Critique of the Cops
The Time They Almost Did a Good Job
I don’t really like the cops in this city.
It’s not that I think they’re bad people. Or, as the various crusty, squat-dwelling, dumpster-diving activist types suggest, that they’re a bunch of racist, baby-killing sociopaths in uniform, hell-bent on destroying freedom, sunshine, poutine and all that is good about Montreal.
They’re just not that good at their jobs.
But for a few hours during last Thursday’s massive protest against tuition hikes, my faith in Montreal’s finest was almost restored.
Despite the terrible weather, the day’s mood was cheerful. After months of planning, students proved that we weren’t going to take these tuition hikes lying down. The crowd was happy, and the handful of cops policing the demonstration seemed to be picking up on the good vibes.
Still, with so many people in the streets, some conflict was inevitable.
Leaving only about 20 bicycle police with batons between a crowd of thousands and Premier Jean Charest’s office, the police seemed to be making a risky but smart tactical decision.
At most protests I’ve been to, the presence of imposing and armoured riot cops gives people a focal point for their anger and almost always seems to escalate the situation. It’s as if people see these guys in their bulky black riot suits and think “Ha! This appears to be a riot! Hand me that brick, comrade—it’s time to smash the system/the window of this SAQ!”
Maybe the cops were hoping the celebratory mood would last. But after a few minutes, a couple of masked hooligans started chucking fireworks, flares and paint-filled light bulbs at Charest’s office.
Despite being attacked, shouted at and spat on, many of our own Concordia Student Union executives tried to calm the situation by placing themselves between the rioters and police.
Unfortunately, the scene got ugly quickly. One bold would-be rioter discharged a fire extinguisher at the police, prompting them to retreat inside. They were replaced by a line of riot cops.
Montreal’s riot police have a bit of a reputation, and it’s not for being gentle, cuddly guys. But these cops did something surprising: nothing.
Clever strategy. Without really hurting anyone, the police de-escalated a pretty nasty situation. Not bad. Maybe, I hoped, they’d figured out that cracking heads wasn’t always the best way to get results.
A half hour later, eyes streaming pepper-spray tears, we shivered in the rain outside McGill’s James Building and watched in shock as the police savagely beat anyone they could lay their hands on.
When about two dozen bike cops showed up, students formed a human chain around the James Building. A few in the crowd pelted the police with water bottles, sticks and whatever came to hand. But as the cops retreated, the situation cooled down.
We now know the students inside were negotiating their way out. It seemed like, as before, the situation was winding down. Then the riot cops showed up, and it was game on.
As McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum explained, the riot squad “dispersed the protesters by its usual means.” That meant batons, boots and pepper spray, which the flics deployed like silly string at a middle school birthday party.
The situation rapidly became very unpleasant for all involved, including the police. Different groups of cops tried to move people in different directions. Officers wandered into the fray and batoned students, professors and passersby seemingly at random.
Riots are always chaotic. But the fact that the cops didn’t seem to have any kind of plan didn’t improve the situation. Their use of pepper spray was similarly ill-advised. People hit with the spray reacted in one of two ways: they dropped to the ground in pain, or got fightin’ mad. Both reactions were counterproductive from the cops’ perspective.
With a few over-eager blasts of mace and baton blows, the SPVM took a peaceful demonstration and created a riot. Watching the police at Charest’s office, I thought maybe they’d learned something.
Clearly I was being overly optimistic. The situation at the James Building proved that they’re still handling protests like some kind of medieval battle.
There’s got to be a better way.