6 June 2012

Montreal Diaries

Part Two

Detention on St-Denis
 May 27, 2012

The night I am arrested is a warm spring night, the thirtieth night of continuous protests to be exact. It’s the day after the May 22 rally that inspired over 200,000 people to walk through the streets of Montreal. My friend Paul and I are riding our bikes in the demo. We talk about the people around us, their families, their children; about how happy we are, how incredible it is to be marching here, and how much we love the city. The crowd moves fast. Unlike the other nights we’ve marched, which felt tense and uncomfortable, tonight is jovial and vibrant. 

We get off our bikes at Rue St-Denis. Boom! We hear a blast, and a cloud of smoke hovers over the intersection. I’m not sure where we are. People start running toward me.

“Get your fucking bike out of the way!”

I try to run north on St-Denis in the direction of the crowd, but they start to head toward me, pushing me back. I yell for Paul. “Please don’t leave,” I say, as we both try to maneuver our bikes northwest, but there’s no getting them above the high curb and through the throng of bodies. North of us are two rows of Montreal police (Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal, or SVPM). We’re turning around to go back down when the tear gas grips the back of my throat. I wrap my shawl around my nose and mouth, scrambling and anxious, wondering what the fuck is going on. I feel like I’m going in a circle. Suddenly the police are charging us, and I try to run the other way, but the bike is unwieldy and I’m nervous I will lose Paul. The cops start shoving from the other side, and every time I turn my head there are more cops with masks and shields lunging toward us, smoke hanging overhead, until there’s no way out. Then it starts again: “MOVE, MOVE, MOVE, MARCHE, MARCHE.” So we move, but more cops on the other side are shouting the same thing from the other direction. I hold onto Paul’s arm, unable to think, dizzy from tear gas and anxiety, my heart pounding through my rib cage. Every time I move one way, I am pushed back the other way. I tighten my shawl for fear of more tear gas and can hardly stand. We ask the cops if we can lock our bikes to a stand. We beg enough that they concede, and then promptly shove us back into the streets. I imagine this may be the last time I see my bicycle.

“What’s happening?” I ask.

“I think we were just kettled,” Paul says.

“What? No, after the G20, they’re not allowed to do that.”

“Oh, I think they just did.”

I don’t believe him.

We stand around for a while. I tweet uncertainties. Everyone is milling about in a circle. People start shouting chants about freedom and civil liberties. Eventually most of us sit down.

I sit in silence, staring at everyone around me. Their faces are at ease, comfortable.

“What do you think is going to happen?”

“I don’t know—they’ll probably arrest us.”

“They can’t arrest us all . . . there’s so many of us.”

“Sure they can,” Paul says, and walks off.

I let him go and stay on the curb, hugging my knees to my chest, waiting. When Paul comes back, I tell him to sit beside me. We watch a makeshift football game with a ball made out of a plastic bottle.

Paul notes that several public buses have arrived.

“Why?” I ask.

“To transport us.”

People start getting up, and I hear a police officer announcing something.

“ . . . anything you say may be used against you in a court of law. . .”

“The cats!” I suddenly remember.

“Yes?”

“I left them without food because I’m trying to put them on a diet!”

“Can you call any friends to feed them?”

“I will call my superintendent, but it’s so late, and what will I say? I got arrested, will you please feed my cats?”

“We should line up,” Paul says to me. “Imagine how long it’s going to take to process everyone. If we line up now, we’ll get out earlier.”

I grab his shoulder as he leads me up to the front, where some elderly people are already in line. I am nervous. There’s so much misinformation about where we’re going, where we will be held, what we are getting arrested for, and whether Bill 78 will be enacted. No one seems to know and the cops say something different every time.

I walk up.

“Do you have ID?”

“Yes,” I reply as one of the cops searches my bag.

“What a mess in there,” he mutters in French to his colleague.

They find my ID, search me, grab my shoulders to turn me around, and handcuff my wrists together.

Two policemen walk me to the line by the bus, holding my purse, and wait until it’s my turn to get on. They write down my identification information and give me a wristband with a number to claim my purse later. I sit down and wait. The bus fills up with people younger than me. Then we wait. Eventually, the bus starts moving and we drive, and drive, and drive. Once in northeast Montreal, we wait some more. The buses become holding cells. I feel sick—tear gas, nausea, and my bladder kicking in. Lightheaded, I ask a cop if I can go to the bathroom. She rolls her eyes and tells me to sit down. I ask again. I wait. I ask the other cops. Each insists that everyone on the bus has to urinate and that, like them, I have to wait.

“What if I pee my pants?”

“Then you have to live with it.”

