Protest’s Variable Standards (Le Devoir)

By: Marie-Andrée Chouinard
riginally published on: April 4, 2015
Original French text here:

The way that cops treat students is different than the way they treat other advocacy groups

PHOTO CREDIT: Annik MH De Carufel Le Devoir | Hundreds of protesters, including many students, took to the streets in Montreal to oppose police brutality on March 15

Thursday April 2, Montreal. A motley crowd in the street, a street flooded by the spring sunlight that is finally warming our faces, faces coloured with the red of protest, a protest suddenly halted by shots of teargas and the charge of police officers.

Montreal, Sunday March 29. On this chilly day, women take to the streets and step out of Émilie-Gamelin square while shouting chants aimed at reminding Couillard’s government that no one is to hinder abortion access. Around 500 people make their way towards Health Minister Gaétan Barrette’s office then turn back around. The police flank the march but never intervene.

In both cases, no itinerary was provided to the police administration. No “violent” incidents were noted by the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM). And yet these two protests came to two very distinctive conclusions. Why?

“It’s quite obvious from the dozen recent protests: when they are not organized by student groups, but by feminist groups for example, they are not subject to the same treatment. The treatment is notably differential, and it amounts to political profiling.”

Céline Bellot, a professor with Université de Montréal’s School of Social Services, is specifically involved in the study of this kind of discrimination which, unlike racial and even social profiling, is not “judicially recognized”. In her opinion, that doesn’t make it any less of a reality. The Observatoire sur les profilages (OSP) [loosely translated as the Profiling Observatory, which is a group hailing from the university, institutional and community sectors seeking to keep an eye on differential treatment in Montreal]. “We’re very squarely in a downward spiral, to the extent that as a preventative measure before an event, stereotypes, characters and prejudices will be used to come to the conclusion that some communities – in this case, the students – espousing beliefs that go against the neoliberal current are disturbing, threatening and deserve to be addressed by the law and repressed”, Bellot states.

This differential treatment based on “what the protesters believe and who they are rather than what they do” would explain how both the seemingly good protest and its dark opposite, the bad protest, can coexist.

Kids will be kids !

“In all this persecution of non-conformity, one element appears central to me: the question of youth as a threat to the established order”, wrote Marco Sylvestro in 2010 in a special report by the Ligue des droits et libertés [a provincial non-profit that seeks to make known, promote and defend the rights stated in the Charter of Human Rights] about the “discriminatory profiling in public spaces”. “We used to say that kids will be kids, making light of youth’s turbulence and exuberance. During the 60s and 70s, young people, who formed a majority, were given much leeway. In today’s ageing society led by these grown-up baby boomers, it seems that there are no apologies made for the youth, nor do they carry influence in numbers: they must toe the line of the dominant moral order posthaste and are no longer allowed “errors of youth”.”

And yet, the author asks, do we not still live in the age of “freedom”? “Freedom in conformity, yes! Il would appear that this very diversity and freedom are only reserved for those who are on the right side of power, be it political, economic or demographic. Other young folks, those who are not well-integrated, immigrant or dissident, need to get in line, follow the rules, march in step or risk punishment, both figuratively and literally.”

Baton-charging, the waltz of shields, the chant of boots on asphalt : Maxime L. Valade, the 23 year-old UQAM student who became infamous for the wound inflicted on May 4, 2012 that caused the loss of his eye, laments repression tactics. But instead of finding them frightening, he finds them galvanizing. “During the 2012 strike, there were 4 protests a day. The police are chasing you straight to your front door and into your dreams. You go to bed still feeling the sway of the crowd, it’s so intense that your heart’s almost fluttering. It’s always the same. The cries, the impending bludgeoning, the feeling of no longer being able to turn a blind eye. You’re not afraid. You feel strong. You’re amongst a community and you see that we can gain strength together. It’s wonderful.”

