Hundreds of Montrealers gathered at the 13th annual anti-police brutality protest on Sunday, organized by the Coalition Opposed to Police Brutality (COPB), who intended for the demonstration to oppose the use of violence, even though the event became turbulent when protesters, onlookers, and police clashed in the late afternoon.
The protest began at 2 p.m. outside the Mont-Royal Metro station, with city police in riot gear already positioned around the square and inside the station. Many demonstrators walked to the station when an emergency break was pulled on the Orange metro line in the early afternoon, and service did not return until several hours later.
Patrick Caldwell, a supporter of the COPB, said the location was chosen because of its proximity to families and tourists, which the COPB hoped would deter violence on either side of the protest. In spite of this, some individuals still launched roman candles – a type of firework – vegetables, and glass bottles at the police.
Many participants wore masks and scarves over their faces, while others carried signs referencing Freddy Villaneuva and Annas Benis – two young men killed by the Montreal police.
When asked why they were attending the protest, many participants expressed frustration with the Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM).
“We’re all kind of sick and tired of police brutality, and just the police itself,” said one protester, who asked to remain anonymous.
Another protester, identified as Alex, admitted his reasons for joining the rowdy crowd.
“Half of me is here for a riot,” he said. “Look at [the crowd]. This isn’t how you stop police brutality. You don’t show up with signs and say, ‘Don’t [act brutally].’”
After a brief confrontation with a police blockade, much of the crowd dispersed into smaller groups, heading south down St. Denis toward Sherbrooke. Upon meeting a blockade at Sherbrooke, the groups splintered even smaller – and some broke hotel windows or lit fire to dumpsters as they moved westward along Sherbrooke.
Throughout the day, protesters were followed by at least two helicopters, and some were pelted with rubber bullets or tear gas. Around Ste. Catherine and Place des Arts, police swarmed and arrested a group of protesters and onlookers.
During one rush, several journalists were arrested – but while members of Radio-Canada and the Canadian Press were released, The Link, Concordia’s independent student newspaper, reported that two of their journalists and some from the Association des journalists independent du Quebec were held, processed, and ticketed.
Many of the individuals arrested were detained for hours before they received legal counsel or medical attention, according to Caldwell.
“A 16-year-old got brutalized [when he was] arrested by two undercover cops. They punched his head into a post and…dragged him into a building. When he was detained, they refused to let him see his mother for several hours,” he said.
At the end of the day 221 were arrested – 38 of whom received criminal charges, with the rest ticketed for infractions of municipal by-laws – and $200,000 in damages were inflicted on businesses and municipal infrastructure.
According to Caldwell, the progress of the march downtown was not what the COPB intended – and the presence of riot police around the Mont-Royal metro kept participants from leaving en masse east down Mont Royal Avenue, as was originally planned.
“Nothing we did went as we planned because of the fact that the police broke us off. We had to improvise,” Caldwell said. “By 4, or 4:30 p.m. we were at Sherbrooke. I would say that our demonstration we organized kind of crashed around 4:30 or 5 p.m. Everything that happened after that was completely out of our control.”
The SPVM, however, maintain that they were forced to improvise as well because the COPB did not submit an itinerary for the protest. Both the SPVM and Gerard Tremblay, the mayor of Montreal, publicly criticized the protest as “disorganized.”
Reflecting on March 15
COPB member Patrick Caldwell discusses thirteenth annual demonstration
Patrick Caldwell is a supporter of The Coalition Opposed to Police Brutality (COPB), an organization founded in 1994 that has held a March 15 demonstration against policy brutality for the past 13 years. COPB’s other work includes hosting popular education workshops, documenting cases of police abuse in Montreal, providing support for victims of violence, and distributing pamphlets on citizens’ rights upon arrest.
McGill Daily: The protest featured violence and vandalism. How did your organization respond to these acts?
Patrick Caldwell: [Violence is] the very focus of our organization. We mainly work to denounce police brutality, and this is a phenomenon that touches very many people – but obviously some of the people who are victims of police brutality are living on the margins society, or homeless people. They get a grudge, [and] amass frustration.
I don’t want to say these guys are the people who show up and engage in destructive behaviour, [but] obviously there are a lot of people who don’t have any other means to express their frustration. There’s never any real kind of reprimand toward police officers who don’t do work properly – so they get away with literally murder in worst cases, a lot of harassment, and daily intimidation. A lot of people show up at the demonstration with a lot of frustration and anger; some people manifest their anger in different ways, some less appropriate than others.
Unfortunately for us at COPB, it’s physically impossible to control this anger. This Sunday we made a lot of appeals for calm. We basically said we don’t encourage violence, because to some extent it does affect the work we do. The media focuses only on violence and property damage. This gives them the opportunity to side-track and completely ignore what COPB does. We don’t want violence, we don’t want to give the cops the pretext they need to resort to oppression and violence.
MD: I noticed that the police encircled the square at Mont-Royal Metro; how did that affect the demonstration?
PC: From the get-go [the police] baffled us on all sides, they stopped us all in the streets around the station. Our planned route was to take Mont-Royal east with the expectation there would be many tourists and families, [because] if people show up with destructive intents…the presence of so many people and families would deter [violent] events at least for a while, and then [we could] disperse at Metro Sherbrooke.
But the police sabotaged [it]. They blocked us from going on Mont-Royal. They are a very heavy physical presence and attitude.
MD: What happened to those arrested?
PC: There were 221 arrested: 38 were arrested with criminals charges, and the rest for infractions of municipal by-law unlawful assembly. A lot of the people ticketed were just passers-by.
I went on Sunday night to the municipal court, [and] there were several minors there. One of them is 16 years old. He got brutalized [when he was] arrested by two undercover cops. They punched his head into a post and it started bleeding right away; they dragged him into a building and not a police car or safe environment. When he was detained, they refused to let his mother see him for several hours – she had to wait for the day after. They refused to let him see a lawyer, which is also illegal. The person responsible for this operation said he didn’t have the right to do so.
Obviously hundreds of irregularities [were committed] by the police, but the legal process was surreal.
MD: Do you think the police realize that you are protesting actions they commit?
PC: They never ever recognize that they ever do anything [wrong]. Yves Francoeur, the head of the Montreal Police Brotherhood [the police union] said in an interview last August [that the] police’s work is repression, and that the police are a paramilitary organization.
[The police] never admitted to doing something wrong on Sunday, or to killing an 18-year-old man in Montreal North last August, or to killing 43 people since 1987. And all these fatalities never resulted in any kind of criminal charge to begin with, or any sort of serious reprimand. Some of the police officers involved in the shootings were suspended, but all were reintegrated in the force eventually. This is called impunity, and it’s ridiculous.
– compiled by Erin Hale