up close to Place-des-Arts, and I certainly saw evidence of actions against property and 'public order', including trash bins dragged into the street, a fire in the middle of Sherbrooke, and cracked glass or the remains of paint bombs at Hotels, storefronts, etc. It seems that 221 people were eventually arrested (though initial media reports only mentioned the 30 or so arrested on criminal code charges; 189 were ticketed for 'unlawful assembly' and likely spent some time in captivity). The (revised) major English-media account goes like this:


I think that this raises a lot of questions easily linked to the Greek scenario. For example:

1) how are radical-left activists to deal with the fact that the protest march has been practically institutionalized and integrated into daily life in the Global North? One major complaint on the part of the mayor, who called for new regulations and policy to control such happenings. Check out the Gazette:

"Knowing the protesters’ intended route beforehand would enable a peaceful exercise of the democratic right to demonstrate, [Montreal mayor Gerard] Tremblay said."


This clearly attempts to set a boundary between 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate' protest, with the former defined not strictly by non-violence, etc...but by police control over persons and public space. I find it interesting that an open discussion in response to an earlier Gazette article about a proposed bylaw to ban facial coverings/masks in demos garnered a great deal of reader comment that seemed to target non-Canadians (by whatever definition, not 'us' but 'them') as the problem - linking the proposed bylaw with then-recent protests in solidarity with Gaza, rather than with the COBP protest that police mentioned in requesting the measure (suggesting that something like Sunday's events was no surprise to them).

2) What about 'violence'? There are major debates over whether things like throwing rocks and setting fires is justifiable (and whether or not this is 'violence' - a major point in examining media and public reaction). A paint bomb or broken window is perhaps less obviously the result of a 'violent' act and intention than, say, shooting someone. Gordon's (2008) definition of 'violence' is of interest here:

"an act should be considered violent if it generates an embodied sense sense of attack or deliberate endangerment in its recipient"

3) How does a protest event get constructed by the media, and how is it contained as a problem with a few unruly protesters? The response by 'mainstream' media appears to lament the entire protest action as a failure and a contradiction, it's all about violence, figures for the property damage, arrests, and the need for control. Protesters are lumped together (as they are on the tickets for 'unlawful assembly'); the 'issues' the protest sought to highlight, if noted in any detail at all, are typically in the bottom paragraph(s) - which journalism students will recognize as the least important information deemed worthy of inclusion. It's called the 'funnel.' The Link, Concordia University's student newspaper (members of which were actually arrested, and whose press credentials were laughed off) reported that a few random onlookers got swept up on the mass arrests, and that in one case a mother was denied access to her 16 yo son detained by police.

The Greek situation is obviously very different, involving street actions that lasted weeks, not hours, and now connecting with reports of bombing and firearms incidents linked to groups like 'Revolutionary Struggle' (although these have a lingering history in Greece)...not to mention the obviously disparate - though not unconnected - social, political, economic and historical conditions of the two geographically distant locales. Oh, and the COBP (who always do their best to draw out an international connection in their systemic analyses while highlighting local cases like Villanueva's, that of Mohamed Anas Bennis, or Anthony Griffin, shot while fleeing police in 1987) did indeed include a piece on the Greek unrest in their latest print publication!

Next post: blogging and critical response...then more on Greece.


  1. interesting questions. in regards to question 2, i think it is a form of violence and its not justifiable. if you want to send out a message then you need to do it in a manner that does not cause any damages for ex. to other businesses, or to park cars on a street. i get that your angry etc. but at the end of the day that is not helping the situation

  2. Fair enough; I think that you have a point about this - especially with regard to parked cars, which could belong to anyone - in that it might tend to alienate the wider public who are presumably a potential well of support for a just cause. And obviously the mainstream media response, and a lot of everyday conversation, latches on to this as the defining feature of a given demo. It becomes a justification for negative views of the radical left and public protests in general.

    However, I do wonder about the fact that defining this kind of thing as violence makes property rights - including those of large corporations - a bit of a sacred cow. Think of the kinds of targeting typical of Seattle (Nike, Starbucks, etc) or this past week in Greece, where high-end boutiques were hit:


    And there is evidence in the case of Quebec, recently highlighted by a freedom-of-information request from activist and UQAM professor Francis Dupuis-Deri, that police have seemed to take on the role of agents provocateurs in the past...


    None of this resolves the question at all; nor does it contradict your position, Golden Pastry - but it does complicate the matter a bit.

    I am personally inclined to seperate 'property destruction' and 'violence' as analytic categories (I like Uri Gordon's definition, which would make property destruction violent if it elicits an embodied sense of attack in another person...) One man's opinion!

    As always, I appreciate the comment.