On April 3rd I was covering the anti-austerity demonstration organized by the ASSÃ‰ student collective for CJAD, keeping myself at the front of the line snapping photos of what some fear may be the return of regular and illegal student demonstrations, such as we experienced from the autumn of 2011 onwards and characterizing much of 2012.
These demonstrations, referred to as the Printemps Ã‰rable and drawing an inappropriate connection to far more violent (and necessarily so) affairs in the Maghreb and Middle East, followed a routine formula. Students assembled, police declared the march illegal but would wind up escorting it, tolerating it, for a while, and then the usual degeneration into riot squad charges, injuries and arrests.
The student protests of 2012 arguably contributed to the downfall of Jean Charest as premier, in turn allowing Pauline Marois her opportunity to govern. Ms. Marois and the PQ were expedient, jumping on the student-driven protest movement, picking up two student leaders as future candidates and thoroughly capitalizing on the vague notions locals have that the PQ is a people-power party born of the social protest movement.
Eighteen months later and we’re back at square one – students enraged at government austerity measures taking to the streets, only now they’re ripping down pÃ©quiste and liberal election signs.
The students feel they’ve been sold out, but now they’re even further removed from the reigns of power given that they’re not being courted by any political party. It will be interesting to see whether this leads to more protests or a collective shrug.
But getting back to the April 3rd demonstration, after nearly four hours walking through the streets of the downtown core without incident, the protest suddenly ended with three loud bangs near the intersection of Sherbrooke and St-Urbain. It was my first taste of pepper spray. I also happened to witness the overt display of police brutality seen in the video above.
The man struck by police is Robert Fransham, 71 years old. He was standing in the street atop his bike, looking down when the riot squad charged east down Sherbrooke Street. I watched one officer stop, hit Mr. Fransham with his shield (sending him to the ground) and then, like a coward, continue running down the way.
Because riot police conveniently wear low visibility identifying tags, it’s impossible to tell precisely who it is.
And then there’s the convenient fallback line: he was just doing his job.
Though I was scarcely more than fifty meters away from where a group of journalists were assaulted by police officers (including a McGill Daily photographer shot in the gut with a rubber bullet from near point-blank range) at the beginning of the melee, I did not hear any kind of warning that the march was to be forcibly terminated.
In any event, Mr. Fransham took quite a hit to his head. I wound up providing first aid while we waited for the paramedics to arrive. As I was holding his head still and asking him the routine questions to gauge in just what kind of shape he was in, riot cops closed in around us in a circle, backs facing us.
And some person dressed as a mime kept trying to use his hat to cover the ubiquitous cameras trying to record the scene. Again, you can see that person in the video posted above.
If I didn’t presume to know better I’d swear whoever organizes these demonstrations is doing so at the behest of the Montreal police, in some insane effort to justify their annual budget.
There are just too many people walking around with not-so-subtle earpieces and walkie-talkies, not to mention a more-or-less predictable, though ostensibly spontaneous) choice of route, for this march to have so quickly degenerated into chaos, as it did. And what really kills me is the near Stephen Harper/ Federal Tory level of smugness towards the media by so many of the apparent leaders of the protest. I was astonished when, at the press scrum, the spokesperson’s press handler (go figure) announced that they would be taking a limited number of questions from journalists. Giving the impression there either isn’t much to say on this issue or otherwise establishing an adversarial relationship with the press isn’t doing anyone any favours.
Anyways, my point is, what could have possibly provoked the police to charge into (and beat up) a group of students like this? What threat did Mr. Franshaw pose to the officer who pushed him off his bike, smashing his head and eye and puncturing his shin in the process?
It’s inconceivable that anyone would have felt threatened by Mr. Franshaw or, frankly, anyone in that crowd. I’m six-three and weigh over two-hundred pounds and am far larger than the underfed first year university students who compose the vast majority of student demonstrators. Some people will go so far as to say I look like a cop – I never quite know how to take that…
The police charge was completely unnecessary and arbitrary. Tear gas and pepper spray was already clearing the street when the police decided to charge. Why? It served no purpose other than permit the use of force.
