Features  Pepper spray and milk

Steve Eldon Kerr remembers how November 10 dissolved into violence

A few times a week, I slip on a red polo and a red cap emblazoned with the McGill logo and work a short shift in a McGill dining hall serving other McGill students. Sometimes I don’t even bother to change out of the shirt when I go to the library, and I end up in McLennan, wearing my red shirt, staring at the sticker notifying me that this is a graduate student’s carrel, which itself is thoughtfully displayed alongside another small McGill logo, lest I somehow forget where I am. McGill dominates my life. It is where I study and where I work, but also where I relax with friends and occasionally get drunk.

So it was quite a surprise to find myself sitting in a McGill dining hall, rubbing milk all over myself to try and take the sting out of the mask of pepper spray I was wearing. (Milk, it turns out, does the trick far better than soap and water.) That night, November 10, McGill had dominated me in a new way.

The day began unassumingly. A march against tuition hikes, peaceful and even joyous, crowded the streets near campus. I joined up with the McGill contingent a little late, around 1:30, as they walked down Ste. Catherine towards the Berri/UQAM metro stop. By the time I arrived, we numbered roughly a thousand people. Our ranks swelled when we were joined by about two hundred MUNACA members. I saw many people at the march who I hadn’t seen before at McGill protests, and everyone seemed pleasantly surprised by the turnout, especially given the day’s gloomy weather. As we marched, we encountered frequent cheers of support from passersby and sung a range of songs in both English and French. At one point, a Francophone student organizer, who had seen the full scope of the Concordia congregation I’d somehow wandered into, gleefully uttered into his walkie-talkie, “mec, j’ai un vraiment fukton d’anglophones ici.”

As the march of 20,000 students crawled its way back to McGill College, the crowd was in good spirits. I had heard vague plans to move the protest up to the James Administration building to increase awareness amongst McGill students of the tuition raise, but I knew nothing about an occupation. When the march reached the Roddick Gates, I told the people I was with that I was going to a friend’s house on Aylmer to change my rain-sodden shoes. I asked them to let me know if the protest moved before I got back.

On my way to the house, I passed about 10 police on horseback cantering down Sherbrooke. Less than a minute later, a group of police on bicycles passed by the same way. A friend I was with joked about how much better it would be to be a horse-cop than a bike-cop, which probably sums up the genial mood we were in, and how unthreatening we found the police.

About half an hour later (at 4:42 p.m., in fact – I know exactly what time, thanks to my cellphone), as I was tying the laces on a pair of borrowed black sneakers, I got a call from a friend telling me to come quickly to James. I assumed it had something to do with the protest.

My friend and I ran to campus just in time to see the bike police cycling away from the Milton Gates. We saw some friends in a group of people that had formed a human chain around James. My friends beckoned to us to join them. We linked arms right in front of the building’s main doors and asked what had happened. One of my friends told the story of the occupation – how a group of students had made their way into Principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s office, had been treated roughly by security, and then had texted friends, asking them to congregate in front of James.

Just then, I looked over my shoulder and saw about fifty police in full riot gear filing through the Milton Gates in a narrow column. My friend suggested we leave, but he and I remained in the chain.

Something about the scene below was perfectly cinematic: the orange glow of street-lamps dimly lit the square as raindrops bounced off the steel-toed boots of the riot police. For a nice, middle-class boy who has always been taught that the police are the good guys who protect me from danger, the situation carried a hint of unreality.

It was jarring, then, to see police move up the hill towards James. As they came near me, their riot gear came into focus. Some of the police were carrying what looked like rubber-bullet guns. They all had pepper-spray cans that looked like bullhorns fastened to their hips. They wore plastic visors on their black helmets. As they approached, they beat their shields with their batons.

The sound of riot police beating their shields is much louder than I had expected – it produces a terrifying rap-rap-rap sound, like gunfire. On TV, the camera is typically far removed from the action, and the sound is dimmed so the reporter can be heard. But in reality, you have to remind yourself that it is only plastic hitting plastic, despite 10,000 years of evolution imploring you to run.

As the lines formed and the police advanced, one word was uttered more frequently than any other: “don’t”. “Don’t throw,” “don’t grab,” “don’t push,” “don’t punch.” Sometimes we shouted these words at the cops, and sometimes we said them to each other. I saw a young man throw a piece of candy in a pink wrapper at the riot police, an attempt at irony – but even before it fell, protestors were chastising him for inflaming the situation.

As the police approached, some people retreated towards the Ferrier building, but many more linked arms and faced the police. I was still piled up against the front door of James with my friends, but other protestors formed a line perpendicular to the building to face the riot police. It had become us against them, and I didn’t even know most of the people on my side.

Some of the protestors had clearly been in situations like this before; they covered their noses and grabbed water bottles. Other,  more inexperienced people like me left their eyes and noses badly exposed. But then, standing near the doorway of the James building, I didn’t expect to see pepper spray.

The pepper spray came, though, and pretty indiscriminately too. The first person I saw sprayed was standing near me. Before I’d felt it on my eyes, I felt it on my cheeks and down my throat. The word “pepper” is misleading. You might think it is like a really hot curry: deadly on the eyes, but tame against the skin. It is not. It feels toxic. My first reaction was to cough, but the spray stuck firmly to the inside of my throat. I grabbed a water bottle that someone had offered me and took several deep gulps, but the particles were still there, fiery against my skin. My cheeks simultaneously itched and burned. I wanted to scratch, but scratching only made it worse. Still, at that point, I wouldn’t say that I’d been pepper sprayed.

