"This is approaching absurdist comedy," tweeted Montreal Gazette reporter Christopher Curtis Friday night, trapped in a police kettle from which Montreal's finest inexplicably refused to release him as his deadline approached.
"Did they really, actually arrest Anarchopanda????" replied well known Québécoise pundit Josée Legault.
Curtis never replied, no doubt caught up in extricating himself from police custody, so allow me to do so now: yes Josée, they really, actually did. Just call him Arrestopanda. At night's end the tally ran something like this: one panda, several rabbits, a few dozen journos and almost three hundred dull normals cuffed, processed and slapped with $637 fines. This after being held for hours in the cold kettles Montreal police formed around them.
An obscene over-reaction regardless of circumstance, kettling has been ruled illegal by England's High Court. In Toronto, the senior police commander who ordered protesters kettled at the 2010 G20 summit has been charged with discreditable conduct and unlawful use of authority. The Toronto Police Service have committed to never use the tactic again after an independent review found it to be unlawful. Kettling is a particularly disturbing tactic because it only works on peaceful protesters who offer little resistance, making it insidiously offensive to the concept of free speech and free assembly.
But, some would argue, once those damn kids started with the breaking of the windows and the throwing of the snowballs, what choice did the police have?
Sorry Dorothy, but we're not in Kansas anymore. The question of whether you can justify arresting hundreds of people because one or two did something objectionable is sooooo 2012.
Friday night, before the protest had even begun, and without so much as a hurtful word to serve as pretext, Montreal police descended on a crowd of protesters who were, without exception, peaceful and arrested the lot of them.
I don't go in for a lot of the alarmist stuff you see on Twitter and Facebook. I think Stephen Harper sucks, and I hate what he's done to our country, but I don't think he's a dictator or a fascist. I've always hated the SSPVM chant (the addition of an extra "s" to the name of Montreal's police service alluding to the Nazi SS) and I think such hyperbole often obscures, rather than illuminates, important issues.
So it's not for nothing that I tell you I woke this morning genuinely afraid. For the first time in my life I am afraid of what can happen to me, and to my friends and neighbors and strangers, if we exercise inalienable rights that we cannot, must not, forfeit. This is not hyperbole, it is fact, and the fact is that the world looks a great deal darker today.
How else to process the preventative arrest of 294 law abiding citizens for the sole crime of attempting to express their political views in a constitutionally guaranteed fashion? Worse, this is the third time Montreal police have moved in to preemptively arrest a protest in its entirety in the space of one week, this lovely new staple of police tactics having been trotted out at the annual anti-police brutality march on the 15th and again to pre-empt a student protest on Tuesday, when 45 people were arrested.
Last night's shameful spectacle came courtesy of Municipal By-Law P-6, the little known municipal counterpart to the universally denounced, and now repealed, Bill 78/ Law 12. The municipal bylaw shares the requirement that protests must submit their route for approval by the police 24 hours in advance. Among other goodies, it also allows Montreal's Executive Committee to prohibit any peaceful assembly indefinitely, at their discretion and without notice. It should be noted that this almost certainly unconstitutional bylaw was passed by a municipal government with all the credibility and moral authority of a turnip.
At last night's demonstration the police declared the protest illegal before it began for failing to provide a route and ordered protesters to disperse. However, they waited only seconds between giving that order and kettling protesters, giving them no chance to comply.
But don't worry, say the police, they aren't infringing on anyone's right to protest, because no such right exists.
