Montreal, March 14th, 2016 – On the eve of the 19th protest organized by the Collectif opposé à la brutalité policière (COBP), a new Standing Committee for the Support of Demonstrators (SCSD) calls on civil society to attend, whether to participate in the protest or to simply be a witness to what will occur. As in the previous years, large-scale repression is to be expected, and it is essential to protect the freedom of expression of those who take to the streets to denounce police brutality. The protest will begin at 8pm on the corner of Garnier and Rachel streets, near Parc Lafontaine. From 5pm onwards at the same location, a BBQ organized by the Industrial Workers of the World will also provide those who attend an opportunity to exchange on the topic of police brutality.

The March 15th protests

The first International day against police brutality was held on March 15th, 1997 by the COBP here and the Black Flag collective in Switzerland. Protests against police brutality have since happened on this day in other Canadian cities, as well as in Germany, England, Belgium, the United States of America, Spain, France, Mexico, Nigeria and Portugal.

“In Montreal, year after year, the people who participate in this protest face a high level of repression, and it has only gotten worse in the last few years. The police presence is increasingly out of all proportion, we’re talking between 550 and 669 SPVM agents, more than twice the already large deployments of the beginning of the 2000s”, says Francis Dupuis-Déri, professor of political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal, who has been analyzing police tactics for several years. During the last five editions of the March 15th police brutality protest, between 2011 and 2015, 1035 people have been detained and often fined in virtue of bylaw P-6 of the city of Montreal or of articles 500 or 500.1 of the Quebec Highway Safety Code. We should recall that article 500.1 was adopted in 2000 to prevent truckers from using their vehicles to block highways and bridges, and was used for the first time eleven years later to repress the COBP protest in 2011.

The near totality of accusations relating to the March 15th protests have later either led to not guilty verdicts or been withdrawn by the crown and the trials cancelled. “It’s outrageous to see the police illegally use mass arrests to repress freedom of expression and of assembly, notwithstanding that it is a complete squandering of public resources. The legal department of the city of Montreal was forced to abandon hundreds of P-6 tickets in February 2015 when judge Randall Richmond ruled in favor of the protesters and strongly criticized the behavior of the SPVM”, denounces Émilie E. Joly, jurist and community organizer. The tickets thrown out by judge Richmond were written by a police officer who had not witnessed the infraction, something the judge thought equivalent to perjury. In November 2005, the Superior Court of Quebec deemed article 500.1 of the Quebec Highway Safety Code to be unconstitutional, as it imposed unreasonable limits to the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression by granting discretionary powers to the authorities.

Repression in Montreal

The use of mass arrests by the SPVM has led the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations to reprimand Canada twice since the 1990s. “We’re talking about people who have done nothing but walk on the street to protest and who are detained, often for several hours, in summer as in winter, without any access to toilets or water. In the worst cases, they are handcuffed and released at the wee hours of the morning outside of downtown, without access to public transportation. They can also be injured while the police are closing the kettle around them”, deplores Julien Villeneuve, who teaches philosophy at Collège de Maisonneuve.

While the SPVM often uses the protesters’ refusal to submit their itinerary in advance as an excuse to arrest them, things are not so simple. Between March 5th 2013 and May 24th 2014, the Collectif opposé à la brutalité policière has counted 60 protests who had not provided an itinerary and were still tolerated by the police, while the Ligue des droits et libertés counts only 17 demonstrations who also had not provided an itinerary and were repressed, including the March 15th protests. “It’s clear that the SPVM is selective about their repression, profiling on the basis of the kind of causes that the protesters espouse or the kind of people who, according to the SPVM, attend certain protests”, observes Jenny Cartwright, executive documentary producer. In the last few years, the SPVM has repressed the March 15th protest at the very moment it begins. How then can they invoke the bad behavior of a protest that didn’t occur to justify future repression?

An appeal to civil society

Many mechanisms are in place to denounce and contest this wave of mass arrests, including more than ten class action lawsuits. Some of these cover the March 15th protests of 2013, 2014 and 2015. These lawsuits contest the legality of the arrests, the violation of the fundamental rights of the protesters and the detention conditions. The unconstitutionality of parts of P-6 has been argued in front of the Quebec Superior Court in December 2014. The judgement is still pending.

Montreal’s head of public safety, Anie Samson, and the mayor of Montreal, Denis Coderre, have been asked many times to address this situation. They carry on denying there is a problem, while lauding the merit and professionalism of the SPVM.

It is therefore up to civil society to rise up against police brutality, to participate in the March 15th protest or at least to come act as a witness to it, to give their support to those who protest so that freedoms that benefit all of society may be upheld.

(Photo: COBP protest March 15th 2015, courtesy of André Querry.)