“So then if I pee on the bus I won’t get in trouble?”

“Go away, you won’t do that.”

I return to my seat but the pain is unbearable.

I crouch down in the middle of the bus and a few women stand around me creating a human shield, while I pull down my leggings with my handcuffed hands –— I piss, and I piss, and I keep pissing until the stream of urine rolls around the bus under everyone’s feet.

“You are brave. Be glad you did that. Fuck ’em.”

I smile sheepishly and appreciate the camaraderie, as the rest of the bus erupts in anger at the police.

“How can you let a woman pee on the bus? How can you treat us like animals?”

“Because you are. Shut up and stay put,” the police shout back, which only causes more yelling.

“A woman peed on the bus! A woman peed on the bus! You should be ashamed!” some of them chant in unison, but the police don’t even turn around to look at us. I watch my piss run back and forth. By now, another man is doing the same thing: flooding the bus with urine. Somehow this makes time pass more quickly. An hour later our bus pulls up to the processing table and a smiling policeman hands me a ticket as the morning sun hits my face.

That night over 400 people were arrested at Sherbrooke Avenue and Rue St-Denis. Most of us were given $634 tickets for breaking the newly revised municipal bylaw P-6, which, among other things, does not allow face coverings, such as the shawl I used, and requires that protest organizers submit exact march routes to the police. Free speech is now only free when the police grant us permission.  

[Unsigned]


Waking Giant Marches
May 28, 2012

Being in Montreal, feeling the tension in the streets, has been a surreal experience. Ever since new municipal and provincial laws have granted sweeping powers to the police while cracking down on public dissent and political speech, Montreal has felt even more like a town under siege. 

The hardest thing is realizing how quickly those meant to serve the public can turn against it: it’s hard seeing the faces of people coming to terms with how easily their rights disappear under the hands of an arbitrarily empowered police force and authoritative state. The most beautiful thing is watching as those people recognize that they can count on one another instead. In Montreal, and across the province, we are watching a people rise up against a crushing hand, and shrug it off. 

Every new protest in the city has become a jubilant act of solidarity, as protesters reject out of hand the political authority of those who would be our masters. Every day and every night, the Quebec citizenry comes together to remember they are strong. Quebecois people have a long history of taking charge of their destiny, sweeping aside the corrupted powers that be. More and more, it feels like a sleeping giant is waking up all around us.

Gene Morrow


On Reste Calme!
May 29, 2012

On Friday May 18, the Assemblé Nationale de Québec passed Bill 78 into law, rendering unsanctioned demonstrations illegal. That evening, I went downtown to Place Émilie-Gamelin (also known as Berri Square). Since April 25, when the Coalition large de l’Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (CLASSE), the most radical of the city’s three student unions, was expelled from the tuition negotiation process by Education Minster Line Beauchamp, protesters had gathered nightly at 8:30 PM before setting out to march. In recent days, the marches had gotten smaller. At first, we were 10,000, sometimes 20,000 strong every night. But in the lead-up to Law 78, our numbers had dwindled down to a couple of hundred. On May 18, however, thousands of people were once more out in the streets, and the mood was one of indignation.

A detachment of a dozen or so riot police marched alongside us, as they had most every previous night; they followed us everywhere, and we’d grown used to them. Generally they left us alone, and vice versa. Under the new Law 78, however, it was hard to know what to expect. About thirty minutes into the march, as we passed the SPVM headquarters on Rue St-Urbain, a group of twenty irate protesters gathered close behind the police and began to goose-step and Sieg Heil, chanting “S-S PVM, police politique!” This went on for about a minute. Then the entire squad turned about-face and set upon the goose-steppers, beating several to the ground with batons. I heard a riot gun firing rubber bullets, but I couldn’t tell who was being shot. Toward the front of the march, one cop dispersed the crowd by showering everyone on the periphery with pepper spray. I was luckier than the people in front of me, who were hit directly in the face. The spray rolled over me in a misty cloud and got into my lungs just as the march split in two, leaving me and a few others stuck in between. We were uncomfortably aware that a cop in riot gear was pointing a gun at us.

Slowly I edged my way toward the group that had been broken off in front and rejoined my marching partner, David. We continued forward, uneasy but buoyed by our numbers. We looped up Boulevard St. Laurent, and by the time we reached Boulevard René-Levesque, five or ten minutes later, the earlier violence was practically forgotten. That was when the full force of the SPVM riot squad—some 100 armed and armored cops backed by the SPVM mounted unit—charged us. Someone up ahead had thrown a Molotov cocktail at the riot line, and now the police were determined to punish us all. Later the police claimed they had warned us three times that the march was illegal and had asked us to disperse. I never heard them.

