Sunday, April 22 was grey and wet.
After four physically and emotionally exhausting days in Cornwall, Ontario and Quebec City, students from York University packed up their bags and got ready to leave Laval University. They had been staying on the campus while protesting the Summit of the Americas. I had been filming these students for a couple of weeks.
A few students had decided to take some food and supplies to the jail where arrested protestors were being held. Two of the students had been released from jail the night before, and were determined to return to the prison grounds, showing solidarity with those still inside. In addition to the brutal beatings they received at the time of their arrest, they had been given poor food, kept in cramped cells and were segregated according to race. Some colleagues agreed to come along. They set out carrying boxes of organic food.
Another group of students decided to go to the downtown core and help other protestors clean up of the demonstration area.
I decided to accompany the group going to prison.
As we prepared to leave Laval University, it struck me as very odd that there was a helicopter hovering overhead. I had watched helicopters act as reconnaissance tools and command centres during the protests around the fence surrounding the summit. There, the sound of helicopter rotors had become the norm; occasionally, the noise was deafening as they hovered only a few metres above rooftops. A hovering helicopter signified a hot spot in the protests. Here, the helicopter seemed to be tracking us. I brushed this thought aside: it from being tired and slightly paranoid.
Some students came from the bus stop. They warned us that police photographers in a van were documenting people ahead. I saw the van leave from a distance.
We bought bus tickets, but there were no buses on campus. Someone called the bus company, and was told that the service wasn't being provided to the campus for security reasons.
I photographed the workers on the CBC truck packing up their television gear and getting ready to leave.
We walked. Some people were trying to figure out which direction to go in. We left the university grounds and crossed a wide street. We stood on a small dividing island. On the other side of it was a residential street. It had become quiet; the helicopter had drifted away.
Then we heard sirens and squealing tires. We looked over our shoulders to see a convoy of four vans - three white and one blue - followed by two police cruisers. They seemed to be heading in our direction. The vans suddenly split up - with one taking the small residential street and the other three remaining on the main road. It seemed to happen in slow motion. Within seconds we were surrounded.
The students had been warned a couple of days earlier that unmarked police vans were kidnapping people off the streets. Activist Jaggi Singh had been kidnapped a couple of days earlier by undercover police using a similar van. I had seen several such vans on city streets, but these ones here were clearly marked as Quebec Provincial Police vehicles.
Twenty police officers dressed in green fatigues - five from each van - jumped out and rushed the students. I managed to pull my camera out and pan across the vans. As I swung around, I found myself isolated from the students, who had rushed to form a defensive circle. The commanding officer, who looked and acted the part of a militia commander, saw me with the camera and approached. I kept calling out that I was an independent filmmaker.
I knew that the police had arrested photographers with press and security credentials; they had smashed the camera of at least one photographer, and hit another with a rubber bullet in the chest. A Mexican journalist with summit accreditation languished in jail.
Since we were to leave in a few hours, I was carrying all the tapes that I shot over the past few days. I now ran the risk of loosing all of them.
The commanding officer insisted that I put the camera away immediately, otherwise I would be arrested. It was an aggressive, hostile order. I was asked for ID. Worried about my tapes and still in shock, I forgot to give him my membership card for the Canadian Independent Film Caucus. A business card came out of my wallet. He grabbed it and mocked me for being a filmmaker.
I was told to listen carefully. I was to leave the place immediately. I was to leave Quebec. If I returned, I would be arrested. Two other officers flanked me on either side. It was an illegal act, but for me to take a stand would have meant running the very real risk of losing all my material. I decided to walk down the block. I knew I was being watched by the police cars from a distance.
I later learned that the only black student in the group had been the first person pushed to the ground. His arms were twisted behind his back and he was the only one to be handcuffed. It appears that, if you happen to be a person of colour with a dissenting political view, you better watch out - you will be targeted.
Another man had his arm twisted with a special hold and suffered from acute pain the rest of the day. The students were prepared for an encounter with the police and they refused to cooperate. They demanded to know if they were being arrested or detained and why. The police have their reason, they were told. In contravention of the Charter of Rights, their belongings were searched - even when they repeatedly said that they did not consent to the search.
Someone heard an officer say that they were angry about what had happened in the past few days. A few students started singing, led by Kim Fry. She was repeatedly told to shut up. They were told that the Charter of Rights did not matter because the Riot Act had been enforced. They refused to give their badge numbers, but some managed to write the number of a few policeman and the licence plates of the vans. The police ordered the students to cross the street. Then vans drove off at the same speed at which they had arrived.
I rejoined the group to find most of them badly shaken and shocked. The two police cars still kept watch from the corner of the street. Kim Fry gathered the group into a circle by the roadside; they sat down on the grass and sang to regain their composure. It was a small but remarkable act of defiance and strength.
Ali Kazimi is a Toronto based filmmaker. His films include Narmada: A Valley Rises (1994) and Shooting Indians (1997). His work has won numerous national and international awards and honours. He is a board member of the Canadian Independent Film Caucus.
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.