Montreal Cops Kettled a Women-Only Anti-Austerity Protest

Protest like a girl: No-men protest ends in tear gas and arrest.

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Apr 8 2015, 3:18pm

One person at the protest sported a patch that reads "SPVM [Montreal police] in the service of the rich and fascists." Photos by Alex Bailey

Tuesday was, in many ways, a very normal night in downtown Montreal.

About a thousand young people blocked downtown streets, protesting against the provincial government's budget cuts.

But unlike most nights, everyone there was a woman and/or transgender.

It was no statistically improbable coincidence—men were "forbidden" from taking part in Tuesday night's march for a whole bevy of reasons.

"OUR BODIES, OUR CHOICES! Let's be numerous and fearless in the streets at night!" read the event's invite. "Cisgender men not welcome."

Organizers say some women are more comfortable protesting without men in the crowd, even if that means going chest-to-chest with an overwhelmingly male set of riot police.

They also say larger, louder men can drown out the voices of their female counterparts.

Organizer Catherine Fournier-Poirier explained that it's generally men at the front of the protest lines and men who are more confident.

"We need spaces where women can speak and women can empower themselves and be in front of the line for once," she said.

They also argue Philippe Couillard government's ongoing effort to cut $3 billion in provincial spending—mostly in health care and education—would disproportionately affect women.

Meanwhile, they say some of the province's current investments—like the Plan Nord, which would see mineral extraction in the northern part of the province—will give more jobs to men.

On top of that, critics say restructuring the province's health care system will make it harder for women to access abortion.

So, for protesters like Florence Dancause, showing up on Tuesday night was mostly about speaking up for women.

"This is for us: we are women, we're protesting for ourselves, for our own interests."

Perhaps sensing there might be some political debate over whether men should be allowed to march with women for women's issues, the event's Facebook page shut down its wall in advance of the protest lest the MRAs get their undies in a bunch.

People still found ways to weigh in with generally sexist comments.

"There's a bunch of people over at the #manifencours who should go back to their kitchen and make me a sandwich," wrote one guy, stealing his grandfather's joke.

In the end, no men showed up, or if they did, they didn't cause trouble. Fournier-Poirier said that if men did come, they wouldn't encourage it—but they also wouldn't tell them to leave.

"I invite people to not politicize people during the protest. It was advertised that men are not welcome, but it's not our job to say who is a man and who is a woman."

But as the protest took over downtown Montreal streets, an American tourist—who happens to be a man—was accidentally swept up as riot police blocked all directions except that of the protest.

Thorn Capron didn't really know what was going on, or why women were yelling at him.

Once it was explained to him, he was cool with it.

"I have nothing against it, People seem very passionate about it. I just hope it doesn't get bloody," he said.

It didn't get bloody, but police seemed to be fairly equal-opportunity in their handling of the protest.

As usual, scores of riot police lined the protest route wielding shields and batons. Undeterred, the crowd screamed at them to move, and chants of "fuck the police/no justice/no peace" broke out.

Riot police lined up to cut off protesters

When police blocked their path, chants changed to "It's not up to men to tell us what to do."

A Montreal bylaw requires protesters to give police a protest route, but organizers of the protest didn't bother, causing police to scramble to catch up with the crowd.

About an hour into the march, the police declared it illegal, claiming someone assaulted an officer.

That's when things deteriorated: police kettled protesters into a smaller side street, set off sound grenades, and pepper sprayed protesters.

Ikram Belbahri, a woman in her 20s, was walking to the Metro with her friend while police were aggressively trying to break up the crowd. She said she wasn't surprised when they grabbed her, hit her with their shields, but she was upset because she wasn't part of the protest.

"I'm honestly more pissed [about that]," she said.

One woman was arrested and people hit by tear gas tended to their swollen faces in the Metro after police eventually dispersed the crowd. But it was, all-in-all, a typical Montreal evening protest.

For men sour about missing out on the march—fret not.

The student protest movement resumes all week, as organizers try to re-create the 2012 "Maple Spring" protests that saw the fall of the provincial government. There are about two protests per day planned for Montreal.

Follow Kate McKenna on Twitter.

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