Anonymous Has Targeted Montreal Police for Their Treatment of Homeless People

Following the destruction of a popular encampment in the middle of winter, Anonymous has taken up the plight of Montreal's displaced homeless people.

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Jan 13 2015, 8:52pm

Montreal police threaten to dismantle a homeless camp in Viger Square. All photos and video by Simon Van Vliet

Members of the hacktivist collective Anonymous and a project they started last year, dubbed #OpSafeWinterMTL, have launched new protests in reaction to the dismantling of a homeless camp at Viger Square in downtown Montreal. The group has executed one distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack against the Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM) and a short-lived occupation of the square. Anonymous is calling for a permanent moratorium on winter raids on homeless encampments.

On January 7, without warning and in the middle of a cold streak—as temperatures dropped well under -30C overnight—city crews bulldozed the encampment, while SPVM officers stood by and watched.

Last week, in an interview with the CBC, Montreal police spokesman Laurent Gingras argued that it's a matter "of cleanliness, of public health," saying that the City had mostly collected garbage and soiled needles.

"There was some good stuff in there," said Jacques, 49, who returned to Viger Square on Monday after camping at the site for about three months. CBC's footage from the dismantlement clearly shows bulldozers piling up mattresses, blankets, pillows and sleeping bags.

"This is all they have," an Anonymous activist told VICE, outraged at how the City of Montreal destroyed and confiscated all their belongings–including winter gear provided by Op Safe Winter Montreal activists on December 23.

"This has nothing to do with public health, it has to do with aesthetics," she said. "What's actually a hazard is still on the floor," she added, pointing out that used syringes were still lying around in a corner of the destroyed encampment site.

In reality, the bulldozing of the camp and the removing of the homeless population might have less to do with public safety and more with social cleansing. The encampment is located in the lower downtown area, right across the street from the new Centre hospitalier universitaire de Montréal (CHUM) super-hospital construction site and half a kilometre from City Hall and the tourist-friendly Old Montreal.

Brutally removing the homeless population is nothing less than "an act of war against the poorest of the poor," the activist told VICE.

"The encampment was tolerated for a long time," another Anonymous activist added, saying there was no reason to dismantle it in the middle of winter.

SPVM Commander Vincent Richer from poste de quartier 21 insisted, however, that "the interventions that were made, in the context of extreme cold weather, were made with regards to the safety and health of homeless people."

He also noted that interventions with homeless people were made in partnership with health services and with the Old Brewery Mission, and that the material the City bulldozed was soiled and caught in the ice.

In response to the city's raid on the Viger Square homeless encampment, Anonymous launched a call for an occupation of the site and threatened the City of Montreal with attacks on its cyber infrastructure.

"Anonymous will not stand by and allow the SPVM (Montreal police) and the City of Montreal to attack homeless camps in the middle of winter," the hacktivist group stated in a January 11 press release.

"We love this camp," said one #OpSafeWinterMTL activist. "We want to help. We've got people ready to build a kitchen," the other added.

Two SPVM officers came by early Monday afternoon and took down all the signs that had been put up around the square. They told the activists that the occupation would not be tolerated.

"Encampments have always been forbidden," an officer named Fradette told both activists before she and her partner went to check out the site where homeless people had already started setting up a new camp.

When the activists were told they would be evicted by nightfall, Anonymous launched a DDoS attack on the SPVM's website, and successfully brought it down just before 5PM.

Anonymous's choice to target the SPVM can be seen as a response to widespread social profiling problems in Montreal, despite the SPVM's strategic plan on social and racial profiling.

In recent years, Montreal police have been criticised for their questionable handling of the homeless population. One year ago an SPVM officer was caught on a cellphone video threatening to tie up a homeless man to a pole in the biting cold of January. A 2012 study also showed that homeless people counted for 25 percent of all tickets gave out by the SPVM in 2010—a seven percent increase from 2006.

At Viger Square, Jacques told VICE, "Every week we get harassed by police.

"That's not right," he added.

SPVM officers have also been involved in the killing of several homeless men in mental health crisis. A public coroner's inquiry was launched this week into the shooting of Alain Magloire, who was gunned down on February 3, 2014, just a few blocks north of Viger Square.

With an estimated homeless population of around 30,000, the homelessness crisis in Montreal is serious. In an attempt to alleviate the problem, last fall the City of Montreal adopted an action plan on homelessness, which includes "reinforcing the exercise of citizenship."

It's hard to see how destroying a homeless winter camp and confiscating property from homeless people can be seen as reinforcing their citizenship.

"Raiding encampments and destroying precious cold weather gear belonging to the homeless is an act of war against the poorest of the poor," Anonymous declared in its statement on Sunday, accusing the City of Montreal of neglecting the needs of its most vulnerable population.

The action plan adopted in September 2014 does involve creating a position of "homeless people's protector" who would engage in regular consultation with homeless people and launch public consultations into issues of social profiling by the SPVM, something that has obviously not been done at Viger Square.

The watchdog for homeless people's rights has yet to be appointed. In the meantime, it's up to activist groups like Anonymous and community-based organization to do the job.

Follow Simon on Twitter.

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