On Monday and Tuesday of this week, students in faculties of UQAM and UdeM (the two largest French universities in Montreal) who had voted to continue their strike, attempted to enforce their democratically voted mandate. They did so by disrupting the few classes anyone showed up to in faculties that remained on strike, with noise.
Many wore masks, not because they were hooligans bent on property damage (in fact none was reported), but because they feared the stiff fines of Law 12 (formerly Bill 78) which could be levied on them for maintaining picket lines.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. If you want to return to class, rally the support of your fellow students to vote down the strike mandate in a General Assembly (as happened at AFESH-UQAM on Wednesday). If turnout is low, then do something about it, and get students who agree with you to show up. That's how democracy works. It's hard work, harder than simply ignoring the will of your fellow students, but it's how the system works and it must be respected. For more on this read the English translation of an excellent letter by a striking student which appeared in Quebec daily Le Devoir .
From all reports, the number of students who wanted to attend classes this week was minimal. They were far outnumbered by the students who attended GA's and set up picket lines.
At UdeM, police were called onto campus to respond to the terrible threat of casseroles and noise. At UQAM, the administration pointed out that they would only call police onto campus if there was a threat of violence. Since there was none, they refused to call police to enforce Law 12.
At UdeM the administration tried to bar media from entering the campus, and several journalists live-streaming the proceedings for CUTV suffered minor injuries as they were manhandled by Montreal police. Many students also suffered injuries, but hey, they deserved it, they were making noise!
At UQAM classes were cancelled for a much simpler reason than picket lines or noisy students. No one showed up. At UdeM, the administration cancelled classes for the entire week, and acknowledged they may have made a mistake in barring media and calling police onto their campus. The decision to allow police onto campus has been denounced by the professor's union and seventeen student associations  who called for the resignation of UdeM's rector. The Quebec Press Council  even came out with a highly critical article about the actions of the UdeM administration and police.
On Wednesday, a manif-action was called for 11 AM at Emilie-Gamelin square, the hub of student protests throughout this year. It was called to denounce to the so-called "electoral truce" many associations had opted for in suspending their strikes to await the outcome of the provincial election on September 4th.
Between a hundred and a hundred and fifty protesters showed up in response to the call for what we anglos would describe as a "direct action." Many wore masks, to avoid being identified and charged or fined.
The noisy, boisterous but entirely peaceful march set off around 11:30, and gleefully wove an unpredictable path towards downtown. I had met up with the CUTV crew earlier that morning, as they held a well covered press conference to denounce the treatment of their journalists at UdeM. I tagged along with them as they live streamed this demonstration.
After periodic spurts of running, we finally arrived at the unannounced destination for the action, the downtown Omni Hotel building on Sherbrooke. In addition to the hotel, it houses the Montreal Economic Institute (a right-wing think tank), the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, and the consulates of Chile and Columbia, both countries where there are also mass student movements for free education.
Protesters moved quickly to block off all entrances to the building, allowing those inside to leave, while physically blocking the path of anyone attempting to enter the building. At the front entrance they moved some construction fencing and a port-a-potty to block access, but it should be noted that there was no vandalism committed, at least that I saw.
At the side entrances, a frustrated businessman attempted to force his way through the line of students, and got fairly physical in his attempts to push through the passively resisting students. He finally left, but not before swearing a blue streak and shoving another protester on the street.
Which brings us the most notable moment of the day, at least so far as its impact on social networks. From where I was standing, by the second set of doors, my attention was drawn up the street to a man in a three piece suit who was loudly yelling at protesters, and who proceeded to give them the finger. He continued to give the finger to protesters as he walked down the street towards me, and I scrambled to get out my phone, which I did in time to catch the photo attached to this article.
That photo proceeded to go viral, attracting over a thousand shares on Facebook and hundreds of retweets on Twitter. For many it seemed to encapsulate the archetypal struggle between affluent looking businessman and masked protester.
The suit wearing man in the photo was later identified as Michael Citrome, a tax lawyer and former Montreal Mirror columnist. To say he wasn't thrilled with the attention would be an understatement. Rabble got in touch to get his side of the story surrounding a photo he argues "lacks context."
"I live downtown, and I was on my way to Cheap Thrills, an independent record store, to buy some Reggae records. I've been jeered before many times for my appearance, and this time I lost my cool."
According to Citrome, he was walking down the sidewalk when two protesters wearing masks blocked his path. As he tried to push past them, they called him names, which he summarized as being referred to as a "fat capitalist," and one of the masked protesters spat on him, twice.
"[In the photo] I look like some kind of cartoon plutocrat, but that's not who I am. I don't agree with the protesters on tuition, but on a lot of the other issues they're raising I agree wholeheartedly. I have a lot of friends working on indy projects, I give them legal advice and I never send a bill. I'm involved with non-profits. I'm thirty-two, I make a modest salary, I don't have gobs of money, I work extremely hard and I have a lot of student debt."
"I've had it with being stereotyped on the basis of my appearance. I stand up to bullies, I was bullied all my life, because of my weight. Old habits die hard. When someone tries to block my path and intimidate me by insulting me, I stand up to them. If someone spits on me or hurls obscenities I won't cower, I don't know why there's a perception I ought to. I'm not the one wearing a mask. I feel that I was robbed of my dignity."
Citrome is also concerned with some of the reactions the photo has generated online. A paste document was created listing the email and phone number of both he and his wife, CAQ candidate Angely Pacis, and encouraging people to harass them. Its author also felt the need to point out his religion (he's Jewish), something he says has popped up online before when he is criticized. Thankfully the paste document was roundly denounced, and the fake twitter account which created it suspended almost immediately thanks to numerous users reporting it. Nevertheless, it should go without saying that such a reaction to his giving the finger to protesters is fundamentally unacceptable on every level.
If his path down the sidewalk was blocked, and he was spit on, as he says, then the protesters involved were no doubt wrong to do so. But he reacted inappropriately, and that fact can't be ignored. As the old saw goes, two wrongs don't make a right.
I suggest that as a lawyer, and a former journalist, he should have known better than to give a few hundred people the finger in front of a flock of journalists. I point out that it was entirely predictable that someone would take a photo.
"You scapegoated me without context. You didn't mention who I was or what I was doing there. You could have come and asked me why I was giving them the finger and I would have told you."
I point out that he disappeared almost immediately, and that photos, by their very nature, tend to lack context. He's been talking a lot about his inclination to stand up to bullies, but hasn't suggested that he bears any responsibility for his own actions. So I ask him if he would do it again, if placed in the same circumstances.
After several tries to get an answer to the question, he snaps that it's a loaded question, which he won't answer. "I wouldn't want to be in those circumstances again, I'm embarrased by what happened, but I don't want to be bullied. The photo was very out of context."
The bottom line? He's no fat cat capitalist, and he does not deserve any kind of harassment or targeting for what was a minor incident. That said, to my mind, he should have known better than to react in the way he did.
As for the protest, after around an hour of blockading the building, protesters abruptly left to continue marching. A short while later, as the police announced their intention to start making arrests, the protest abruptly dispersed at the corner of St. Catherine and St. Laurent, with protesters melting into the surrounding crowd.