Police intimidated a student of colour at Concordia’s downtown campus

Two months later, official plans to address concerns over student safety during police interactions remain to be seen

The corner of Mackay and de Maisonneuve shortly after the incident. According to Dr. Turner, the person speaking with officers in the SPVM vehicle was a witness. Photo courtesy Dr. Sarah E. Turner

On Sept. 16, a student of colour was stopped by the SPVM on the northwest corner of Mackay St. and De Maisonneuve Blvd., across the street from Concordia’s Hall Building.

Six police officers surrounded the person, who was eventually ticketed for allegedly distributing leaflets without a permit. Dr. Sarah Turner, assistant professor in the faculty of arts and science, said she witnessed the incident on her way to a meeting at around 10:30 a.m. She said “the energy of the situation” was such that she felt obligated to stay and make sure the student was safe.

Turner first noticed the encounter when she saw two police officers cornering a (femme-presenting) Person of Colour up against a construction sign on the corner of the street. Turner presumed the person was a student because they were holding a stack of leaflets from the Concordia Student Union’s Legal Information Clinic with information on a person’s rights when being stopped by police. She said the student had their head down and was very quiet as the officers questioned them in a tone that was “quite aggressive.”

Turner said two other witnesses looked on with concern as a police SUV drove up to the scene minutes later. Four additional officers exited the vehicle, and immediately began to demand that witnesses step back. A total of six police officers, five of whom were men, surrounded the student. As one witness filmed the incident, Turner and a third witness separately asked what was going on, but were both met with firm and repeated instructions to step back and to not interfere with police intervention.

“It seemed very intimidating and a serious overkill, because nothing I saw about their behaviour suggested the need for any reinforcements whatsoever,” Turner said. “The situation didn’t escalate but it could’ve escalated just because of what the police were doing.”

Officers eventually let the student go without any physical contact, but the incident left the student visibly shaken and in tears. After the incident, Turner walked with the student up the street, along with the witness who filmed the incident. Turner did not get the student’s name, but gave them her information and offered support.

“I stayed because I’m a [professor], but I also stayed because I’m a mum. If my kid was in that situation, I would want somebody else to watch what was going on and make sure they were okay,” Turner said. Following the incident, Turner alerted the CSU because she felt the incident had “broader ramifications for safety—particularly for racialized students and gender minorities.”

On Oct. 14, Eduardo Malorni, general coordinator of the CSU, sent an email to Andrew Woodall, dean of students at Concordia, to request that something be done about SPVM interactions with students on campus.

Three weeks later, Woodall held a meeting on Nov. 9 to address the issue brought by Malorni. The meeting included members of the CSU, Turner, Concordia campus security’s interim director Darren Dumoulin, and Dr. Ted Rutland, associate professor in the faculty of arts and science.

Dr. Turner identified this flyer to The Link as the one allegedly distributed by the student in question. Photo Diane Yeung

According to multiple attendees, Woodall and Dumoulin expressed genuine concern about the incident and student interactions with police. Attendees said because it happened across the street from the Hall building, it isn’t immediately clear whether it could be considered an incident that happened on campus. Even so, the sidewalks outside of every Concordia building on the Sir George Williams campus fall under the SPVM’s jurisdiction, and are patrollable by police.

Hannah Jamet-Lange, academic and advocacy coordinator of the CSU, said members of the CSU who were in the meeting asked about campus security’s role in de-escalating police interactions with students, the possibility to document and film those interactions, and the possibility for security to push for less police presence on campus grounds overall. 

“We need to talk about this issue,” said Rutland, who was invited to the meeting due to his research on policing and urban planning. “It was the first meeting I’ve seen where we began to talk about how the university can play a role in shaping how policing happens in our buildings and public parts of our campus.”

Malorni and Jamet-Lange said suggestions were then made for the CSU to meet with the SPVM and directly propose measures to reduce police presence on campus. They said it was implied in the meeting that Dumoulin would be present if such a negotiation were to occur, but the official involvement of Concordia’s administration was unclear.

“Obviously we need to advocate to the university to have them take action on this, but the university needs to take action as well,” Jamet-Lange said. “Because they have final oversight of [the university’s] facilities.”

Following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, over 7,000 Concordians signed the Concordia Statement on Black Lives, which called for the university to “eliminate anti-Black racism at Concordia.” The letter, addressed to members of Concordia’s administration, was written by faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and demanded that the university “minimize its recourse to the Montreal Police department.”

“In the last 50 years, the SPVM has taken dozens of Black lives and disproportionately profiled, arrested, and harmed Black Montrealers,” the statement said. “Given this reality, Concordia’s present security relationship with the SPVM must be examined and significantly revised.”

In its list of demands, the statement asked for the creation of a task force that would ensure the safety of Black students on campus. In November 2020, Concordia’s President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism finalized its committee members. Earlier this month, the task force released its preliminary recommendations, and cited “stakeholder-specific recommendations” that includes “training in de-escalation, anti-oppression and anti-racist practices for Campus Security personnel.”

“We know that the police are terrible to Black and Indigenous communities in particular,” Rutland said. “And if we’re a university that wants to have Black and Indigenous students, then we need to protect them and use the power of the institution to do so.” — Dr. Ted Rutland

“There’s a long history of the police being fatally violent with our students. Black students in particular,” Rutland said.

Rutland referenced the 1969 Computer Centre Incident, in which an estimated 200 students occupied the ninth floor of Concordia’s Hall Building in protest of a professor that multiple Black students accused of racism. After 14 days of protests, Concordia’s then-administration called police, who responded violently to student protesters, causing the death of 18-year-old Coralee Hutchison.

Read also: The legacy left behind by the 1969 Computer Riot

“We know that the police are terrible to Black and Indigenous communities in particular,” Rutland said. “And if we’re a university that wants to have Black and Indigenous students, then we need to protect them and use the power of the institution to do so.”

In a statement to The Link, Vannina Maestracci, Concordia’s official spokesperson, said that during the Nov. 9 meeting, the Dean of Students stated he would inform the Task Force on Anti-Black Racism of the incident.

However, four attendees who were present at the meeting told The Link they did not recall or know whether the Black Perspectives Office or the Task Force on Anti-Black Racism had been or would be notified. A request to interview Woodall was made, but was not available.

Additionally, Maestracci said, “the interim Director of Campus Security met with the commander of the SPVM station that covers the Sir George Williams campus to raise our concerns.” Two attendees of the Nov. 9 meeting told The Link that Dumoulin spoke to them recently about the ways he has followed up with the SPVM since. The details of Dumoulin’s meeting with the SPVM were not disclosed to The Link.

“Although the incident did not technically take place on university property, its proximity to campus and the fact that it involved a member of our community means we felt it was important for us to better understand what happened and to communicate with the SPVM,” Maestracci’s statement read.