The 14th annual march marking the International Day Against Police Brutality culminated in the arrests of dozens of protesters, journalists, and bystanders in the east-end Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighbourhood on Monday.
The protest left Pie-IX metro station at 5:45, where hundreds had gathered with police supervising and a helicopter hovering overhead. The Collective Against Police Brutality (COPB), which organized the march, chose the meeting location for its significance as a target of systemic social profiling.
“For the past several years, police repression has increased in Hochelaga,” read a COPB press release. “Not content with chasing the homeless, street youth and sex workers from downtown, the police has also increased their operations in those neighbourhoods where the marginalized have been displaced.”
Demonstrators carried signs demanding justice for Fredy Villanueva, the 18-year old Montreal North resident who was shot by police officer Jean-Loup Lapointe in 2008. The coroner’s inquest into Villanueva’s death is ongoing.
“La police, assassins / justice pour les victims,” the crowd chanted.
According to Sergeant Ian Lafrenière of the Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM), the protest was declared an illegal assembly at 6:05 after confrontation with black bloc demonstrators who hurled fireworks at police and horses and were later found to have rocks in their backpacks. The police then declared the protest illegal over megaphone.
Hasan Zemboe, a youth concealing most of his face with a handkerchief, carried a symbolic staff and identified himself as a victim of police brutality.
“I was unfairly arrested, and they hit me several times with their batons,” he said. “I found a lawyer, but he didn’t press charges. I am here because I want the SPVM to be accountable.”
At 6:20, officers in riot gear broke up the main body of the protest and encircled a large group of people against a building on Prefontaine, where dozens were arrested and loaded onto three City buses over the next hour.
Local journalist and activist Stefan Christoff, who was arrested at the same demonstration in 2002, argued that the police use this tactic to stifle criticism.
“We were encircled simply just for protesting. If we can’t protest, what kind of society are we living in?” said Christoff.
“My feeling, just seeing the police everywhere [is that] they’re on the offensive, to intimidate people from critiquing publicly, from rejection of [police] violence and shooting deaths that are totally unacceptable.”
Seventeen demonstrators were charged with criminal offenses including mischief, assaulting police, gun possession, and possession of Molotov cocktails.
Arrests took place at other locations as well.
Manon Goulet, an older woman from Montreal, stood by as her sister was put into a police van at the Pie-IX metro station around 8 p.m.
“She never did anything. We were walking down the street and they grabbed her,” Goulet said.
Squatter Andy, a Montreal activist and squatter who helped found CKUT’s Homelessness Marathon, explained that any groups protesting for social change in Montreal would encounter police action.
“I manifest more for social, decent affordable homes than I do for anything else… but don’t forget there have been many, many arrests fighting for land, fighting for homes, low-cost decent affordable housing,” said Andy.
“So no matter what action that we do, whether it’s this action today or a homelessness marathon action, there’s always police there. Sometimes they provoke us, and there ends up being a lot of arrests. By doing this, we’re voicing our opinions.”
COPB organizers have accused officers of sabotage and of instigating violence while undercover.
Sophie Sénécal, a spokesperson for the COPB, told the CBC that police arrested the group’s communications coordinator in a deliberate move to interfere with their plans.
“That deprived us of our main means of communication with protesters…. I was called a bloody organizer, and police called some protesters ‘dirty punks,’” she told the CBC.
Lafrenière defended the tactics used by the SPVM to subdue the protest.
“We have a planned strategy that does not exclude undercover officers. Our goal is to make sure everything goes fine and nobody is hurt,” he said.
Sonia, a protester from the march, said that she thought the focus on property damage was missing the point.
“Violence being the language that’s used in the system, why are some people allowed to use it and others not?”
Tenor sax player “J-S” of the Chaotic Insurrection Ensemble remained in Parc Raymond-Prefontaine after some of his bandmates had fled in fear of arrest since many of them do not have Canadian citizenship.
“When dealing with police brutality, you don’t choose which day you’ll be a victim. Today is the one day we gather in protest,” said J-S.
Christoff explained that the marchers were protesting what they see as systemic problems.
“I think, broadly, in Montreal, there’s a rejection of the idea of police impunity, the reality of police impunity. It’s not only Fredy Villanueva, it was also Mohammed Bennis, who was shot in the morning outside of a mosque in Côte-des-Nieges.”
The United Nations Human Rights Commission has criticized the use of arbitrary mass arrests, which has been used specifically at this protest for many years.
A 2005 UN report noted that Montreal police have arrested almost 2,000 protestors since 1999 – more than any other Canadian police force.
“The State party should ensure that the right of persons to peacefully participate in social protests is respected, and ensure that only those committing criminal offences during demonstrations are arrested,” the report says.
– with files from Dan Smith