Centre for Research on Globalisation

FREEDOM TO PROTEST, MONTREAL-STYLE

by  Kate Forrest


Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca ,  2 May  2002

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I am a 17-year-old student at John Abbott College, and I recently attended my first protest, the anti-G8 gathering in Montreal. I wrote this article shortly after my state of shock at the police reaction to our peaceful demonstration had subsided.

On Friday, April 26 I attended the anti-G8 demonstration at Dominion Park in Montreal with a small group of other students from John Abbott College. Many events had been planned in protest of the preliminary meeting of the G8 labour ministers being held in a nearby hotel and of G8 policies in general. Street theatre and speeches were scheduled to begin at 4:00 pm and a march was to take place at 6:00 pm through downtown Montreal. It was my first protest, so I was excited but unsure of what to expect. What I didn't expect was to be arrested and fined along with hundreds of others by police dressed in full riot gear. And this before we even had the chance to walk more than fifty steps down the street.

The protest started out completely peacefully. By 5 pm around three to four hundred people had gathered in the park, and the atmosphere was festive as people played drums and danced. Free food was handed out, and several speakers addressed the crowd, explaining why the G8 is not a democratic institution since it only represents the business interests of a tiny elite. Close to 6:00 pm there was one speaker remaining but (s)he never had a chance to address the audience. We suddenly noticed that riot police had without our knowledge surrounded the entire park, and no sooner did we become aware of this fact than they began slowly closing in on us.

  We barely made it out of the park before we were completely blocked and forced to a standstill, and seconds later, to my disbelief, we were pepper-sprayed. I was completely shocked: with no warning and absolutely no provocation, the cops had used pepper spray on an utterly peaceful crowd. I and many others, coughing and with our eyes watering, crowded into restaurants along the street to recover. Some escaped out the back of the restaurants, while others, myself included, returned to the street to see what was going on.

Once outside, things seemed to have to quieted down, so I joined a small group of people sitting cross-legged a few feet in front of the riot police and making peace signs. However, not even this pacifist gesture was allowed: within minutes the police began to advance on us, forcing us to back away and join the other two or three hundred people standing behind us. The next thing we knew, the police had encircled us again and were tightening their circle constantly until we were being crushed together like sardines. Perhaps because this was my first protest, I found the sight of masked, robot-like riot police relentlessly beating their nightsticks against their shields while advancing towards us terrifying, but there was nowhere we could go but backwards. Finally, after about two hours of standing crammed together like that, it was announced that we were all under arrest for illegal assembly.

Before going further, I should explain that as a child of the suburbs, I always saw police as people who would protect me if I was in danger, and I still had a nave remnant of that belief going into the Friday demonstration. (I don't think I was the only one, either: one guy wrote in an article that when he saw officers beating a fellow demonstrator with their sticks, his first instinctive reaction was that he should phone the police.) Although I had heard many times of police overreacting in situations like this, I still figured that they would only actually intervene if the protest seemed to be getting out of hand or if there were signs of violence among the demonstrators. On Friday this belief was shattered. As I was being led to one of the waiting buses with my ticket of $138 (at least 200 people received the same fine), I was in a state of complete incredulity. I kept asking myself, how can they possibly be getting away with this?

I am still asking myself the same question. We live in a supposedly democratic society, and yet our fundamental right to freedom of speech was stifled. Police cited evidence that the organizing group, CLAC (Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes), had a violent history, that violent actions were being planned for the march, and that people were seen carrying weapons, and they used these statements to justify their "preventive" measures. Yet, the fact remains that it was the actions of the police that provoked the one remotely violent act that occurred all evening. Although I don't advocate violence or destructive behaviour of any kind, I can see how people would have felt angry enough after witnessing the above events to smash the windows of a police van on Ste. Catharine's Street.

Police also claimed to have told people to disperse, but this is an outright lie: not only was no such call made, people were in fact forcibly prevented from dispersing even if they wanted to. If the evidence I have given describing how we were encircled before even starting our march is not sufficient, there were also reports that at least one back door of a restaurant was guarded by an officer with two dogs to prevent anyone from leaving the scene. These were obviously not dispersal techniques; they were actions that had been planned in advance with the intention of cornering us in so that we could not leave.

Also, how can the use of pepper spray on a non-violent crowd, even in terms of prevention, be justified? Or what about the intimidation technique used by the cops of pushing people into a small circle while beating their sticks against their shields? If the information given out by the police regarding CLAC is true, a police presence would have been justified in order to keep an eye on the protest, but there was no reason whatsoever for the kind of overreaction seen last week. It's no wonder that police are frequently blamed for inciting riots when they crack down without hesitation on even the most peaceful of protests.

A few things seem obvious when examining the reaction of the authorities to even a small group of people trying to be heard. First of all, that political authorities are clearly unwilling to listen to any voices opposing their own, and that unwanted dissenters will be duly suppressed. But perhaps what is even more important to note is that the "powers that be" are afraid. Their worries that huge numbers of people will join in protest against the G8 meetings in June are only a small part of the equation; more significantly, they are terrified that there may be an actual challenge to their wealth and power. When the established powers in the world feel a threat to their dominance, they respond with brutality in order to discourage further dissent, which is exactly what the Canadian police did last week.

For myself, the police crackdown at our peaceful demonstration first frightened and confused me, then angered me, and then simply strengthened my resolve and consolidated my convictions that things need to change in our world, and that we will have to work hard to bring about these changes. Our leaders pay lip service to the values of freedom, justice and equality, but is there any evidence of these values being translated to concrete reality? We have freedom of the market, but apparently little in the way of freedom of speech, while in terms of justice, all I can say is that those who gathered on Friday were not presumed innocent until proven guilty. As for equality, there are such obvious disparities between rich and poor even within our country, let alone between different nations, that we can hardly boast this as one of our defining attributes. As social commentator Howard Zinn once wrote, "We judge ourselves by our ideals [that is, freedom, justice and equality], others by their actions. It is a great convenience." In my opinion, it is high time that our leaders were made accountable for their actions, in terms of both their treatment of those people who choose to protest against their policies, and the wide-ranging consequences of the policies themselves.


Copyright   Kate Forrest   2002. Reprinted for fair use only


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CRG's Global Outlook, premiere issue on  "Stop the War" provides detailed documentation on the war and the  September 11

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