March Against Police Brutality quickly shut down, 258 arrested

There are a few certainties that come with Montreal’s annual March Against Police Brutality: there will be vandalism, there will be arrests and people will say that both protesters and police were in the wrong.

While this year’s march, the 15th of its kind, indeed offered examples of all three of those certainties, strict police tactics assured that the vandalism decreased while the number of arrests substantially rose. Two-hundred and fifty-eight individuals were arrested by police this year, according to a provisional press release from the SPVM posted the night of the event, in comparison with approximately 100 in 2010.

Of those arrested, 239 were picked up in regards to highway safety code article 500.1 concerning occupation of a roadway, a violation which brought many protesters a fine of $488, according to Sarita Ahooja of the Collective Opposed to Police Brutality, a group that organized the march. Thirteen others were arrested in regards to municipal laws and six under the criminal code according to the police statement, which also said no officer or participant was injured during police intervention.

“Despite the security measures and police presence, some isolated events triggered by a few individuals have taken place,” the release reads.

But Ahooja said the SPVM tactics themselves are an indication of the police force’s intention to sabotage the protest.

“The very fact that they arrest hundreds of people, detain them for hours, and then only end up giving them a bylaw infraction shows you the intent to sabotage and shut down the message,” she said, “which is people that are actively organizing to denounce the ongoing criminalization of poor people, of non-white people and people who have political convictions that don’t agree with the status quo.”

Ahooja, who pointed out that UN human rights committee report denounced the Montreal police in 2005 for their practice of mass arrests, also said that the arrest of a few organizers of the event before the march started, reportedly because the sticks holding their signs were too big, is another indication of the intent to sabotage it.

The SPVM shut down the March 15 protest fairly early into the march itself. As the group of around 350 to 400 people made its way from the rally point near Place des Arts up to Saint-Denis St., chanting “Police everywhere! Justice nowhere!” some vandalism did occur. A bottle was shattered on the street and a small minority of protesters, taking advantage of the street’s enormous potholes, picked up rocks and pieces of concrete, throwing them at both police and store windows in the area, damaging at least three. The SPVM officially called the demonstration illegal in response.

Within a matter of 10 or 15 minutes following the vandalism, a police line had formed ahead of protesters near Mont-Royal Ave. on Saint-Denis St. As the group marched forward, the SPVM set off gas canisters. In the rush to the sidewalk that followed few protesters noticed the line of police rushing the back, trapping a group of around 300 people between two lines of riot police.

Many of those trapped inside were shoppers or people on their way home from work. Police would not let anyone leave, including the bystanders, the media and peaceful protesters who had no involvement in the vandalism.

Every five minutes or so the police would shorten the distance between their two lines and after about 15 minutes the group of trapped individuals were squeezed into a space  around 10 metres long, by the width of Saint-Denis St.

Certain members of the police force were telling those on the sidewalk to get on the street, as were the protesters who asked that people not be afraid and reclaim their rightful public space.

After about 20 minutes, the line closed in around those on the street as the large group on the sidewalk was ushered down the block and out of sight of the remaining 200 or so stuck in that circle, the majority, if not all, of whom were later arrested.

Police on horses and a line of police without riot gear continuously forced people further away from the trapped crowd on Saint-Denis St. as buses entered the area for later transport of those who were arrested. This prompted one man to yell at police “It’s easy to take one person down when there’s six of you with batons, you fucking cops.”

One woman who said she had no part of the protest tried to enter her car on Saint-Denis St. but was squeezed up against it by the horse of a mounted police who demanded she leave the area on foot. The distraught woman screamed her explanation at the officer before a friend ushered her away.

The group that gathered outside of Place des Arts at 5 p.m. had largely dispersed, with the remaining group of onlookers struggling to catch a glimpse of those still circled by riot police, many of whom could be seen dancing and singing as they awaited their immanent incarceration.

Protesters expressed various reasons for attending. As the group gathered before the march, one protester, who refused to give their name, said they were there to “protest general police impunity and the state of policing in Montreal, which is essentially to protect the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor.” That individual held a sign reading “You can do better for us.”

Others held signs with the images of people killed by police, including a few with the image of Fredy Villanueva, who was 18 when he was shot to death by police in August 2008.

Ahooja said the Collective saw the event as an opportunity to denounce “an ongoing practice within the police forces here in Montreal that we were denouncing not only social profiling, racial profiling but political profiling.”

A former Concordia student who sported a full facial mask for much of the demonstration said the march was an important symbol of opening up public space, because those involved would not offer their route details to police. He also cited the police action at the G20 summit last year as a reason for his participation, something many others in attendance echoed. “I mean there were more people arrested at the G20 than in the first few days of the uprising in Egypt,” the protester, who did not reveal his name, said. “That’s insane.”

The protester also said “I think a bit of property damage is fine if it contributes to the bigger symbolic action.”

This year the SPVM kept up a relatively regular presence on Twitter during the march, notifying followers of which streets were closed, of where the protesters were located and of when police moved in to arrest participants.

The previously mentioned police statement requested the public’s help in gathering information, photo and video to help identify those who committed crimes during the march. The SPVM could not be reached for comment.

The COBP is also asking that people come forward if they were “detained, brutalized, encircled or arrested,” and Ahooja said they are collecting evidence to support those who are contesting the bylaw infractions. She also said the organization will be submitting a complaint to the police ethics commission.

“We’ll set the record straight,” she said.

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