If you walked up to a police officer and punched that officer in the face, would you expect retaliation? By law, committing an act of violence against the Service de police de la ville de Montreal (SPVM) is a crime which demands a serious response.
If you can’t punch a cop in the face, why would it be ok to throw placards and other objects at one?
Such is the leap in logic made by those who supported this past Monday’s “We are all McGill” protest. Billed as a collective moment of reflection about the “shocking presence” of riot police on McGill’s campus, Monday’s meeting was a textbook peaceful protest.
What was not a peaceful protest was last Thursday’s event, which led to the deployment of riot police so decried by Monday’s protesters. As a friend once said to me, if people don’t want riot police on campus, maybe they shouldn’t riot.
Debate about the nature of police tactics has spiraled into claims of “brutality” and “oppression”. Little to no effort has been made to understand why police did what they did. Let me attempt to do that now.
Accounts of the fifth floor occupation of the James Administration building differ. In a letter to The McGill Daily, occupiers claimed that they were non-violent. In an email to the McGill community, Heather Munroe-Blum claimed that the occupiers “forced their way from a reception area outside the offices of the Provost and the Principal, pushing staff in the process.”
Either account may be the correct one. There may be elements of truth in both. No matter what actually happened, it is understandable that McGill Security called the police. Occupying a building is an inherently hostile act. McGill Security had no idea of the intentions of the protesters, and no one wants to trust the safety of staff to fate.
The Daily reports that occupiers contacted allies by phone, asking for support. The result was a crowd of about 200 students around James Administration. They formed a human chain around the building, effectively preventing staff from leaving. This amounts, in my view, to forcible confinement, a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada. The crowd thus demonstrated its willingness to break the law.
Daily coverage further describes twenty police officers on bicycles entering the scene. They worked to clear protesters away from the entrance of James Administration, as the law mandates them to do. In my view, they were attempting to open a path into the building both for police to enter and for trapped employees to leave.
This is where things get out of hand.
Protesters attack the bicycle cops. Placards and other objects are thrown, eventually necessitating a police retreat from the area.
This was the right decision. Twenty officers with bicycles had no hope of controlling a crowd of 200, especially a crowd that had shown a propensity for violence.
Once a peaceful protest turns violent, I believe police are justified in switching tactics to riot control. This is especially true when a violent crowd barricades a building filled with employees. Undoubtedly, one of the police officers on the scene called in about the situation, and someone in command made the decision to deploy riot police. Police brutality involves the intentional use of excessive force. A fair observer cannot say that is the case here. Police did their jobs – they secured the safety of those in James Administration, and they dispersed a crowd that had committed violence against the lawful SPVM. They did so with minimal injuries to protesters.
Instead of asking about police tactics, I have a better question. Protesters attacked cops, barricaded a building, and got away without being held accountable for their crimes. Who will hold these demonstrators to just standards of lawful behaviour?
Brendan Steven is a U3 Political Science student and co-founder of the Prince Arthur Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org