"Starting with the last three demonstrations, we have been intervening faster," Sergeant Jean-Bruno Latour, a spokesperson for the SPVM, told La Presse. "We do not want to hold citizens who wish to go to downtown Montreal hostage. The Charter [of rights and freedoms] protects the right to freedom of expression, but there is no right to protest." [Translated from French]
This rather jaw-dropping statement raised the ire of Véronique Robert, a criminal lawyer in Montreal. Her scathing rebuttal on the website of weekly newspaper Voir titled "Fear the police, not the protests" is a delicious take down of this absurd position, and if you read French I recommend reading it in its entirety. Here's a taste:
"This screwball assertion by an officer with the Montreal Police is scary, alarming and frightening, and leads to two conclusions: first, our police urgently need more law classes as part of their training. Second, things are not at all well in Quebec right now, and that frightens me." [Translated]
Robert goes on to patiently explain that peaceful assembly and protest is an integral part of freedom of expression, without which the right cannot exist. She points out that not only is our right to protest clearly and explicitly protected by our Charter, it is also protected by every document dealing with the protection of fundamental rights in the world, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In 2005, the UN Human Rights Commission criticized, as it did again last year, mass arrests taking place in Montreal in the context of the last student strike, calling mass arrests by their very nature a violation of the right to freedom of expression. The commission called for a public inquiry into police actions, and questioned the article in the criminal code prohibiting illegal assembly.
"The state must ensure that the right to peacefully participate in a protest is respected, and that only those who have committed a criminal infraction during a protest are arrested." [Translated]
Robert concludes as follows:
"When the young, and the even younger, receive $614 [sic] tickets for participating in a public assembly, be afraid. When protest movements are bullied from the moment they are formed, be afraid. When the police detain citizens en masse for no reason, be afraid. When police conflate interrogation with arbitrary arrest for exercising a constitutional right, be afraid.
What should actually scare us, in Montreal, is the police and their totalitarian declarations. What we should fear is the state and our mode of governance. Not protesters." [Translated]
Photo: arij riahi
Strong words, but necessary ones. Robert is no wild-eyed radical, she's a criminal defence attorney, and is articulating a position shared by the vast majority of her colleagues. P-6 has been denounced by the Quebec Bar Association, representing the province's lawyers and prosecutors, and a march of lawyers against Law 12 last year drew over six hundred into the streets.
Right now, in Montreal, the very right to protest, that most fundamental right to freedom of expression, is under assault. If we give in, and stay home for fear of these preposterous tickets, we will have lost not just the battle but the war itself. Indeed, the worst part about these tactics is that they work. I know many friends who will no longer go to protests for fear of arrest and a ticket they cannot afford. What a sad state of affairs when the police bully and intimidate citizens out of exercising their right to criticize the government. So go to the demos, go to all the demos, and prove you will not let fear and intimidation win out. If you get a ticket, contest it. The legal resources to ensure you succeed are freely available. And no matter what you do, make sure to go to the demo on the 22nd of April, which I think should be branded as a manif in defence of our civil liberties. If there are enough people in the streets, the cops can't do a thing. Small crowds are what allow these abuses.
When our police force denies that we have any right to peacefully express our dissent, there is no recourse but to fight tooth and nail to protect our rights. This is far too important an issue to let slide.
Robert and I both expect legal challenges to this law, which will hopefully be struck down, but in the meanwhile I think it's time we made municipal bylaw P-6 an election issue.
Montreal has a municipal election coming up in November. With the implosion of the ruling Union Montreal party after revelations of widespread corruption, revelations which also tarnished the reputation of opposition party Vision Montreal, the election is more uncertain than any in my memory.
Over the next year any number of politicians will be asking for your vote. Any time they do, make a habit of telling them that you will only vote for a party which commits to repeal bylaw P-6. This is for all the marbles folks, our right to freedom of expression is not negotiable.
The PQ campaigned heavily on a promise to repeal the wildly unpopular Law 12, and now it's time to finish what they started. The repeal of Law 12 is a Pyrrhic victory if bylaw P-6 remains in force.
I'll close with an oldie but a goodie: If you're not outraged, then you're not paying attention.
If you are in Montreal, a major demonstration against bylaw P-6 has been organized for April 22 at 6PM, outside of City Hall. For more information or to confirm your attendance you can check out the Facebook event.