They attacked us with tear gas—not only with canisters, but also with pods I’d never seen before. They looked like clusters of grapes before they exploded into puffs of smoke and gas. The police shot us with rubber bullets and concussion grenades. I watched in disbelief as a group of these strange grape-bombs landed on the ground and exploded next to an elderly couple not far from me. We were next to both a hospital and a seniors’ residence; the couple was merely passing by. Demonstrators helped them away from the area. As we cleared out, the crowd chanted, “On reste calme! On reste calme!” (“We’re staying calm. We’re staying calm.” In Quebecois French, public language often takes the indicative rather than the imperative mood. So rather than “Don’t litter!” signs will frequently say, “I put my garbage in the trash can.” This tendency sometimes transfers to our marching chants.)

David and I jumped over a five-foot wall into a parking area. Though we had a wall at our back, we were also cornered. Marchers continued to stream down the street beside us. I assumed we were out of harm’s way, but David insisted we keep moving. I looked over my shoulder. The riot squad was charging in our direction even as we retreated, forcing the bulging crowd down narrow Rue St-Dominique. Despite the cries of, “Ne courez pas! On reste ensemble!” (“Don’t run! We stay together!”), people were running. Some were falling, and others were falling over them as the crowd struggled to pull them up. In the midst of this, the SPVM encouraged our chaotic retreat by hurling a concussion grenade directly over our heads. The sound was stunning.

David and I escaped. A half hour later, around eleven, we rejoined the illegal march and stayed with it for another hour. I broke off when we passed Place Émilie-Gamelin again, but the march continued past 2 AM, and in total covered the distance of a half-marathon. Nonetheless, I left feeling depressed and hopeless—precisely the emotion the SPVM had intended to engender with its faceless assault.

When I got home, I wanted to reach even one member of the police force. However unreasonably, I hoped to make them feel shame and guilt about what they had done. I sent the following notes via Twitter:

J. B. [at]querenciazine

Dear person who writes the [at]SPVM twitters, I will start by assuming that you are a good person, a just and noble individual.

J. B. [at]querenciazine

[at]SPVM, I believe you want justice in the world. So I want you to know that I saw your people tonight hurting innocent people.

J. B. [at]querenciazine

[at]SPVM police pepper-sprayed innocent bystanders in front of me. They fired projectiles that landed just beside an elderly couple.

J. B. [at]querenciazine

[at]SPVM, I understand someone risked life & limb by throwing molotov cocktails. Such an act is unforgivable. But brutality to all is as well.

J. B. [at]querenciazine

[at]SPVM, your people threw a grenade at people already running in fear. I was one of them. Why would they do that? Think of the possible harm.

J. B. [at]querenciazine

[at]SPVM, I just want you to know that when people say they are afraid of police, it isn’t always because they are paranoid or unreasonable.

J. B. [at]querenciazine

Sometimes the [at]SPVM does not seem at all like it is interested in justice, nobility, and righteousness. And this is what frightens people.

J. B. [at]querenciazine

I’m sorry for tweeting so much, [at]SPVM person. I wish you well—a good night and a peaceful sleep. May tomorrow bring peace for us all.

I received no response.

J. B. Staniforth


Cadence of the Casserole
Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On the evening of Friday, May 25, I went to my first “casserole,” out of conviction and curiosity. I made my way to Côte-des-Neiges, a family neighborhood on the western slope of Mount Royal, via public transportation, and I was still on the bus when the 8 PM start time rolled around. Just then, we passed a man sitting at a bus stop, and like clockwork he pulled out his pan and started banging. A few feet away, more people were walking toward him banging their pots. Across the street, outside a row of apartments, several people stood at their front doors, pots in hand. Moments later, as I stepped off the bus, a family of four waited on the corner for the large group of protesters walking toward them—parents and children, each carrying a pan. In awe of what I’d just witnessed, I walked quickly to my friends’ apartment to pick them up. 

When we reemerged from the building a few minutes later we couldn’t hear or see any other protesters. We banged our lids hoping to find the larger group. Cars honked as they drove by and pedestrians smiled as they approached, but for a block and a half there were no other pots or pans in sight. Then we heard the familiar sound: Clank, Clank, Clank. A family of three generations stood on the next corner banging their pots, walking in a circle. We stood with them while, from across the street, a single protester clanked his way towards us. Soon there were more people, more cookware and noise, and we were compelled to move. From the corner we walked on the sidewalks until we gained the confidence to take the streets. 

