I Got Arrested at an Anti-Police Brutality Protest in Montreal
It was 4 o'clock on Friday when my phone rang. I had just returned from the gym and my hair was a disgusting, sweaty mess. “Hello?” It was Ben, my co-worker from the VICE office in Montreal. “We've got to get down to the protest! It's going to be crazy, like super violent and shit!” I let out an audible sigh. “I had class all morning and I haven't even showered today,” I said, trying to think of a viable excuse to not spend my Friday evening mingling amongst enraged anarchists. “Doesn't matter, put a hat on, grab a taxi, and meet me down here in an hour,” said Ben before ending the call. A little peeved, I stuffed my DSLR in a backpack, withdrew the last $20 from my bank account, and made my way over to Place-des-Arts where the protest was set to begin.
Immediately upon arrival, I noticed the disorderliness of the scene. The protest had already begun but there was no clear marching route, just random clusters of people making their way down side streets as riot police attempted to restrict them. Because the organizers of the protest failed to abide by Quebec's controversial Bill 78 aka Bylaw P-6 (that requires demonstrators to submit their itinerary to police eight hours before marching) the protest was declared illegal. Usually when this happens, Montreal police permit protesters to mill about for quite some time before shit turns real and people get kicked and cuffed for doing stupid things, like throwing eggs at a non-political storefront.
But something about this protest seemed different. Police began detaining and arresting protesters even before the marching began. At a press conference later that night, the SPVM (Service de police de la Ville de Montréal) described how they utilized a little-known section of the law to detain protesters for several hours because they were perceived to be potential threats. I watched police confiscate signs and drag away callback cheer leaders for evoking the growing crowd.
Because I was shooting with such a short lens, I knew I had to be up close to the action to take any decent photos. I spent two hours running after an angry mob, climbing up on fences to take overhead shots and trying to track down Ben's whereabouts. At about 7:30 p.m., I'd had enough and began searching for the nearest metro station. I turned on to St. Urban, which was now rather congested with demonstrators. As I pushed my way through the crowd, riot police began banging their batons against their shields like some kind of ominous war drum. They then stormed the street from both sides. Oh. Fuck.
Utter chaos ensued, and I dived into a divot of a storefront with a group of bewildered teenagers who had just stepped out of a cafe (worst timing ever). A police officer approached us, and seeing the camera around my neck, pushed me forcibly towards the middle of the road with his shield. I let out my whiniest, most over dramatic “OWWWW!!” to make it stop. It worked, but I was now part of a clusterfuck of students and journalists encircled by riot police. This tactic is known as kettling, and now I was experiencing it first hand.
Angry and flustered, I held my camera up to the tinted face-mask of the officer closest to me, “Je suis journaliste!” I shouted, attempting to push past him. I was instantly stiff armed in the gut. “Unless you're the anchor of the nightly news on CBC, you're under arrest,” he snorted. Me, arrested? I am pretty much the most law-abiding citizen you will ever come across. I don't even J-walk most of the time, thanks to Jante law and a semester abroad in Scandinavia.
Uncontrollable sobbing hiccups set in—the kind where you're trying not to cry but you can't help it and suddenly everything you say becomes incomprehensible. I plucked my brown paper Concordia University journalism press pass from my wallet, hoping it would serve as a get out of jail free card. “That thing won't get you anywhere,” the officer said. Hot tears began rolling down my cheeks. Another photojournalist took a picture of me confronting the officer. I secretly hoped it wouldn't appear on the front page of The Gazette the next morning. It wasn't. The officer shook his head at me, “Be a big girl and suck it up.” I have often wondered what would prompt a human being to spit a giant loogie in someone else's face but for a split second, the thought crossed my mind.
Suppressing my Flavor of Love inspired intentions, I refocused my attention on being released. “Is there a media relations sergeant I can speak to then?” I said between massive hiccups. “It's Friday evening, he's not working right now.” This annoyed me even further as the Anti-Police Brutality march takes place on the same day every year. It would only make sense for the SPVM to plan accordingly. I later found out this was a lie fed to me by the officer to coerce me to comply.
I spent the next hour and a half huddled shoulder to shoulder with total strangers, fielding calls from Ben and my editor, tweeting the SPVM to get me the hell out and attempting (unsuccessfully) to stifle my hiccups. Finally, just as I began losing feeling in my toes, an STM bus pulled up and the police officers began lining us up to be frisked and searched. As a frequent traveler, I have been patted down at airports on several occasions. But here in Montreal, the police take frisking to a whole other level of awkwardness and discomfort. They make damn sure you aren't carrying a shank in your vagina or décolletage. I went all the way to second base with a female police officer whose name I will never know.