Normalization and indifference

Last Wednesday, thirty groups who are worried and shocked by the increased power of political profiling – accompanied by its consequent police repression – also denounced the apparent normalization within which the brutality functions. A little earlier, Education minister François Blais made obvious the atmosphere of indifference surrounding the events: in an interview, he explicitly asked that the rectors and principles expel two or three obstructive and sensation-hungry students daily as punishment for their inacceptable behaviour, and to give others pause for thought in the process.

In the middle of their press conference, the spokespeople could barely hold back their anger. “It’s frankly beyond comprehension!”, affirmed Nicole Fillion of the Ligue des droits et libertés.

In Céline Bellot’s opinion, it amounts to a political strategy – easily adopted by mainstream media – of firmly insisting upon a rhetoric which purports these groups as being “radicals, radicalized and all that goes along with that in the popular imagination, encouraging confusion and conflation between terrorists, radicals and those who oppose austerity. There’s clearly a political interest in maintaining these conflations and confusions.”

One need only to have attended this week’s press conference about police brutality to grasp the issue. The majority of journalist’s questions were about one single issue: whether or not protesters provided their itinerary, “as if that question alone could discredit the entire set of opinions and beliefs underlying a protest movement”, added Bellot.

In the report produced by the Commission spéciale d’examen des événements du printemps 2012 [the Special commission for the study of the events of the spring of 2012] – known as the Ménard report –, commissioners noted that in the midst of the student conflict that became social crisis, the collective obsession around the the police rules for halting protests (Montreal’s P6 regulation that was adopted in May 2012 and article 500.1 of the Highway Safety Code) took up considerable space, at the expense of the right to peaceful protest, protected by the charter. The commissioners pointed out that they were concerned that the very nature of the regulations, namely the obligation to provide an itinerary under P6, “had the consequence of presuming the illegality of the exercise”.

“The constructed demonization around what a student association is capable of at a protest is quite a thing to observe”, notes Céline Bellot. “And what exactly are we penalizing them for? Infractions of the Highway Safety Code [article 500.1 were invoked for 1890 of the 2542 arrests made by the SPVM in the spring of 2012] which are nothing more than the rules used when you speed or don’t wear your safety belt. Are we going to start using such a demonizing tone towards all those who don’t properly stop at intersections? These are precisely the double standards that are manifested in the logic of profiling.”

Police shin guards

And yet it’s a more global movement that is causing a sector Quebec’s population to rise up, and not a sector-based swell, as was the case in 2012 when tuition hikes in higher education were at the root of of the conflict. “By protesting against the Couillard government’s policies, students are demonstrating greater lucidity and solidarity, which should inspire us”, wrote the teachers from UdeM’s Social Services School recently in a text aimed at supporting the student struggle. “Beyond the real impacts on them as individuals, students have the courage to stand up and denounce the more global reach of the Liberal government’s choices and decisions. Austerity does not target specific sectors. It is a global approach that carries consequences for each and every citizen of Quebec.”

But instead of defending this message, students are made to respond across all platforms “to the rhetoric of direct threats on the part of public authorities”, claims Bellot, who attended the anti-repression collective’s press conference this week. “We can see it in the media’s reaction: all that counted was the minister’s speech about expelling students and the ASSE’s reaction, and itinerary question. All the rest, the austerity discourse, didn’t matter.”

The global struggle that some believed was ideal to bring together all groups in protest remains quite segmented – as proven by the red stickers which state “We stole nothing” and are plastered on the shin guards of the very cops who are chasing down protesters in the streets… “We’ve segmented the whole debate on the students’ right to strike when, in the end, the austerity policies against which they’re fighting are affecting everyone, explains Céline Bellot. It’s not only a problem in education, it affects daycares, women, organizations fighting poverty, the public sector, so it’s a generalized problem. However, we’re demonizing one sector over another. It’s the very definition of political profiling.”


Translated from the original French by Language and Dissent, a collectively-run blog supporting the anti-austerity struggle in Quebec. These are amateur translations written by volunteers; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may have their flaws. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us via email (languageanddissent [at] gmail [dot] com). Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.

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