Manifestation Madness

A First Person Account of a Tuition Protest

  • Photo by Riley Sparks

Editor’s note: The Link is looking forward to a long month of March that is sure to be filled with protests against the provincial government’s planned tuition hikes. While we’re excited to cover all the issues and events, we gotta admit: writing about a bunch of protests around one issue can get a bit repetitive. If you’d like a straight-up news story on what happened at the protest on Feb. 23, click here. As for what you’re reading, well, we decided to go in a bit of a weirder direction. This is a first-hand ‘gonzo’-style account of the inside of a protest. Enjoy.

A bustling mob of eager and enthusiastic students had taken over Philips Square in Downtown Montreal by noon on Thursday.

By 1:00 p.m. there were between 1,000 and 1,500 people taking up several blocks of the busy city centre. Groups shuffled about brandishing wild posters, banners and attractive artistry condemning the raise in tuition fees.

Though peaceful, this mob was absolutely serious. “Jean Charest,” one sign warned. “You shall not pass.”

As organizers from l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante bounced about in red jumpsuits, talking hurriedly to one another or else hollering through bullhorns, their members in the crowd simultaneously raised and lowered signs, performing some strange choreographed theatrics.

In an event like this, organization—or at least the semblance of organization—is paramount.

Suddenly, with the cry of a few thousand voices, the crowd lurched forward a pace or two and we set off east down Ste. Catherine’s St.

Trudging through the cold downtown streets, one thing became very clear: the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal was taking no chances.

Approximately 20 police cruisers followed the demonstration, dozens of officers on bicycles buzzed about the front line, paddy wagons and SWAT vans awkwardly hung around main intersections, while cruisers blocked adjacent roads as the SPVM struggled to follow the movements of the shifty group.

A lone helicopter also whirled about anxiously throughout the entire protest, often hovering low, watching.

This certainly was not their first rodeo, and the SPVM know all too well that it takes only a handful of protesters to turn something peaceful into front-page news.

As the protest came to an end at Berri Park, a definitive instant took place—one that gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson once described as ‘a moment of The Great Fork.’

The official demonstration was now over, but numbers had risen to upwards of 15,000 protesters. As the last of the stragglers descended upon the Berri-UQAM Metro station, a decision had to be made by everyone involved: what next?

It didn’t take long for some to make their move, as a splinter group of roughly 1,500 began to form. A few enthusiasts called out to their comrades, “To the bridge!” and “On prends Jacques Cartier!” setting off what one organizer described as the “real” demonstration.

“I had no idea what was going to happen after [the protest] was officially over,” he explained. “All I knew was that the real demo was going to take place after the official demo was over.”

Moving east down Ste. Catherine St. once again, the rogue demonstrators made for the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, a risky move that was sure to be met with heavy opposition from the police.

As the wild and leaderless group came upon the intersection of de Maisonneuve Blvd. and de Lorimier Ave. attempting to reach the bridge, the SWAT vans
finally made their move. A hard line was set up by the SPVM, and the group was forced to reroute.

After a short game of cat and mouse, a small contingent of about 100 protesters took one last shot at the bridge, breaking off from the main group and heading north on the small residential block of Dorion St.

Caught between the advancing mob and a hard line of SPVM fully clad in their riot gear, two fellow reporters and I found ourselves faced with an impending clash. The protesters began to link arms only a few feet away from the shields of the SPVM, chanting as they slowly stepped forward.

With a shrug of their shoulders, the officers raised their shields, gripped their batons and shoved forcefully into the crowd. Undeterred, the protesters continued. Quickly, and without warning, two officers
leaned forward, extending that familiar canister and administered several shots of pepper spray into the crowd.

Total madness.

There are few instances that assure you more of where you stand in the bigger picture than getting a nose full of pepper spray. Student, non-student, press be damned.

After five hours, the crowd that was once 15,000 strong had been whittled down to a relentless group of roughly 300 protesters who marched on confusedly through the streets.

By 5:00 p.m. what was left of the demonstration returned to Berri Park, followed closely by an increasingly impatient group of riot police.

Finally, as the last of the protesters slowly left the park, I was left once again confused by what I’d witnessed.

Did the demonstration accomplish what it had set out to accomplish? Had the original message been clear, and was that message delivered to the right people? Is blocking traffic to get attention to the cause a strategy that will backfire?

As we move now in lock step toward one of the largest student strikes in Quebec’s history, these questions are bound to become increasingly relevant.

—with files from Adam Kovac

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