At the next stop on the shame train, I was forced to say my name, date of birth, and address into a hand-held video camera. For some odd reason, the woman behind the camera was smiling and laughing the entire time like she gets off on apprehending journalists for doing their job. I was so flustered I couldn't even comprehend French or remember my address. I ending up blubbering something about my former residential address in New Hampshire, totally forgetting my parents moved into a condo in another town six months ago. Thanks to my otherwise irrelevant student journalist press pass, I was loaded onto a bus filled with protesters who were deemed less abrasive. I had to give my name and address to yet another police officer who fitted me with a blue numbered bracelet like I had just bought a ticket to the fucking carnival. I was ordered to turn off my iPhone and my backpack was placed into a large plastic bag. Then came the handcuffs, black plastic zip-tie suckers that were pulled so tightly I had marks on my wrists until the next morning. We on the pacifists bus were apparently lucky, others were said to have been cuffed behind their backs.
I leaned my head against the window, thankful there was enough scum on it that the diners in the restaurants along St. Urbain probably wouldn't recognize me. In a Shawshank Redemption type reverie, I contemplated the things I would do once I re-joined life on the outside. I desperately wanted to take a long, hot shower and spoon with my boyfriend.
Students on the street corner cheered in solidarity as our bus pulled away, snapping me out of my daydream. We drove 35 minutes a detaining center in the West Island, a completely unnecessary ride that left us far from public transportation and a bar in which to drown our sorrows. Almost two and a half hours had passed since the initial kettling, and I figured my plans to meet up with friends for drinks were pretty much null as I was literally tied up. Myself and others were never brought inside to be processed, all the paper work was completed on board the bus. We had been shipped to the West Island simply to get us the hell away from downtown. The officers explained we were essentially receiving the world's most expensive ($637) parking ticket, which I did not find humorous as I had already received an actual parking ticket earlier in the day. The offense would not be pinned to our criminal records, it was simply a large fine for obstructing traffic.
The minors on the bus were processed first. As soon as his handcuffs had been severed with wire cutters, one youth put an unlit cigarette between his lips. “You're a smoker at 15 years old?” a police officer asked him in French. He stared back at her coldly, fully aware she couldn't do a thing until he put a match to it. I envied his pre-pubescent rebelliousness.
Because I was close to the front of the bus, I was the next one to be liberated. Once again I accidentally provided the wrong address, mostly because I'm a millennial who doesn't believe in the postal service. Later this week I will be forced to shamefully call the SPVM and correct this error. With two clips to my handcuffs, I was a free woman. To my dismay, I wasn't allowed to keep them as a souvenir. I exited the bus and took a right turn onto the street.
I saw a guy standing on the corner and began walking toward him to ask for directions. “Hey, did you just get arrested?” he asked before I could say anything. “Yeah, actually I was,” I replied, no longer embarrassed but thankful to be able to move my wrists. “Would you like a sandwich...water...popcorn?” he asked, pulling a PB&J in a plastic baggy from a duffel bag. I declined the offer, still too much in shock to feel any hunger. “Do you know how to get to the metro from here?” I asked. “There's a bus that will take you there, but it's pretty far. If you wait a few minutes in that parking lot we're offering free rides to the station.” I was floored by the well-organized hospitality of these volunteers. They had their shit together far better than the SPVM.
I jumped in the back of a sedan along with a photojournalism student from Loyalist College and a McGill protester who had come to denounce the violence she witnessed during Quebec's notorious Maple Spring. Our chauffeurs, Jerôme and Ève, were kind enough to shuttle us all the way to a further metro stop so we could get on the green line towards downtown. “I have to say, with every protest I'm impressed by how communal the atmosphere is despite the occasional violence,” I said to Jerôme as we nervously passed a police cruiser. “I think that's part of the reason people keep coming back, they like to feel like they're part of something, or part of a movement,” he replied. Jerôme's answer got me thinking: Maybe Quebecers cling to these protests because active, public dissent makes them feel validated in a world driven by faceless internet like's, shares and up points. Being out there in the streets, showing your support for what you believe in is a lot more rewarding than sending a tweet to @PMHarper about how you think his policies suck.
Feeling rather philosophical and as though I'd been bestowed with good samaritan karma, I exited the car and gave another passenger a Loonie for the metro. My night ended with a shower, a cup of tea, some borrowed sweatpants, and the quiet satisfaction that I'd added a badass story to the repertoire to tell my future grandchildren.
Follow Kelsey on Twitter @KelseyPudloski
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