Violence at the March 15 protest against police brutality in Montreal was striking — from flash bang grenades to CS gas and baton strikes, police dispatched serious weaponry against the annual demonstration.
In recent months, popular anger toward the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) has been building. From riot police violence against the growing Québec-wide student strike, to continued police killings in the city, police are facing a growing crisis in public confidence.
Striking students face police brutality
Striking student Francis Grenier suffered a serious eye injury on March 7 while playing harmonica at a protest outside Conférence des recteurs et des principaux des universités du Québec (CREPUQ), an institution strongly backing Québec government austerity-driven moves to hike post-secondary tuition fees by $1,625 over the next five years.
Students demonstrating outside the CREPUQ doors on Sherbrooke Street near the McGill University campus in downtown Montreal were making music and holding red banners, the colour representing the strike, when riot police charged the crowd en masse with batons, launching flash bang grenades directly into the crowd and seriously injuring Grenier.
In the weeks since, students have continued to take to the streets in the thousands, blocking Highway 40 in a mass civil disobedience protest, wearing red eye patches and marching under the banner ‘Nous sommes tous Francis Grenier.’
Hundreds of striking students joined the March 15 protest against police brutality, officially supported by La Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), the coalition of student unions leading the current strike in Québec.
Dangerous police weapons
Again police launched multiple flash bang grenades at the annual police brutality protest in Montreal, exploding over the demonstration on St. Catherine Street in Montreal and unleashing toxic CS gas — at first only a block away from the spot where Grenier suffered the serious eye injury on Sherbrooke Street.
Now widely used by the Montreal police, flash bang grenades are made by Defense Technologies, a subsidiary of the world’s second largest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems.
Flash bangs are rubber-encased devices that explode, creating a 175-decibel shock wave, while emitting a flash of light and releasing a charge of CS gas into the air. CS gas is a chemical irritant that burns the eyes, affects the respiratory system and can cause vomiting.
According to Defense Technologies’ official warning text on the exploding weapon, “this product may cause serious injury or death to you or others.”
On March 15, police used sound grenades and CS gas on civilian protesters, weaponry that did in fact “cause serious injury” for 22-year-old student protester Grenier from Cégep de Saint-Jérôme, protesting for accessible post-secondary education.
Why are Montreal police deploying dangerous explosive devises against popular protests in 2012? Why are more serious questions not being asked in mainstream media coverage about this dangerous weaponry being deployed by Montreal police?
Montreal police untruths
Contrary to the selective Montreal police narrative of events outlined at a major press conference last week, the protest moved across downtown Montreal without major incident until police first launched CS gas sound bombs toward people marching on the street.
Without question, Montreal police worked on the ground to create panic in the protest from the beginning. Police in riot gear ran at the back end of the protest along Sherbrooke Street, starting at Jeanne-Mance Street, creating a building sense of panic in the demonstration.
At the corner of Almer and Sherbrooke, the demonstration, numbering upwards of 2,000 people according to numerous reports, split into smaller groups after police fired numerous sound bombs and CS gas charges at the protest as riot police charged from different directions.
Montreal police are bending reality in claims that the violent intervention, aiming to disperse and repress the protest, took place after street confrontations with protesters. Riot police charged at the crowd and launched CS gas explosives prior to the vast majority of window breaking or any major confrontations with police.
Larger questions about the imbalance of power, between hundreds of riot police and the thousands of people demonstrating, are missing from almost all mainstream media reports about the March 15 protest.
Are the thousands of riot police, armed with batons or CS gas launchers, creating an inherently violent atmosphere for the annual protest critical of police practices?
Does the massive riot police presence in the métro stations surrounding the annual protest, including aggressive police dogs and potentially lethal weaponry on display, create a toxic atmosphere in the city?
Are the windows of a handful of corporate storefronts on St. Catherine Street more valuable than the health and safety of thousands of Montrealers taking to the streets and calling attention to sustained human rights violations and killings by the police?
Montreal police chief Marc Parent is presenting an untruthful narrative of events to the public and media, a line that attempts to justify police violence against the annual anti-police brutality protest and works to justify increasingly militarized police tactics in the city.
Additionally, the arrest of 226 people at this year’s anti-police brutality march, specifically the mass arrest of 190 at the corner of Berri and St. Catherine, occurs against the backdrop of a 2005 UN report issued by the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that condemned the Montreal police for mass arrest tactics.
Deadly police moves
Police repression on March 15 in Montreal, via baton strikes and chemical gas, occurs in the broader context of a wider increase in police violence in the city.
Beyond active repression against the rapidly expanding student movement for accessible education, Montreal police have come under criticism in recent months for a series of fatal shootings.
Hundreds from the student strike movement joined the annual protest against police brutality, while in parallel many in the demonstration chanted slogans and held signs to remember the growing list of civilians in Montreal killed by police bullets.
“Police partout, Justice nulle part!” — which translates, roughly, to “Police everywhere, Justice nowhere!” — was a popular French language slogan chanted on the march.
Fredy Villanueva, an 18-year-old youth from Montreal North, was killed by police in the summer of 2005, and his death is the subject of an ongoing struggle for justice led by the Villanueva family. To this day, no police officers involved in the Villanueva killing have been charged criminally or faced trial in relation to the shooting, despite a wealth of existing evidence on the topic.
Villanueva’s death inspired numerous underground hip-hop tracks in Montreal, with artists like Sans Pression and Dramatik directing verses against Montreal police shootings and racial profiling.
In early January 2012, a police intervention at métro Bonaventure turned deadly when police shot and killed Farshad Mohammadi, a Kurdish refugee from Iran struggling with mental health issues and homelessness. The police killing quickly sparked protest in the city and police continue to keep secret a great deal of existing evidence and details surrounding the shooting.
Since 1987, in Montreal, more than 60 people have been killed during police interventions, including Mario Hamel and Patrick Limoges, killed on the same morning by police bullets in June 2011.
Sustained police killings in Montreal are a key factor in the growing annual protest against police brutality on March 15.
Without question, people in Montreal are moving on a grassroots level to challenge increasingly violent police tactics, from attacks on public protests to deadly police shootings.
As violent police interventions continue in Montreal, an open question rings in the air on Montreal streets. What police action will spark the tipping point in public opposition toward police tactics?
Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based writer, musician and community activist who contributes to rabble.ca and can be found at http://www.twitter.com/spirodon/.