Student protests were marred by violence Monday afternoon after a long day of angry exchanges between students peaked with a physical confrontation between students and the riot police.
People from all walks of life as they converged in front of the Hall Building downtown to protest a scheduled speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Although the demonstration was to begin at 10 a.m., protesters began gathering an hour early in the shadow of a strong police presence. Most were pro-Palestinian students and members of the community upset that the right-wing Netanyahu was allowed to speak at the University.
“Mr. Netanyahu is recognized, by Israelis themselves, as being an enemy of the peace process,” explained Claire Doran, a Christian who supports the peace process. “We don’t believe that it is legitimate that be comes to speak here. He is not welcome.”
On Bishop St., those who had tickets to the event began to gather outside, waiting to pass through the extensive security checks. They had a much different view on the situation and the uproar it was causing.
“I think that it is terrible that every time we have a speaker here they bring out all their flags,” said Erik Dayan, a Concordia student. “When they have speakers, we don’t come and protest.”
As the morning wore on, tensions rose between groups of Jewish and pro-Palestinian students. After an hour of much flag waving and standing around, the protesters marched to Bishop St. where many ticket holders were still waiting outside.
As both groups merged, police in full riot gear stood guard outside a fenced-off perimeter. Scuffles broke out as chants of “Free! Free! Palestine!” and “Netanyahu Assassin!” were met with anger and disgust by ticket holders.
The situation escalated when a group of four Jewish ticket holders were attacked while trying to leave an area close to the epicentre of the protest. “They attacked us, they took my kippah and kneed me in the testicles,” exclaimed a shaken Gabriel Riff. “That is not acceptable behavior for anyone, I mean, this is Canada!”
Although several of the protest’s organizers pleaded with the crowd to sit and hold peaceful demonstrations, as Netanyahu’s arrival time drew closer those pleas fell on deaf ears.
Students mobilized around all entrances to the Hall Building, preventing access, while about 150 students congregated inside on the Mezzanine and first floor escalators in hopes of preventing the speech from taking place.
As the police contained the crowd indoors, a protester kicked in one of the front windows of the building. Riot police responded with pepper spray, sending bystanders and protesters alike scrambling for fresh air.
As demonstrators inside the building began throwing projectiles from the second floor, the riot police confronted them with physical force and tear gas.
“The riot cops pushed everyone up the stairs where there were already lots of people,” said a 20-year-old English Literature student, who didn’t want to be named. “People started throwing some chairs and at least one table and that’s when the cops sent the gas up.”
Shortly after, Concordia Vice-Rector Michael Di Grappa announced to the crowd that Netanyahu’s speech had been cancelled for security reasons. The news was greeted with cheers. Those waiting in the auditorium were crushed.
Five students were arrested in connection with the protest. The Hall Building remained closed for the remainder of the afternoon and classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.
As the crowd dissipated, worried students could be heard speaking to one another, fearful that the day’s events had set the tone for yet another controversial year at Concordia University.