A week into the application of Bill 78, which criminalizes public demonstrations and imposes fines for student organizers and any protesters, there have already been over 1000 arrests by the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM). This is more arrests by far than were carried out during the generation-defining 1970 October Crisis in Québec. With over 2500 arrests of protesters since the beginning of the student strike on February 13, the police crack-down represents the largest number of demonstration-related arrests in Québec history over such a short period.
And with the arrests have come an increase in complaints against the SPVM’s ethics commission (Commissaire à la déontologie), which currently has a stack of 84 complaints to investigate. One of them will surely be the the reviled Constable 728, who was caught on video the night of Sunday, May 20 pepper-spraying protesters at the corner of St-Hubert and Ste-Catherine.
In the video, subtitled “A Star is Born” a demonstrator is seen briefly taunting the police officer, and without further provocation, she pepper sprays him and his female friend directly in the eyes. The fact that the verbal altercation so quickly turned to the use of pepper-spray was shocking to many of the video’s 100 000+ viewers, and resulted in the officer being “pulled” from working future protests by the SPVM brass.
In addition to other instances of police unnecessarily using truncheons against peaceful protesters, there has been a rash of police attacks on media, as documented by Concordia University TV. SPVM spokesman Ian Lafrenière claims nonetheless that many of the complaints are simply based on form letters circulating on the internet and have been submitted to the ethics commission in order to “overload the system.”
If the system – both of police resources and ethics complaints – was already overloaded, Bill 78’s repressive measures have ensured that it goes into overdrive. The law makes virtually any pro-strike demonstration illegal, either due to its location or because the requirement to reveal the itinerary is not being observed. As such, many protesters become essentially “criminal” by virtue of being near the action, as was the case for sports writer Dave Kaufman who was chased down and beaten by police while calmly walking away from a demo on the night of May 22.
While many will recall the SPVM’s “hands off” approach to the equally illegal massive daytime demonstration which gathered over 250 000 people circling the entirety of downtown Montréal, the night march was treated less leniently. Culminating in an unprecedented 518 arrests on the night of Wednesday, May 23, the SPVM appears to be taking a more cautious approach since, either as the result of horrendously bad domestic and foreign press, or because of the unexpected decentralization of the night marches.
The protests have now sprouted into dozens of casseroles marches (follow them on Twitter at #casserolesencours), in areas other than the usual route on Ste Catherine. Thousands of people in less central neighbourhoods have joined in the nightly pot-banging to protest 78, inspired by a civil disobedience tradition popular in Chile and Argentina. In a subtle nuance to his initial call for civil disobedience against Bill 78, Québec Solidaire MLA Amir Khadir called on citizens to engage in “civil obedience” during a night demo: “we must obey the principles of democracy rather than arbitrary undemocratic rules,” he told journalists from CUTV.
Internationally, a barrage of criticism has been levelled against the Charest government for enacting Bill 78. Editorials in the New York Times, The Guardian, and even the National Post have come out against it, with the particularly ironic addition of Russian Human Rights Minister Konstantin Golgov, who accused police of using “disproportionate measures.”
Domestically, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois scolded Charest by saying “that’s where the Québec Liberal party has taken us: mass arrests, more often than not arbitrary ones, to silence opposition,” and RG/2B publisher André Gagnon has created the Facebook group “GLBT contre la hausse des frais de scolarité” to raise awareness about the student cause’s importance to the queer community.
* photos by Chris Zacchia