On the morning of March 24, a group of roughly twenty students affiliated with Demilitarize McGill blockaded the James Administration building for approximately two and a half hours. Gathering at 7:30 a.m., the masked demonstrators obstructed all five entrances to the building, holding banners and distributing flyers to passers-by.
According to a member of Demilitarize McGill present at the scene who wished to remain anonymous, the group’s main goal was to protest austerity, while also calling attention to the military research carried out at McGill.
“We understand the fight against austerity as intrinsically linked to the fight against military research,” he explained, saying that some “[use] the excuse of education budget cuts as a way of justifying military research contracts.”
Heather, who is also involved with Demilitarize McGill and preferred to be identified only by her first name, spoke to The Daily after the demonstration. This action, she said, had been planned independently of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)’s anti-austerity mobilization committee.
“I think that by having a blockade […] rather than […] a demonstration or a protest, we were actually able to disrupt the functioning and purpose of a very specific […] building,” Heather noted.
She added that the location was important: “It was also in a highly visual […] place. We were able to give out [information] and flyers to a lot of students.”
“We understand the fight against austerity as intrinsically linked to the fight against military research.”
Over ten police vehicles and a number of campus security vehicles were stationed at various points on campus throughout the morning. Officers maintained a constant presence at the building, observing and photographing protesters.
At roughly 8:15 a.m., police approached the protesters to announce that should their action be declared illegal, they would be arrested for covering their faces. Students were also warned against any attempt to damage university property. Neither of these situations occurred, and the demonstration dispersed peacefully shortly after 10 a.m..
“There was some uncertainty as to how it would play out, [but] in terms of safety and police interaction, everything went quite smoothly,” said Heather. “It was successful in its own way, and I think on the whole, people felt pretty good about the environment we created within the blockade, and what was achieved.”
“Also […] we left on our own terms — I think that has […] a lot of power to it. We weren’t forced to disperse or leave so I think that was also empowering in its own way.”
Speaking to The Daily shortly before 10 a.m., two staff members expressed frustration at the administration’s handling of the blockade. Sandra Gibson and Ester Di Cori, both employed in the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies office, had gathered with several of their colleagues in the lobby of the McConnell Engineering building. Both had been unaware of the protest until their arrival at work that morning, and neither had received any concrete instructions on how to deal with it.
When asked about their personal views on austerity, Di Cori and Gibson were noncommittal.
“I’m not affected by it, so I don’t know what to think of it, actually,” said Gibson. “I have to look into it a little more.”
Heather responded to these comments, highlighting the importance of solidarity: “A lot of the people working at McGill or in the McGill community don’t feel the effects of austerity, and that’s why McGill in many ways doesn’t care, or hasn’t had the same response that you see across campuses all around Montreal. […] But it’s important to remember that a lot of labourers still are [affected], and employees of James Admin [are] in […] a different tier of [labour]. Because some people aren’t feeling the effects of austerity, it means that a whole other group of people are feeling [them] all the more.”
Other staff members expressed anger at the protesters themselves, with a few attempting to push their way through the blockade. Security personnel diffused these confrontations, advising frustrated employees to be patient.
Dean of Students André Costopoulos was present at the scene. Asked whether or not the students involved would face sanctions, he explained that a disciplinary officer would have to find evidence that university code had been breached.
“Blocking buildings is not something that we accept in our community,” said Costopoulos. “You can express yourself, you can demonstrate, you can pass leaflets, [but] preventing people from going about their activities is not […] a respectful form of debate.”
Despite the heavy police presence and the negative reactions of some staff members, Heather expressed satisfaction with the event.
“I think that overall, what’s important to remember about anti-austerity actions is that it’s not just about […] students making some noise. It’s part of a larger movement [against] austerity which will affect workers all over Quebec, and all […] support employees and students, so it’s very much a movement for people working everywhere.”