“& despite repeated warnings, authorities have long ignored the growing rift between the city’s black community and the police, both in the MUC [Montreal Urban Community] force and metro security.”
The Montreal Gazette, November 13, 1987. From an article about the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old black youth by a sixteen-year police veteran. The youth had been unarmed and was complying with police orders.
Black Youth In Action
At a February 24, 2002 press conference about the beating of 18-year-old Winston Roberts by six Montreal metro security agents in January, the activist group Black Youth in Action (BYIA) called for a public inquiry. BYIA also launched a complaint at the Human Rights Commission of Quebec. The group is further considering a lawsuit for “moral, exemplary, and material damages.”
The City of Montreal immediately responded, demanding that Montreal police investigate the incident. However, given that police were present when the Roberts beating occurred, BYIA is concerned “about the impartiality and transparency of the process.” BYIA is requesting an independent public inquiry from the Minister of Public Security.
One of the central issues in the Roberts case is the metro security profiling system. According to BYIA, metro agents use different codes to identify the race of suspected troublemakers. Blacks are classified using a delta code. Peter Flegel, BYIA co-chair feels: “& it reinforces preconceptions based on race and creates an atmosphere where race plays a role in dealing with individuals.”
According to the testimony of six witnesses, at approximately 4 p.m. on January 10, 2002, Winston Roberts (then a 17-year-old) entered Villa Maria metro to use the public telephone. Two security agents for the SociÃ©tÃ© de transport de MontrÃ©al (STM) approached Roberts. They spoke to him in French, telling him to use the phone outside. Roberts, a visitor to Montreal who does not speak French, continued talking on the phone. The agents left, returning minutes later, six strong. They repeated their demand — that Roberts use the phone outside.
Roberts responded: “I don’t understand French.”
One agent retorted: “That’s your problem.”
Roberts finished his telephone call and went to catch a bus.
The agents blocked his way and demanded his name. He asked, “Why do you want my name?” and refused to surrender personal information. Agents informed Roberts that he would be arrested for refusing to relinquish information, grabbed him, and ordered him to lie on the ground. Roberts, who has witnessed cases of brutality, resisted. Roberts later explained that beatings begin when people lie down.
Finally, pressured by six security agents, Roberts indicated that he would lie down. According to the witnesses, agents immediately brandished truncheons and beat him about his head, face, back, arms and legs.
They then attempted to handcuff him. As Roberts was wearing a puffy jacket, agents had trouble bringing his wrists together behind his back. The agents wrenched his arms, forcing his hands together, causing serious pain. According to witnesses, while Roberts lay unconscious and covered in blood, an agent remarked: “All blacks are the same.”
Winston Roberts, an exceptional student who does not have a criminal record, spent a day in hospital. Roberts’s published personal statement reads: “During the summer, I remember seeing a black youth being pepper sprayed and beaten until his face was bashed in. I have always tried to prevent these things from happening to me.” Roberts also explains his physical condition: “I have major pain all over my body. I have trouble seeing with my left eye. When I start reading, my eyesight gets blurry. That’s where I was hit with a stick & my entire body, especially my back, aches of pain. I can’t participate in sports anymore because my back, my neck, my knee hurts too much.”
BYIA has sought counselling for Roberts. The organization asked him to come to the press conference in January. The event appeared to be something of an ordeal — he appeared withdrawn and depressed. When cameras were thrust in his face, he refused to look up from the table before him. Part of Roberts’s withdrawn appearance may have come from the fact that, while half of the conference was in French, he did not have a translator.
Tension is high. When they were investigating the incident at Villa Maria metro, three BYIA members were met by twenty-five metro agents. According to BYIA, one officer commented: “We’re not scared of you.”
Though Montreal metro security agents are not allowed to make arrests, they do have to power to detain people until the police arrive. When I spoke with a transit representative, I was told that the STM is refusing to talk to media about the Roberts case while police investigate what happened. However, I was also informed that agents are free to use force to detain suspected “troublemakers” until police arrive.
No Isolated Incident
Members of Montreal’s black community have repeatedly suffered the arbitrary, malicious brutality of both police and metro security. In 1981, MUC officer Allan Gosset stopped Daniel Ochtere, a Ghanaian-Canadian who has a master’s degree in business administration. In French, Gosset threatened: “If you don’t get out of the car, damn nigger, I’ll hit you in the eye.” Ochtere, who did not understand, was confused. He opened the door. Gosset then grabbed him. A second officer immediately struck Ochtere in the face with a flashlight, breaking his nose and jaw. Ochtere was thrown on the ground, beaten, arrested and taken to Bonsecours jail.
Six years later, Allan Gosset responded to a call from a taxi-driver who was arguing with a black youth about an unpaid fare. The youth, 19-year-old Anthony Griffin, waited for the police to arrive. Griffin was arrested on an unrelated warrant. Upon arriving at Station 15 in NDG, Griffin (who had not been handcuffed) bolted.
When Gosset ordered Griffin to freeze, Griffin froze. When Gosset ordered Griffin to turn around, Griffin turned around, and was shot once in the head. Griffin later died in hospital.
In a 1992 case of “mistaken identity,” police shot and killed Marcellus Francois while he sat in his car.
In recent developments regarding the Roberts case, a black female victim of metro-security violence, as well as a white female victim, may come forward. BYIA hopes to maintain community and media support to pressure the government into conducting an independent inquiry into the beating. While the Roberts incident is being investigated as to whether it was racially motivated, violence and brutality perpetrated by metro agents is an issue of public security in general.