Police Brutality

Photo by Peter Haeghaert

Another Anti Police Brutality Protest devolved into vandalism and mass arrests on March 15, as 258 protestors were taken away by Montreal’s riot squad.

Protestors were out in full force to voice their outrage after a year of particularly strained relations between law enforcement and Canadians.

“Police brutality, abuses of power and injustices are a reality that is increasingly problematic. We’re asking the government to take care of this—and if they don’t, they’ll lose the public trust,” said Hadj Zitouni, president of Mouvement Action Justice.

The G20 held in Toronto last summer ended with 1,100 arrests—the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history.

Police at the G20 were criticized by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for allegedly removing their badges, telling protesters that martial law had been declared and for the conditions in which the arrested were detained. Protesters were kept in cold, crowded cells for days. The detained had limited access to food and water and, in some cases, were denied legal counsel for upwards of 48 hours.

“The G20 brought police brutality into the national consciousness,” said Sophie Sénécal, one of the March 15 protest’s organizers. “But what we’re protesting today is bigger than that. Yes, the G20 was an insult to a lot of people, but what’s happening in the streets of Montreal right now is that people on the fringes of society are living this kind of police brutality every day.”

Perhaps adding to the protesters’ frustration, Montreal Police officers have shot three people while responding to calls this year. Two of the shootings were fatal.

A black-clad protestor calling himself Phoenix offered his opinion.“You hear about the shootings but you don’t hear about the countless homeless people who get taken into alleys and beaten just because they’re homeless, because they’re on the street, because they’re punks,” Phoenix said. “It’s moving towards a total police state.”

The coroner’s inquest into the police shooting of unarmed teenager Fredy Villanueva came to a close just weeks before the Anti-Police Brutality protest and left a bad taste with many Montrealers. Villanueva’s mother, Lillian Villanueva, continues to lay blame with the city’s police.

“I’m convinced that if my boy was a white Quebecois, this tragedy would never have taken place,” she told CTV after the inquest was put to rest.

“People get killed. Everyday people are abused, especially the homeless and racial minorities. Right now, Mayor Tremblay and the Montreal police have their heads in the sand. Reports from the Quebec Human Rights Commission prove that the police practice racial and social profiling,” said Sénécal.

The number of arrests at the March 15 protests were the second most in the 14 year history of the Anti-Police Brutality protest.

As the protest began, around 5 p.m. behind Place des Arts, five of the event’s organizers were carted off by police. Sénécal, who was the only organizer to evade arrest, said her colleagues were detained for carrying signs with sticks.

It was the second time in a week that Montreal police preemptively arrested demonstrators. Moments before a March 12 protest against the Charest government’s budget, 10 protesters were arrested on conspiracy charges.

Police in full riot gear were everywhere, segregated into units labelled with white numbers on the backs of their black armour. One unit sat astride armoured horses, towering above the crowd and giving an impression of medieval brutality.

“Police abuse systematically affects the poor, the most marginalized and the most critical elements of our society. People living on the street are afraid to denounce this because they’re extremely visible and extremely vulnerable to police reprisals. It’s a climate of fear and silence,” said Sénécal.

Protestors walked east on Ontario Street holding signs with slogans such as “Metro Police are rats in the system,” “65 killed by the SPVM” and “No Justice, no peace,” and chanting, “Police everywhere, justice nowhere.”

Shortly after, the procession began. A masked man launched a stone through a crowd of bystanders, shattering a market window on St. Laurent Boulevard. The stink of burning garbage filled the air— two young men carried a smoking trash can through the crowd while others cheered.

On St. Denis Street, the crowd successfully evaded police cars by marching against traffic. A handful of protestors pried chunks of asphalt from potholes and uncovered rocks from residential gardens. They threw them at the windows of trendy cafés and brand name clothing outlets. One man heaved a rock the size of his head through the display window of a trendy clothing store, resulting in cheers from the crowd.

Police moved in swiftly after a woman was struck in the head with a glass bottle. Smoke bombs exploded in front of the procession and the crowd stopped. People screamed and chanted “Fuck the police.”

A menacing, rhythmic cracking came from the back of the protest; riot police made a line across the street blocking the only escape. They pounded their shields with night sticks and charged the crowd of protestors. Panic hit the protestors as they were kettled on both sides.

The police stopped and held a defensive line, not permitting anyone to leave. Some of the protestors threw ice and rocks at the police, trying to incite brutality. Bags of white paint hit the pavement in front of the line of police and splattered their armour.

The lines of riot police moved in a few feet at a time until the mass of protestors were pinned together with no room to move, let alone throw rocks or start fights. They were held in the street for three hours before the police read out the riot act over a megaphone and arrested every one of them.

Of the 258 arrested, only six were charged with criminal offences.