You often hear about protests “turning violent.” It happened during the Montreal student protests in 2012, it happened at the G20 Toronto Summit protests in 2010 and again in New Brunswick over shale gas protests in 2013. This turn to violence has happened repeatedly, both within Canada and globally. But why does it happen so frequently? Canada, in general, is known for its low level of crime and violence, and most protests start off with peaceful intentions. So what happens?
In a protest, the goal of the participants is to be heard, as a collective group, and stand up for what they believe in. This is an inherent right in any democracy. At every protest I’ve ever participated in, the general populace has had every intention of remaining peaceful. There may be a few exceptions in the crowd, but from a general perspective, no one wants to fight, no one wants to be arrested, people just want to march for their beliefs.
So why in Quebec are we being targeted with teargas and arrested, repeatedly, in what would be otherwise peaceful protests? Police interference seems to be at an all-time high in this province, with teargas often being used within minutes of the beginning of the protest. We have to ask ourselves, what effect do these actions have? Is this a process that generates trust and open discourse?
This past spring, I attended a protest in Montreal that was supposed to be a peaceful march through the downtown core. It was May Day, this march happens every year, and this year it focused on anti-capitalism and anti-austerity. It was a march for the people, and it was supposed to be peaceful. Downtown was filled with people sporting pins and posters, and, on almost everyone, a scarf. It was a sunny day, but everyone in Montreal knows that with the police’s track record, only a fool goes to a protest without a scarf. We were no fools. The teargas hit within minutes. The protest, which was originally about one thing, turned quickly into another.
“No justice, no peace, f— the police.”
Police brutality is something that needs to be talked about, but it was not what the May Day march was about. May Day is for the workers, but as soon as the first canister of tear gas went off, chaos struck and, in general, the participants switched from being anti-austerity to anti-cops.
Before, people walking by would use their fingers to wave peace signs at police officers, this quickly switched to the middle finger. And can you blame them? Protesters who had wanted to march were suddenly keeled over, their lungs and eyes burning, and if you didn’t move quickly enough, a police shield would shove you in the right direction. And this isn’t unusual. This, for Montreal, is habitual.
The irony is, if there had been no police present, I am convinced that this would have been the peaceful protest it was meant to be, where demonstrators marched without violence. They would have marched through the downtown core, with their banners and signs, in an effort to be heard, and then they would have dispersed.
All the while maintaining the peace and all the while maintaining their message. But as soon as the police interfered, the crowd switched gear and the original message was lost. The new message was against a police force, and not for a labour force, as originally intended.
Written by Rosa Zetler and featured on the Montreal Gazette