Missing in mainstream media reports on the recent wave of police violence against the growing street protests against austerity in Montréal, is any clear acknowledgement that this repression can be deadly.
Memories of the late Robert Fransham are on my mind over recent days.
Robert, a long-time community activist, retired high school teacher and cycling advocate, passed away due to “medical complications” the first days of 2015, complications that were exasperated and deepened after an incident of police violence last spring.
In April 2014, Robert joined a mass protest against austerity along with tens-of-thousands, an important action in the long-term mobilization process leading to the current wave of protests and grassroots campaigning. At the end of the demonstration last spring, Robert, over 70 years old at the time, was on a bike as line of riot police randomly charged at the protest, violently knocking Robert onto the road.
Robert lay bloody on the street for a long time, being supported by fellow protesters, before riot police finally allowed for an ambulance to arrive. Blood was all over Robert’s face at the time, watch this video, and eventually Robert was hospitalized for a couple days. Although Robert was released the next week, complications continued in the months after the incident and regular visits to the hospital were necessary given an existing heart condition.
During this period after the incident I quickly got to know Robert, who was actively speaking out against police violence and repression to the media and also at protests. Robert was clear and articulate, outlining also the systemic nature of police violence.
Listen to an interview that we recorded for broadcast on CKUT community radio in Montréal about experiencing that violent police incident and the broader context of repression against the anti-austerity movement in Québec. In this radio discussion we also explored broader questions around the importance of building a movement not only against austerity, but also the grotesque free market economic system that we all face.
In the months after the incident, Robert’s health did improve, by the late summer Robert was biking again, although regularly visits to the hospital were still necessary due to sustaining complications. In talking with Robert over coffee during this period, a clear determination to fight back and return to the vibrant community oriented life that defined Robert’s days, was so clear and beautiful.
I remember very well sharing a quick meal at a downtown café with Robert, we talked about many topics, including the complicity of Montréal’s mayor Denis Coderre in the 2004 coup d’état in Haiti and also the challenges that the anti-austerity movement was facing in getting mobilized after the then recent election of the Liberal party to the halls of power in Québec City. At the time politicians, specifically Philippe Couillard, were playing coy, not outlining fully and honestly the austerity-driven, neoliberal plans that were to come.
Also we shared ideas around social change, Robert told me about working as a teacher, with teenagers, discussing activism, community engagement and Noam Chomsky with students.
It was with clear passion and love that Robert talked about sharing ideas for transformative social change with students. Also it was with an incredible amount of respect and honour that Robert talked about grassroots activists in the city, non-funded community organizers, working with little resources to challenge the policies of political and economic elites, most often ignored in mainstream discourse. Honestly, Robert’s open encouragement, support and interest toward my own efforts was humbling and boosted my morale to keep going on multiple occasions, as we also corresponded a number of times online also.
It was with love that Robert also spoke about the different generations in his own family, about grandchildren, describing family outings, bike trips in the countryside of Québec. Despite Robert talking about these personal moments, there was often also a focus within those personal stories on fighting “for coming generations,” in regard to the climate, fundamental human rights and more broadly social justice.
Around the recent winter holidays, I got in touch with Robert about a community benefit concert at Casa del Popolo that I was working on with Anarchopanda, to raise funds for a legal challenge toward the repressive P6 bylaw, that at the time banned free and open protest in Montréal, an element of the law that has now been struck down due to grassroots activism and legal challenges. I thought to invite Robert to the concert, as it was shaping up to be a beautiful evening of poetry and music right between the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Quickly I got a response from Robert, explaining that regretfully there were some health challenges taking place and attending the concert wasn’t going to be possible. Again right after the show, I sent a text to Robert to check-in about things, this was the response, “you are very kind, I am in the hospital for another week for a variety of tests … I hope we can have that coffee when I get out, thx again for your kind spirit.”
Around one day later there was message posted by Robert’s daughter Jaclyn saying that Robert had passed away, shared on a facebook group that had been set-up right after Robert’s initial injury at the hands of police last April. I had to read the message a couple times over to really get it, given we had just been texting in the days before, but in fact the message was true and Robert had passed away suddenly in hospital.
Although the formal cause of death has not been linked directly to the incident of police brutality last April, there is a clear parallel between Robert’s decline in health and that spring day last year when police violently attacked the anti-austerity demonstration in Montréal. In under one year Robert went from an avid cyclist, joining spring demonstrations on bike, at over 70 years old, taking the streets for hours, to a reality of constant medical challenges, that eventually lead to death.
Robert’s story is one from many, there are so many that are untold, stories of police violence and brutality that destroys lives, that destroys families, that destroys communities. Marginalized communities are most impacted, the homeless, Indigenous people, sex workers and broadly communities of colour, are systematically targeted by police violence. Brutalized on the streets and then often locked away in the growing prison industrial complex here in Canada.
Understanding and articulating the ways that institutionalized layers of oppression in our society heighten police violence is important. In talking about the ways that this violence hits the anti-austerity movement, as illustrated in Robert’s story, must always be highlighted within a wider context.
After the major protest yesterday in Montréal, the mass presence of riot police, the attack on people who continued to march after the “official” demonstration had come to a close, all brought back memories of a very similar scenario last spring, when Robert was knocked over and injured. Speaking out about Robert’s experience and linking it to police violence against the anti-austerity movement and more broadly is important.
I just wanted to write this little text to illustrate some of the humanity of one person impacted deeply by police violence, to publicly remember how although most often the corporate media reports injuries as “non-serious” or “not life threatening,” the sustaining long term impacts can be serious and deadly.
Police are firing military grade chemical gases against the anti-austerity movement, shooting protesters with tear gas canisters, as if the police are playing out psychotic war game fantasies. This is a revolting reality, police need to be held accountable and this violence needs to stop right now, this violence against grassroots protests for social justice, but also against marginalized communities on a daily basis across our society.
Stefan Christoff is a writer, community activist and musician living Montreal who contributes to rabble.ca you can find Stefan @spirodon
Photos: Stefan Christoff