When Stephen Harper comes to town

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Stephen Harper doesn’t usually visit Montreal and you can understand why. He doesn’t have any elected representation on the island or even near it, he only gets invited to speak at small private and expensive gatherings of the business community and when he does show up, there’s always a welcoming committee that he would rather do without and does his best to avoid.

Yesterday was no different. When Harper showed up at the Palais des congrès to speak on the Canada-Europe Trade Agreement at the invitation of the Montreal Board of Trade, who was charging $1000 a plate for this lunch, there was a protest outside to greet him.

Organizers at Concordia’s Quebec Public Research Interest Group had less than a week to prepare, but still managed to mobilize a decent crowd to show up at 11:30 am on a Friday. There was also another protest marching through the east end at the same time protesting Harper’s cuts to Employment Insurance and a much larger anti-austerity demo with more planning time scheduled for 2pm.

Protesters assembled in the fake green space across the street from the main entrance of the Palais, signs and banners in tow. While I don’t know what this pseudo grass was doing there, it made the spot look like one of those designated protest areas, which the assembled activists soon grew tired of.

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When it looked like most people had arrived, the group headed across the street, Jaggi Singh of QPIRG spoke on the megaphone and the crowd had generally jovial interactions with the SPVM officers flanking the building. One activist even started chanting “This is what a moustache looks like” to one of the cops who looked like Tom Selleck, presumably for Movember.

As this scene transpired, a group of riot cops assembled around the corner, an ominous though small reminder that there was still a police state in effect. When half of them broke off and marched right in front of the protest to station themselves around the other corner, the protestors started singing the Imperial Death March (Darth Vader’s theme from Star Wars).

I have to admit, I like Star Wars references in popular culture but when I see (or hear) one at a political demonstration and it’s an accurate assessment of the situation, I think it’s perfect and in this case it was. Despite the nonviolent approach the police were employing, I can’t forget that this is the same SPVM riot squad that kettled some of these same people for hours with no good reason just a few months ago.

I have to admit, I was a bit concerned that recent history would repeat itself when I heard that chant that anyone who’s been to a protest in Montreal in the past decade knows very well: “A qui la rue? A nous la rue!” But it didn’t.

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The group started marching in the street, circling the Palais a few times and even reversing direction once. The best part was when we passed under the building, with tunnel-like acoustics giving protesters’ voices a beautiful echo.

At one point during the march, two bike cops were riding on the sidewalk and a few protestors decided to use their voices to remind them that bikes belong in the street. The officers listened to the makeshift traffic cops and stopped breaking the law.

Expert provocatrice Katie Nelson, known for exposing police political profiling through a lawsuit, today exposed a security flaw with side doors to the Palais de Congres. Although a cop thwarted her first attempt, she succeeded the second time, opening a door that led to the inside and Harper, then stood there and let the SPVM know that they had failed. Admitteldy, if most of the protest hadn’t already been forced to the opposite sidewalk, she may just have ushered a bunch of them inside the building.

This playful competition between activists and police took me back to protests I had attended years ago, before the unwarranted crackdown during the Maple Spring and the ensuing repressive P6 kettles. It seemed like activism was alive and well in Montreal once again.

There was no teargass, no new armored tank-like thingy the SPVM just purchased, just peaceful protest and a nonviolent police response. Exhilarating feeling aside, I wonder why this was the case.

This wasn’t a protest made up of senior citizens and children in strollers, the bulk of those in attendance were pretty hardcore, including the CLAC. These are the same people the police targeted both during the student protests and later, when there was an attempted resurgence after Marois came up with her own tuition increase.

Maybe it has to do with Harper. In fact, I’m sure it has to do with Harper.

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Nobody ’round these parts likes the guy and I think that includes the cops. So, while they will do their job and protect him, they clearly don’t have the same gusto and desire to quash the peaceful rebellion they do when it’s a provincial leader, be it Charest or Marois, in the activist crosshairs.

If this had been, say, a student protest, with the same protestors in attendance behaving the same way, things would have ended differently. In fact, within minutes of activists taking the streets, there would have been a police kettle.

It is widely known that most Montreal police don’t live in the city, but they do live in Quebec and that is where their loyalty is. I only hope they realize soon and en masse that their provincial masters in Quebec City are just as pro-austerity, anti-worker and for an elite class that doesn’t include them as Harper is.

I also hope that they realize opposition to Harper means standing up for Idle No More-affiliated Native activists as they stand against Harper’s devastating ecological policies which affect us all while asserting their own self determination. The SPVM embarrassed themselves when they tore down a tipi recently and even compared the Native activists to occupiers, apparently irony isn’t something they teach police trainees.

There are a long list of reasons to oppose Harper, the group who organised this protest outlined a few on the Facebook event page. I can only hope the SPVM officers realize that its those reasons that got people to the streets and not the fact that Harper is some douche from Calgary (or Toronto) that none of their friends voted for.

Harper is a figurehead, as is Marois and Charest before her. If the SPVM are cool with activists protesting one, then they should be cool with the same people protesting the others.

The state is the state. As agents of the state, SPVM officers should learn that and realize that they actually don’t work for the state, in theory, but the people, the same people they kettle for protesting one leader and exchange jokes with when they are targeting another.

We need more vibratnt and fun protests like this one in Montreal that aren’t crushed before they have a chance to get going. I hope we don’t have to wait until Stephen Harper returns for that to happen.

* photos by Jay Manafest, you can see the full album on our Facebook page

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