Why I protested austerity in Quebec

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As I wrote this story, I could still taste the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal's (SPVM) mace in my mouth, and feel it in my eyes. My hand was, and still is, sore, and my attitude was -- to say the least -- poor. On April 3, I watched as a peaceful protest was brutalized and shut down by the police. I watched the inner mechanisms of the democratic state work toward the goal of shutting down dissent, a few days before an election. Maybe this country is not what I have been brought up to believe it is. I hope that I am wrong in that regard.

Thursday's protest was a return -- if only for a day -- to the days of the Maple Spring in 2012; that time when my generation found its political voice and used that voice to prevent a near 80 per cent increase in tuition rates by Jean Charest and the Liberal Party. At the time, we were told that we had to be realistic, that our costs were already lower than the rest of Canada and that we should stop complaining and accept "political reality."

We responded, and together we changed that political reality. Now, after having been stabbed in the back by Jean Charest's successor, Pauline Marois, we have returned to make our voice heard again. This time though, our goals are much broader.

The students are no longer targeting a specific policy, but the greater social system of neoliberal capitalism which forces the disadvantaged majority to pay for the luxuries of the privileged few. We are targeting the policies of austerity, which have been accepted by all three of the major parties in this province.

Austerity: Not my policy!

Austerity is a word many are not familiar with. While it appears to be an obtuse term used by economic technocrats, the policies of austerity have profound effects for all who live under them.

Austerity means drastic cutbacks in education, social housing, the safety net, environmental and labour standards and elderly care. It means that all of us have to "tighten our belts" and live with less -- all of us except the leaders of the business community.

The website for the demonstration gives some starting facts about Québec's austerity. Firstly, since 1960 corporations have seen their taxes slashed to well below half of what they had been previously -- from over 40 per cent to about 15.

So in 1960, 40 per cent of the government's tax revenue came from individuals, and 60 per cent from corporations. But by 2012, once corporate taxes were slashed, 75 per cent of revenue was taken from individuals and only 25 per cent from corporations.

On top of that startling figure, for every dollar which corporations now spend in taxes, $1.39 is given back through various transfer mechanisms. These numbers go a long way to explaining why it appears "necessary" to slash social spending and "tighten our belts."

Despite the rhetoric coming from all sides in the current election, these cuts are not necessary. They are a calculated political decision made by those who are indebted to the most powerful forces in our society.

Taking it to the (Québec) streets

With all these facts in mind, many thousands of students, teachers, unions, environmental groups and even individuals from political parties took to the streets on Thursday, April 3. And of course, a few uninvited guests showed up to crash the party: the Montreal riot police.

The demonstration, which began in Berri Park, was entirely peaceful. Slogans were shouted, traffic was interrupted, but no damage was done. I saw protesters playing the drums and the harmonica, singing songs; and at one point I even came across a brass band playing fantastic music. It was beautiful, seeing people come together in an attempt to bring justice to our society.

I had conversations with people in the crowd, and everyone who I spoke to was well-informed about important issues. These were not people who just wanted to make noise. These protesters were people with legitimate grievances about the way things are being done and concrete solutions to go along with the criticism.

The otherwise peaceful situation was made tense by riot squad police -- resembling storm troopers -- cutting through crowds with nightsticks drawn and their fingers on the trigger of tear-gas guns. But we were not doing anything wrong, so we should have had nothing to fear, right?

Wrong. After a few hours of marching -- including a stop in front of Quebecor's head office -- the SPVM decided that they had seen enough free speech for the day.

Riot squads and batons go 'crack!'

While it is difficult to say what exactly triggered their attack, I can say what I saw from my perspective. What I saw was a snowball flying through the air, and hitting a parked car beside me. Not a scratch of damage was done, but it was enough to make noise. Within seconds, the crowd was being charged by the riot squad, who had their metal batons out and were cracking people in the arms, legs and head. People who tried to resist the unprovoked attack were wrestled to the ground, and some were arrested.

Luckily, the crowd was not arrested en masse, but the small number of actual arrests does nothing to describe the terror which we all experienced as we watched large numbers of riot police, with weapons drawn, charging an unarmed crowd.

Some protesters began to throw rocks at this point, but this fact must be kept within the context of the violence being inflicted on us by the police. I watched an officer -- maybe one foot in front of me -- raise his baton over his head to inflict maximum damage on the protester he was attacking. As his baton swung behind him to give him momentum in his strike, my hand was clipped and is now swollen.

I can only imagine the pain being felt by the other unlucky person who felt the full force of the officer's swing.

Clouds of pepper spray and mace hung over us as we ran to avoid the relentless police officers, who were making no distinction between those who were fighting and those who were not. Any person in the crowd was considered a viable target.

Was unnecessary force necessary? No.

If history is any judge, police brutality serves to catalyze movements and inspire those who would otherwise be uninvolved to join in. This happened at Occupy Wall Street, the first Maple Spring and at the Arab Spring.

I am not an organizer at Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ), the group responsible for Thursday's march, so I can only speculate as to what further actions will be. But I can say, from my perspective, that it appears as though we are going to have a hot summer.

The author's name has been omitted due to the possibility of receiving a large fine for taking part in an "illegal" demonstration.

Photos are courtesy of the author.

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