Conditions of Possibility: Police Violence as a Driver of Social Change – Evan Light

The Beginning, Last Year

Last year, my wife Joanne and I went to observe the annual March Against Police Brutality in Montréal. Moving through the city, the march was about 600 strong and reached the intersection of St-Denis and Mt-Royal. Here, the police decided to use a crowd control method called “kettling,” whereby they surround a group of people, ostensibly until tempers (and bladders) boil over. Jo and I were behind the police line and were given a choice of walking back into the dozens of riot police or joining the surrounded crowd. When we asked what consequences these choices would have, the line was only repeated. Eventually, the cop I was arguing with grabbed me by the collar and threw me into the crowd. I made a police complaint, which went nowhere because I was unable to identify the man who violated my right to make an informed decision. And so we went again this year.

Impending

We arrived at 5pm on March 15, 2012 at Place Émilie-Gamelin, right by UQÀM, my university, and followed the hundreds-strong crowd for the beginning of the march. After going off for a while to check out a used bed, I returned at 7:30pm that night to retrieve my bicycle. Having no idea what had taken place over the previous hour and a half, I did a brief tour of the neighbourhood. The streets had been blocked off by police cars, but for no obvious reason. A small crowd of not quite 100 people was jeering at a group of maybe 30 police. It seemed that things would quickly fizzle out if the cops just went home. When they launched pepper spray grenades at the small crowd, however, I decided it was time for me to split. It was then that I saw three or four vans full of police speed to the south end of the park, reminding me of what the chief of police had said in an interview the day before, that they only send in the real goons at the end. Time to head home and make supper.

Assaulted

Walking my bike up Berri, I turned to see people fleeing the park and riot cops in battle gear coming at me yelling “Bouge! Bouge! Bouge!” or “Move! Move! Move!” Seeing as I’d done nothing wrong, I decided to step aside. It was then that two cops came at me, one backhanding me at the base of my ribs with his club. What? Did this guy really just hit me? I freaked out and then calmly asked the guy with a camera next to me to zoom in on the helmet of the one who hit me. Now I had his badge number.

Moments later, everybody on the street was pushed by cops on all sides, yelling, pushing, whacking people with clubs. In the end, around 200 of us were kept kettled from 8pm until 11pm. During this time, at 8:47pm, the Montréal police tweeted that they were going to arrest us. Around 9pm, they told us officially that they were arresting us for contravention of a municipal by-law. Among us were tourists, people on their way to meet friends for supper, teenagers exiting the library, and demonstrators – all declared guilty without due process for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nobody was ever read their rights. Over the next two hours, they took us one by one, handcuffed us with our hands behind our backs, frisked us, searched our belongings, transported us on city buses driven by city bus drivers to the Operation Centre-East at the extreme north-east end of Montréal. Here, we were again taken one by one, identified, and photographed. Told to stand against a brick wall with my hands tied behind my back, cops on each side to hold my “information sheet,” while a third took pictures. And then I was told to turn around and face the wall, all while still handcuffed. I was given a ticket for $146. A bus dropped the lucky ones of us at a metro after midnight just in time for the last train. Other people were released at seemingly random spots in the city after 1am when the metro had closed.

Since I awoke in anger the following day, I’ve been calling media outlets and politicians, trying to speak for myself and others who are unable to for whatever reason. For the most part, my voice has been a lonely one. Is it any surprise? How do you write down a badge number while you’re being beaten or pepper-sprayed?

Removing One’s Own Gag

This event took place one month into Québec’s student strike. In the weeks since, the police have beaten and arrested countless individuals, both enforcing unjust laws and unjustly enforcing laws that pertain to everyday life. This week alone (April 16-22), over 300 people were arrested in student strike protests and protests against the Plan Nord.  Rarely, though, are the individuals who are arrested and/or abused by the police ever asked – in the media, at least – about their experience. The result has been to create an echo chamber where the voice of authority is definitive and just.

Since I was the target of random police violence, I’ve realized that my voice was one of very few in the media other than the voice of authority. Clips from a CBC television interview were used in a report on The National, the public broadcaster’s national news program. Joining me in describing what had happened were the mayor (disgusted with the violence on the part of protesters), the chief of police (proud of his officers who have a very physically demanding job), and the president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (explaining that this is all very normal).

In the weeks since this all happened, I’ve only had the chance to speak with two of the people who were kettled and arrested with me. One of them, a 50-something ex-con who marches against police brutality every year because he’s been a target of it repeatedly, had not previously spoken with anybody about his experience that night. His silence, and our collective silence is a problem. That said, the way police violence in Québec tends to be spoken about is a problem, too. All of us – citizens, activists, government, police – repeatedly buy into an Us vs. Them dichotomy, each side standing proudly beside their version of the truth, of justice, of what is right.

Unique Conditions for Change

With a convergence of social movements in Québec today, we have the opportunity to bring about radical social change, to use police violence against itself as a driver of social change. It is obvious that our society is demanding changes in other domains: 200,000 in the streets to support the student movement; 35,000 for a family-oriented student movement march; 300,000 for Earth Day. We’ve become accustomed to speaking out about these injustices. The more we speak out about police violence, the better we will get at speaking about it. For now, though, it remains taboo. For now, we cling to a narrative where the presumed-guilty are regularly abused by a set of people who, thanks to their professional function, are of a purportedly higher ethical class. Cops versus students, cops versus activists, cops versus anarchists. We need to get beyond these tired patterns and humanize what is really going on, begin to understand each other as brothers, sisters, neighbours, children, parents, grandparents. In a democratic state, these police are my police, our police, and also our neighbours, and we should be able to do something about they way they act. We need to reconcile and repair.

This Concerns You

I think many, if not most, people ignore things like this. I know I did. Pressed with too many other responsibilities and having been active in the previous two student strikes (in 2009 and 2005), I’d decided to sit this strike out.  I wanted to get out of the way before the situation got violent.  I saw cops harassing people but kept going on my way, “urgent” everyday things to attend to. Not my business. Not your problem. But it is.

The Montréal police can, by law, declare any public assembly a “risk to the peace of the public domain” and proceed to arrest anybody in the vicinity for the simple crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is thanks to Montréal city by-law P-6, article 2. One not need even be a participant. How many thousands of us have been swept up in random dragnet mass arrests in the past 40 years? How many people have been whacked by a policeman’s truncheon for no good reason and have been unable to do anything about it?

Talk with your friends and family, bring the shame and fury of police violence out into the open like any other sort of abuse. If we begin to call it what it is, violent abuse rather than proper procedure, we may be able to start a real conversation about how to change things. Otherwise, they are bound to remain the same.

Originally from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Evan Light has called Montréal chez lui since 1995. Active in community radio for close to 20 years, Evan is a PhD student in communication at the Université du Québec à Montréal where he does research on the radio spectrum and participatory democracy. His current projects are learning to fish, farm and forage and fight back.