This article was originally posted to Forget the Box, an independent Montreal-based media collective, which gave me an amazing opportunity to write for them. Check it out.
Last Monday two people were shot and killed by Montreal police. One was intermittently homeless and severely psychologically disturbed. The other was going to work, killed by the ricochet of one of 3-4 bullets fired by an SPVM constable. News updates pertinent to this story have been spotty and unfortunately eclipsed by F-1 weekend, and the key spokesperson for the SQ has been tight-lipped about how the investigation is proceeding. This week it came out that the constables involved were interviewed, albeit several days after the fact. The SQ had returned to the scene, indicating it was both unusual and not unusual simultaneously (I couldn’t help but think this was a ploy to use on the Anglo media, but I digress). Those involved, much like the deceased, were brought to CHUM St-Luc, where they were sequestered from the public. CCTV footage from UQAM is said to exonerate the constables as the mentally unstable Mario Hamel is said to have charged the constables with a knife, though this footage hasn’t been made public. And at the end of the day, the SPVM is once again embroiled in a scandal, the people of Montreal have a little less faith in law enforcement, and whatever seems obvious and factual in this case is muddled by collusion and potential conflicts of interest. Once again, the SPVM is investigated by the SQ, previously well known for the aborted siege of Kanehsatake and their propensity to send ‘agents-provocateurs’ into the fray at various anti-Capitalist demonstrations. Such is life in Montreal, and the regularity of this scenario has doubtless numbed the populace to the continuing problem of police brutality and excessive force. I’d like to think this was our quaint provincial problem, another element of badassery for a city high on street-cred; “don’t fuck with Montrealers, cuz they’ve been schooled by the Montreal fuzz” – that sort of thing – but there’s something about this particular case which stands out and has started affecting the way I think.
The word ‘tragedy’ has been artlessly applied by the few people available to speak openly about the case, such as the seemingly mal-informed Sureté public-relations hack. I suppose it is somewhat tragic, though in PR parlance ‘tragedy’ implies ‘accident’, and there’s nothing accidental about pulling the trigger of a ‘quick-action’ service pistol whilst aiming it at a man’s torso. Moreover, it can hardly be accidental when three or four shots are fired.
I can’t believe that there’s anything accidental about this shooting, when there are so many potential alternatives to using deadly force. I don’t mean to play armchair police-officer, and I still believe that the majority of law-enforcement in this country are regular people who work hard at their jobs and take themselves and their work with utmost seriousness. That being said, it increasingly looks to me as though we may have a law-enforcement problem in this country, one which is beginning to mimic the established law-enforcement problems south of forty-nine in terms of excessive force, though fortunately not yet in terms of frequency. For one, a security guard at the St-Luc hospital, which has its fair share of mentally and psychologically impaired visitors, told a local reporter they handle violent psychopaths and delusional schizophrenics with muscle, numbers, latex gloves and ‘talk-down techniques’. Hamel was well known in his circles, and had made some progress dealing with his mental health issues. That being said, when police approached him that fateful day, he was ripping open garbage bags and tossing their contents into the street. I can’t imagine how one could be a good cop and not know the curbside insane intimately, but apparently the constables involved in this fatal shooting saw him as a lethal threat and used, as they would describe it, appropriate force. Beyond the lethal threat, a maintenance man, Patrick Limoges, on his way to start an early morning shift. As he fell, nearby construction workers rushed to his aid, only to be dissuaded by gun-toting constables who warned them away from assisting the stricken man. It’s either for reasons of crime-scene control or because those involved weren’t sure which one was the threat. And either way I’m unimpressed.
We don’t need to dig up the growing list of innocent citizens killed by the SPVM for one reason or another over the years – it’s long and there’s a fairly accurate list online here at Flics Assassins. Nor do we need to contextualize this incident within the scope of post-9/11 public security planning, or even our country’s own sordid history of police brutality and misconduct – you can do your own research, and I know it will be worth your time. That said, what we ought to be focused on are some of the more basic elements of law-enforcement in this city, this province and country. For starters, are guns necessary in the first place? Could Mario Hamel have been stopped with a taser, a baton or pepper spray? If so, why were these weapons not employed instead? A few days after Hamel and Limoges were killed, SPVM constables responded to a distressed woman in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve similarly armed with a large knife; they tased her and that was that. Second, would regular neighbourhood foot patrols have helped police identify Hamel as fundamentally innocent, given his psychological problems? Would Hamel have felt as threatened if he recognized the intervening constables? Third, and this can go on for a while yet, is this an example of a good reaction time or of exceptionally bad judgement? Depends on who’s asking, and who cares to know. I hate to think someone breathed a sigh of relief when they discovered the victims of this ‘tragedy’ were homeless and a janitor, respectively.
I don’t want to fault the people who did the shooting as much as the system which put a gun in their hand in the first place. I want to blame the system that has flooded our city streets with poor unfortunates who require counseling and medication, but instead will die as anonymous corpses frozen to sidewalks. I want to know what changed our perspective; at what point did a cop go from being a civil-service employee, like a teacher, social-worker or mail-carrier, to someone who exists above and beyond the realm of normalcy – an individual who enforces laws, ostensibly for the public’s benefit, and yet doesn’t have to play by the same rules as the rest of us. Where’s my Police Brotherhood when I fuck up at work? Why can’t I take people’s cameras without reason? Why can’t I push people off the street with impunity? Why am I paying the salary, however indirectly, of the people who may one day kill or abuse me, perhaps tragically?
But the most disturbing question, after all that has been written about recent incidents of police brutality and misconduct, here in the 514 or elsewhere in Canada, is that the public is as paralyzed collectively as they are individually. We’ve become numb. We’ve become tolerant of yet another excess, but unlike apathy or deep-fried food, the excesses of law-enforcement, culminating in abuse and brutality as we’ve witnessed over the course of the last decade, will undoubtedly compromise our individual sovereignty. The people must act now before it’s too late, and though this nightmare scenario has ‘been done’ insofar as we’ve seen it manifest itself across the silver screen, it doesn’t mean we aren’t already in the process of losing our collective assurance to individual freedom. And freedom from needless death is pretty crucial – it’s one of the ‘pillars of difference’ that distinguishes our society from the dictatorships we precision-bomb.
And yet, here we are; on my short walk back from work the other day I passed five banks and a synagogue. Each had a security guard out front.