Is this some kind of reward for having to put up with riot squad duty? Behave yourself for four hours escorting the students and you’re given fifteen minutes to kick some ass?
On Friday Mr. Franshaw was re-admitted to hospital as injuries he sustained as a consequence of the police charge developed into a concussion. His leg injury was also more serious than initially reported, and he’s now under observation. On the plus side, he got his dented bike back. No word on who’s going to pay for his smashed glasses.
Is this normal?
Should this happen in our city?
If not, why do we tolerate it?
To be fair, the students aren’t completely innocent either. I don’t support government austerity measures because I know they don’t work and I’m fully committed to providing no-cost post-secondary education to the public, but illegal protest marches clearly don’t work (they’ve so far accomplished nothing more than giving us eighteen months of Pauline Marois as premier) – that is, they don’t work unless the end goal is to simply have brief moments of chaos and violence in our city streets.
If this is in fact the end goal of the student demonstrators, I’d encourage them to be more honest about it.
If there is a fundamental belief that in order to protect the social safety net violence must be provoked to draw the public’s attention to the urgency of the cause then say so and let the public judge the legitimacy of the message and the means.
But the claim made by student demonstrators that they don’t provoke any aggression is simply untrue – at least, not in all cases. Mr. Franshaw did not provoke the violence that came to him. Neither did the McGill photographer. But I did see one group of about four or five people try to push cops off their bikes as they went racing up The Main.
And then there were the stoned Einsteins who figured it wise to yell ‘fuck the police’ while the police were peacefully escorting the march through the Plateau.
ASSÃ‰ will tell you this is an exception to the rule, but with each and every student protest I attend it seems as though the exception is getting closer to the rule. Protests seem to be more a kind of walking party (with the potential for conflict) than a serious demonstration of grievances. The impression left by the student protest movement of the 1960s is strong, but it all too often seems as though local students view this as some kind of right-of-passage or otherwise necessary element of the student life aesthetic. It seems as though the students protest because protesting is thought of as being a cornerstone of the student experience.
Like Spring Break on a beach in Florida.
Or reading the first ten pages of the Communist Manifesto and proselytizing to anyone within earshot for the next four years to demonstrate your concern for the working man.
The protests are remarkably well-organized in terms of driving people to the march and leading the march through the city, but in terms of the message it couldn’t be less clear what the point is and how a protest march is going to change anything.
Remember, the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time hoping for a different result.
Therefore, to close, I’d like to propose trying things differently, though I’m not hopeful anyone in a position of power would listen.
Regardless; to the students, how about staying still?
Instead of an illegal protest march, why not file the necessary paperwork and ask to have a stationary demonstration in a large public place somewhere in the downtown core, ideally close to the office towers where the middle class does much of its work? Appeal to the public directly by engaging them in conversation rather than making traffic any worse than it has to be.
In sum, you don’t make friends by shutting down busy city streets.
And staying in one place and occupying it leaves a greater impression anyways. It looks bigger and more important.
To the police, how about not showing up?
Assume a demonstration of one kind or another happens on May 1st or May 3rd; what would happen if no police or riot squad showed up?
Imagine a group of protesters realizing there’s no visible expression of potential repression – how would they react?
I’m willing to bet the demonstration would fizzle very quickly. At least some potential protesters would wander off looking for the cops, thinking the march took off early. But I’m further willing to bet that without anyone standing in opposition to the protest interest would plummet, and whatever group is left over will be neither terribly impressive nor large.
Further, police could be dispatched in plain clothes to respond in case things got out of hand, but I’m convinced this wouldn’t be necessary.
My theory is that the majority of protesters are more interested in being part of a moment of violence with the police than they are effecting a long-term and fundamental change to the nature of the state, the social safety net and university financing broadly speaking.
Ultimately, it is not normal to tolerate endless and unproductive protests, nor the heavy handed response by police to these protests. I’m sick of it and I won’t tolerate a year of it. I think the majority of Montrealers are of this opinion.
So it’s really a question of whoever changes their tactics first has the opportunity to expose a weakness on the other side. Either way, the status quo can’t be maintained – it is demonstrably absurd to think so.