Montreal - I was at last night’s demonstration in Montreal. What was most impressive was that 15,000 people showed up to a night demo, knowing that there was a certainty of brutal police repression, but they showed up anyway. It was without a doubt the most intense demonstration I’ve ever been to: but its been par for the course for people here in Montreal, and they keep showing up in the streets, day after day.
I showed up in the park around 8:45, having been adopted by some awesome Quebecois militants (this is not the kind of demo you want to go to by yourself), I was shocked at the amount of people. They weren’t just students either, there were many grey heads in the crowd, workers, people of all ages, showing the broad base of support the student movement has. With the recent history of police violence, everyone there knew with a certainty that this demonstration was going to get bad, and that they were risking a beating or an arrest or worse simply by showing up. And yet they were there, in solidarity with each other, in the dark.
The march took off, heading under an overpass. You really felt the size of the crowd once it was on the move*. Montreal seems to have a much better protest culture than Toronto (or maybe its developed it over the past months) with spirited chants and songs arising from the crowd. “A- A- Anti capitaliste” was common, as was the French version of “whose street? our streets. You saw many red flags everywhere, and of course everyone had a red square, but I only saw two Quebec flags in the entire protest.
The night demo, called by a subsection of the militant student union CLASSE, came after an earlier CLASSE demonstration during the day which involved a few thousand people, mostly students (see Tim McSorley of the MMC's post for the political background to last night's protest). Notably, the afternoon demonstration had no ‘violence’ of any sort- because the cops left it alone, tailing behind the protesters in vans but not showing their presence march or attacking the protest.
This was not to be the case in the night. As the march continued, tensions began to rise and some in the crowd started to pull bandanas over their faces in anticipation of tear gas (many did not however). The demonstration still had not been called illegal. But nothing happened yet: there was an air of nervous tension, everyone knew what was coming and was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Would the police really tangle with such a large crowd? Protesters shot off one or two fireworks into the air. The militant demo on Friday had been about 2000, although some people had dropped off over the past hour or so of marching (mainly the older people) it wasn’t many and the crowd was still over 10,000 ( I didn’t do a serious crowd estimate at this point, but it didn’t seem that we were losing that many).
As we walked down Ste. Catherine’s street the march slowed to halt. Suddenly we could see tear gas glistening in the streetlights ahead, and before that had time to register ‘BOOM’, ‘BOOM’. The police shot their explosives at us. I was some distance, maybe 100 meters, from the explosions, but they were really scary, not just for me but for the whole crowd who has been dealing with this for weeks. They reminded me of the artillery simulators with a quarter stick of dynamite we used to use in the army (but at a safe distance in training on each other- I know the cops have no such concern the safety of protesters as we did back when we threw artillery stimulators near our friends). The crowd, despite being experienced militants all started to run panic, we were simultaneously running away from the explosions and urging each other to slow down, the same people doing both things. I hugged one of my comrades and our small group of four all grabbed each other to stick together as our section of the crowd headed away from Ste. Catherine’s
I couldn’t hear it at the time but if you watch the CUTV footage (and you should- CUTV reporters have been bravely throwing themselves into the thick of the protests day after day) the police then announce the demonstration is illegal, after having shot the tear gas and explosives at the protesters. They then pepper spray the CUTV reporters and even the camera after they try to film police brutality. Reports from comrades say that at the same time, people at the rear of the march were attacked by police with clubs and beaten badly. (Montreal police now carry extra long clubs that look about 3 ft long, which they didn’t have before the student strike)
Our section of the march ended up being about 200 people, which was too small. We tried to avoid kettling and then ended up trying to hold an intersection at one point, but there just weren’t enough people for the number of cars and the mini-section started dissolving in every direction. We ended up walking on the sidewalk for a long while trying to see if any significant group of people had stayed together, it seemed that there were small crowds of few hundred or so everywhere. It seems that this was a common experience, the march in general seems to have split at this point.
Some windows were broken, but it appeared to me to be very targeted, almost all bank windows. And as a justification for police violence against eight or nine thousand people, collective punishment for a dozen or so broken windows and a few knocked over garbage cans is a pretty thin excuse anyway. What you won’t ever see on mainstream TV is people pouring water into the eyes of comrades injured from pepper spray, or walking from safety right into a demonstration that’s being attacked. CUTV even showed a protester in a hoodie putting the garbage back into a garbage can even as he marched.
The violence last night was by the police.
We walked around for some time trying to find a demonstration of significant size- occasionally we found one but the road was always blocked off by riot cops. At about midnight at St. Denis and Maisonnueve a greyhound bus almost ran over several protesters, turning left through the intersection at an unsafe speed. And then the demonstration found us, marching up St. Denis, there was a big crowd of 1000 people, still together, still marching after about 4 hours of serious demonstrations.
It was shortly after this that I started to feel exhausted and I left the march with a friend from the Media Co-op, saying goodbye to the comrades who had stuck with me all night even though we’d just met. CUTV reported that part of the crowd I was with got split off and kettled and mainstream media reports 82 arrests. There are many more injuries, from shrapnel from the explosive devices, from beatings and from tear gas and pepper spray. We’ll never get accurate numbers on that. Twitter reported that people were being arrested in the Metro as well.
That was my experience last night in Montreal as a visitor from Toronto. I’m heading back to Toronto tomorrow to help organize for Mayday, because the best solidarity is organizing on your own ground. I hold the greatest respect for the people here who have been facing this throughout the ten week long strike and continue to come out in greater numbers, defying the police and the state in a brave stand against austerity capitalism. I wish them the best of luck in the critical few weeks to come.
*It's difficult to do estimates of the size, La Presse originally reported 12,000 people last night, but Radio Canada (CBC in Quebec) said 3000-4000 which was clearly a ridiculous underestimate. Montreal Media Co-op estimates 15,000.