The next night I decided to stay in my own neighborhood, the Mile End. I’d seen the meeting point announced on Facebook: Rue St-Viateur and Rue Waverly. As my roommate and I approached the intersection, pots, spoons, and forks in hand, we saw crowds standing at all four corners. It was 8:20 PM and momentum was building. We wanted to move. For twenty minutes we inched onto the street from the four corners. In time, and with the encouragement of our fellow protesters, we all made it off of the sidewalk and into the center of the road. We walked. We took over Avenue du Parc, turned left on Avenue Laurier. We were hundreds, walking without a destination, without a route. Later that night, we would become tens of thousands. 

On Sunday, though I’d intended to stay in, the sounds of the streets compelled me to join the crowd outside. By Monday evening, I didn’t think twice, even though my feet ached from miles and miles of walking in improper shoes. The “casseroles” were becoming a ritual, and I fell under their spell. That night, on the corner, I stood recalling the previous evenings and the instinctual etiquette I had observed: we waited for each other. On that first evening, in Côte-des-Neiges, a group of protesters lingered as my friends and I crossed the street. At first I thought we’d slow them down, but over the course of the next few days I realized that waiting for one another was part of the ritual. Each night when other protesters walked toward us, we waited patiently and excitedly until they marched with us. We were looking for our neighbors, our friends, and the strangers we would soon know—we called out to each other. We banged our pots for many reasons: for the right to protest, for accessible education, and against social inequality and a culture of debt. We banged our pots in defiance of Bill 78. But we also banged our pots for a much simpler reason. The experience of time had taken on a new cadence, and finally we had occasion to speak to one another, side by side.

Kristen Alfaro


Uroborus Protest
May 30, 2012

I had a blister on my heel from so much marching, so I returned to La Place des Arts and sat down to lance it. The only sharp thing I had was the safety pin that held my carré rouge to my T-shirt. I took off the red square, used a lighter to disinfect the pin, and proceeded to stab myself in the foot repeatedly. 

It was May 22. One hundred thousand or 300,000 or 500,000 people—crowd counts are inevitably determined by your politics—poured through Montreal. Regardless of the precise number, this was apparently the largest demonstration in Canadian history. The march had begun in La Place des Arts around 2:30 PM, and now, more than two hours later, the tail end of the manifestation was still here in the square, waiting patiently to leave. That’s how big it was. It seemed almost too huge to be contained by downtown—a snake in perpetual danger of eating its own tail.

I ran back and forth a lot that day, wanting to see different parts of the demo. Occasionally I sat down and simply watched it go by. The Quebec student strike has been full of unexpectedly moving moments, but none compared to the sheer scope of a march like this. Politics in a liberal democracy can feel atomizing, and May 22 had the opposite effect. We were all briefly subsumed into the commons, sensing that we might have a hand in deciding our own futures, if only this once.

Drew Nelles


Give the Kids a Saucepan
May 31, 2012

A boy of maybe 13, with the Quebec flag flying high above his head, led the boisterous, enlivened crowd of about 300 as it marched down the roads of southwest Montreal, banging on kitchenware. He had a ponytail of blond hair and wore a neon yellow jacket, and a whistle sat in his unsmiling mouth—unsmiling, maybe, because his business of both carrying the flag and leading the way was a rather serious affair. He talked with the half-dozen of his young comrades who walked alongside him as they determined the route, pointing this way and that, running to the back of the march, then running to the front again. University students, grandmothers, mothers, children, people of all ages were behind them, clamoring away on their casseroles. 

The march zigzagged through the working-class but gentrifying neighborhood. An older gentleman suggested to the boy that marching down each road off the main street, one by one, would make the neighbors happy. It seemed to work. People peered out of their windows, and some cheered. One father rushed to get saucepans for his little children standing on the front stoop. The music flowed up and down through the streets: one demonstrator picked up a riff on the kettle while another embellished it with the tinker of a spoon on metal. In the middle of the intersection, a young man hammered on an enormous soup pot with a mallet using such force that it broke and splintered into pieces. This was a parade of spontaneity and of joy crossed with determination and defiance. It hardly seemed real. 

Quebec teens are out for fun, most surely. But it seems they also have the lucidity to understand that their education, and the welfare of their nation, are at stake. So they bravely hold the flag of this rough-and-tumble improvised orchestra they call a revolution—conducted by no one, least of all by the Premier, Jean Charest—and they raise it high, demanding that the old bureaucrats, like the stream of traffic, either stop or move aside as they stake a claim on the road ahead. Perhaps the clamor of the pots and pans represents an alarm bell. But it may also be the heartbeat of the city—polyrhythmic and cacophonous, as a city’s heartbeat should be.

Kelly Ebbels

Image: Photos courtesy of Magdalena Olszanowski.

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