Protests against systemic racism and police brutality continue as thousands gathered at Place Emilie Gamelin last Sunday.
Protestors spent their sunny afternoon marching peacefully in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, reignited by the death of African American man George Floyd, who died in police custody for a harmless infraction on May 25 after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for over eight minutes as he pleaded for his life.
Floyd’s death sparked international outrage, with protests against police brutality and systemic racism uniting folks from across the world to take part in actions towards police reform.
Montreal’s second major Black Lives Matter protest since Floyd’s death, the event initially sparked local backlash after organizers, Nous sommes la ligue des noirs nouvelle génération, invited the Montreal Police (SPVM) Chief to join the protest. The decision was contested by locals, and a day later the invitation was withdrawn. In an open Facebook message, the organization wrote that “citizens are terrified of the idea that [the police chiefs] will be there.”
Still, the invitation did not stop police from teargassing the crowd around 7pm.
At 11am, after a two-hour solidarity event reserved for the Black community, the thousands of protesters, most following organizers’ directions to stay masked, began to move downtown.
Organizers offered free masks and gloves to protestors to maintain safety. For many, it was the first major outing since the COVID-19 pandemic halted large scale collective gathering at the end of March, though with a crowd so large it was difficult to follow the two meter social distance requirements.
Most protests held signs, with different messages; some more humorous, shedding light on the unity and togetherness of the situation while others alluded to the seriousness of the crimes. A simple sign, “8:46”, paid homage to Floyd’s death; it represents the amount of time Floyd suffocated under the officer’s knee.
Most protestors dispersed around 2pm, where the march ended at Dorchester Square, though many continued into the day to march around the downtown area, eventually coming face to face with a wall of police in full riot gear, shields, face masks, and rubber bullet guns.
Stanley Courages, a protestor at the event, said he joined in support of the Black Lives Matter movements. To him, it’s a symbol that things are going bad, “and going bad for a lot of people,” he said.
“The system is sick, but we all know that. Nobody has the nerve to say it out loud,” he continued. “This is nice to see, Black, White, Latin, a little bit of Asian… it’s nice to see all kinds of people. […] Somehow, some way, people can relate to it, the sadness, whatever the problem they have with this kind of system. So I’m here for that symbol.”
The spotlight is on what he calls the Black movement because Black folks have been put at the bottom since colonization, he said. But Black folks aren’t the only ones suffering, he explained.
“The black movement – the same thing as the Black Lives Matter – that’s what I see as a symbol that everyone is not okay with this system,” he said.
Pascale Lavache, another protestor at the event and who is Black, said she is marching for her nine year old son.
“I want him to not have to march when he’s my age, when he’s grown,” she said.
“I’m happy to see there’s lot of the youth is present,” she continued. “it’s not just black people, it’s everybody. Everybody feels the injustice. Everybody feels the injustice, and I feel like this is a great movement and I’m happy to see everybody is standing up for this injustice that touches everybody. So I’m really marching for myself.”
To her, the Black Lives Matter movement is about standing up for what is right, and standing up for equal rights for everybody. “I think people need to understand that this is not just for [Black folks], it’s for everyone. And it needs to stop, this needs to stop. It’s a disservice for everybody when there’s no justice.”
Though most protestors broke up around 2pm, protests continued around the downtown area until around 7pm. It was then that police opened fire on the remaining protectors without warning.
The use of tear gas, a chemical weapon that is banned in war, has been criticized by healthcare experts. It irritates the tear ducts, causing coughing, and potential irritation of the upper respiratory tract; all symptoms that could further spread the COVID-19 virus, experts say.
Already a violent weapon, its use at peaceful protests in the Canadian epicentre of the pandemic is problematic at the very least. Local healthcare professionals have called for police to cease its’ use – to no avail.
Though the protests have shed light on the systemic racism present in the Canadian justice system, Premier Francois Legault said publicly that systemic racism doesn’t exist in Quebec. The thousands of protestors that hit the streets last Sunday would disagree.
From racial profiling, economic insecurity, and a lack of representation in all facets, Quebec’s longstanding whitewashing of its’ history and culture and xenophobia; including the contested Bill 62 which bands all religious symbols in public, prove a different, darker reality.
One way to ease the injustice, Lavache said, is for there to be equal representation at every level – in both media, politics, and police force.
“We need to have equal representation, whether it’s for women, LGBTQ,” she said. “Everyone needs to be represented. The more there’s equal representation, the more there will be justice.”