Commentary  Journalists have a responsibility to critique police brutality

content warning: Police brutality, violence, abuse

On March 15, 200 to 300 people gathered in the streets of Montreal for the annual anti-police brutality march. In previous years the march, organised by the Collectif Opposé à la Brutalité Policière, has experienced varying levels of violence at the hands of police. Although there were no arrests in the 2016 and 2017 protests, the 2018 march was violently shut down by the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM), with three demonstrators arrested and one hospitalized. In spite of clear evidence of police violence, public coverage has portrayed protesters as vandals and given priority to the SPVM’s narrative. Not only does this coverage project a one-sided view of these occurrences, but it also perpetuates inaccurate reflections in the media of civilians and activists facing police brutality.

After reports of property damage, police in riot gear escalated the situation, ordering the crowd to disperse and employing tear gas and pepper spray to scatter protesters. Demonstrators reported that police officers attempted to kettle the crowd — forcefully confining people to a small, restricted area as a form of crowd control and intimidation. After failing in this, the police instead charged protesters and attacked them while armed with batons. Injuries were numerous. A photographer was pushed to the ground by an SPVM officer, and another officer slammed a protestor into a car. Amongst the injured, one person was hospitalized, which the police claim was the result of being hit by a demonstrator’s “projectile.” However, eyewitnesses and a video recording show that they were in fact struck by a police baton.

Every year, Montreal’s anti-police brutality march focuses on one central theme within the overarching topic of police brutality. This year’s march was centered around Quebec police officers’ seeming complicity with the Quebec far-right. This past November, La Meute, a far right anti-Islam hate group, planned a demonstration outside of a convention centre in Quebec, which was hosting a major policy meeting of the governing Quebec Liberal party. Anti-fascist counter-protesters, outnumbered by far-right protesters, were met with tear gas in an effort to “keep the sides apart.” Meanwhile, police protected La Meute organizers against anti-fascist counter-protesters. Later, the police went as far as to praise La Meute and other far-right and anti-Islam groups that were at the protest for their cooperation.

The SPVM’s actions get little to no mainstream coverage as is, with the exception of articles like Montreal Gazette’s “Maybe we should cut the police some slack,” published on March 18, 2018. The article trivializes critiques of the SPVM, asserting that jaywalking and parking tickets constitute Montrealers’ biggest frustrations with the police. This article and others like it grossly overlook daily instances of racial profiling, harassment of marginalized communities, and Quebec police forces’ apparent complicity with the far-right.

Few Quebec journalists have addressed the violence perpetrated by the police, and the role they play in supporting the far-right. Journalists have a responsibility to question institutions that wield power, like the police, and yet, since long before last week’s anti-police brutality march, Montreal and Quebec journalists have failed to do so.