I only had to wait a couple of minutes to earn my battle scars. I had ended up on the very edge of a huddle close to the police line. The group was tightly packed to reduce the angles from which we could be sprayed. To the right of me was a good friend. A cop leaned over our shoulders with a can of pepper spray; we turned our heads away in opposite directions. A second later, the same cop shoved his can between our linked arms and sprayed upwards at our faces. My friend was his primary target, or at least got hit with more pepper spray, but I’m not sure if the cop was particularly concerned who he hit. In any case, he got me pretty badly too. Now I really had been pepper sprayed. It fucking hurt.

At first, the only thing you can do is close your eyes. I shut mine tight and stumbled around to the far side of the group, around the door, away from the action. Someone started pouring water over my face. I had to kneel so they could get it into my eyes. It felt as if my eyeballs were swelling up and about to pop out of their sockets, with my eyelids straining to keep them in. I’m not sure how long it was until I could open my eyes again, but as soon as I could, I moved back to the front of the line.

My vision was still blurry and my eyes still burned, but I was over the initial shock. I soon formed part of a group that sat down in front of the police. It was only when my ass was soaked in an inch of water that I remembered it was raining. I half-jokingly muttered to my friend that we should come back and do this in the summer. A cop who was patrolling behind the line of shields came close to me and leaned over the line of police. I buried my face in my scarf and turned away. I must have looked pathetic. I was too scared of being hit with more pepper spray to risk looking at a cop. Egyptians and Syrians who stare down bullets for their cause are much braver than me. Still, I had no intention of moving.

The police refused many polite requests to speak in English. They didn’t say much to us, but what they did say was mostly in French. The only sentence I heard clearly enough to understand was spoken to a guy next to me, asking him to chuck the wooden part of his sign away. The man didn’t understand, but a girl on the other side of him quickly grabbed the wood and pushed it towards the police so they could kick it behind their lines.

It all amounted to a mounting sense of injustice among the protestors – people who had been pepper sprayed and who were sitting down on their own campus were still prepared to hand back batons to the police who refused to speak English on a predominantly English-speaking campus. Yet the police intimidation did not stop, and that kept us sitting down. We did not want to be intimidated out of our right to peacefully protest. It had nothing to do with tuition anymore, and everything to do with the way the situation was being handled. We wanted to do everything we could do to remain peaceful without acquiescing to police demands. The whole point had become to stay where we were, to peacefully dissent in the face of violence.

But we couldn’t manage to stay put. The police had started using their batons to jab people in the chest. I got it between my shoulder and chest, a painful and unsettling spot. The baton met a tendon just beneath my shoulder, and the force of it pushed my head backwards so that I hit the feet of the people behind me. At this point, our line had begun to fracture – people were standing up and moving back. During this, a police officer pointed behind us and said, in English, “look over there, why don’t you go and help your friends.” He was trying to trick us into moving.  A few minutes later, when the last of us did stand up, I was hit very hard on my calf by another baton.

With their rubber bullets and tear gas, the police could have had us all face down in a puddle in seconds. They didn’t, of course, but given such power it was obvious we were not going to fight, and so their violence was gratuitous. Their presence ensured the safety of everyone, but their use of force ensured injury. For the first time in my life, I had some idea of what it is to be helpless in the face of the law. We knew we could not win, and we knew we must not fight, but we were going to resist. It didn’t feel like a choice. When your voice is silenced, your body is all you have to leave a mark. I didn’t understand that before.

The group of protestors had started to splinter. Some people had run down the stairs of the amphitheatre while others had moved around the corner of James. I saw a group try unsuccessfully to get into Ferrier. The police sensed their opportunity, and, having pushed us around the top corner of the amphitheatre, they charged at us. Every one of us turned and ran in different directions. I ran towards the entrance of the Arts building, and ended up cut off from my friends, who fled down the stairs of the amphitheatre. The police were well trained for situations like this; their charge quickly split us up into smaller groups and effectively ended the protest.

Alone, I ran up the stairs of the Arts building and asked the security guard to let me in to wash my face. He barely acknowledged my presence. Given the obvious pain I was in, I was frustrated, if not  surprised.

As I descended the Arts building steps, I saw another forty or so riot police moving up from the Y-intersection. I had no desire to be caught in the middle of another confrontation, so I walked to the Leacock building. On my way, I passed a girl who told me that I could get treatment in Leacock. When I arrived at the doors, attempting to enter, security again met me with a blank stare of refusal. I later learned the treatment area had been set up in the SSMU building, but misinformation spreads quickly during confusion.

It was just before 5:30 at that point, and I remembered that I had to get to work. The riot police I saw from the steps of the Arts building had moved to the Milton Gates. The situation seemed to have calmed, and I reasoned that I could walk up to the BMH cafeteria through the campus road that runs parallel to University.

When I rounded the top of the amphitheatre, I was surprised at the chaos that remained. The largest group of protestors were now being forced out of the Milton Gates by around 100 riot police. I saw police indiscriminately pepper spraying the front line of protestors as they beat them back. Two plumes of smoke rose near the Milton Gates. I didn’t know at the time that the plumes were tear gas.

It was impossible to distinguish between protestors and bystanders, and given the high police presence around the doors to the McConnell  Engineering building and the clouds of toxic chemicals, I’m not surprised bystanders were subjected to violence.

I asked a police officer to let me walk up to BMH through campus. He told me to wait a couple of minutes, and then, after about forty riot police had charged out the Milton Gates, sweeping protestors out in the process, he let me walk up.

And so I found myself in the changing room at BMH, naked from the waist up, pouring a glass of milk on my face. I slipped on my red McGill polo, and started answering calls from people who remained outside. My friends were bruised, but okay, and had reconvened in BDP to hear each others’ stories over pitchers of cheap beer – a normal Thursday evening, except that our eyes were bloodshot about 12 hours earlier than usual.