A protest against police brutality in Montreal turned violent Sunday night when a militarized police force clashed with a group of white attendees who were acting as agitators, according to several demonstrators.
Eyewitnesses told VICE that groups of young white men in black clothing were throwing rocks at a cop car, looting, and tagging a building in Creole, a language spoken by Black Haitians.
Thousands of people gathered Sunday evening in Montreal as a part of an anti-racist demonstration, the latest in a global movement protesting the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was killed on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.
The Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal (SPVM) have a strained relationship with racialized communities, and Sunday’s demonstration called for tangible changes like the addition of body cameras for police officers and increased accountability between the police and Black Montrealers. It was a powerful indictment of a police force that is 92 percent white.
Videos of the Montreal demonstration, which drew crowds of an estimated 15,000 and 20,000 people, show a spirited and upbeat crowd, before attendees observed a moment of silence for the hundreds of victims of police violence.
But things took a turn for the worse when police from the SPVM and Sûreté du Québec (SQ) slowly re-emerged in riot gear and announced at 8:15 p.m. that the protest, which had remained peaceful, was suddenly deemed illegal.
Protesters mistakenly cheered for police who appeared to take a knee in solidarity, before realizing the officers were simply kneeling to put on gas masks. Within minutes, officers deployed tear gas canisters into the crowds across Place des Arts, inciting panic and forcing most demonstrators to leave the site for good. The protests soon turned into a violent rebellion and hundreds of people smashed windows, looted, and damaged property. The SPVM arrested 11 people.
In the aftermath of the chaos, many protesters converged online and shared first-hand accounts and footage they had captured from the event that showed white protesters dressed in black destroying public property, smashing storefronts, and antagonizing police.
Stefan Verna, a Black documentary filmmaker, was wrapping up shooting for the day when he noticed a group of about 15 young white people, mostly men, all dressed in black tactical gear, throwing rocks at a circling police vehicle, seemingly without provocation.
“I interrupted them and asked, ‘Do you know this will negatively impact the way the mass media portrays the event? Why are you doing this in our name?’ They told me to fuck off.”
Verna’s friend intervened when a woman who appeared to be with the group of men attempted to launch a recycling bin at a parked car.
Verna estimates that as he left the protest, he saw at least 100 black-clothed people, most of whom appeared to be white, breaking things and agitating an increasingly tense situation.
On Twitter, dozens of accounts appear to confirm the same thing, with users sharing videos and first-hand accounts of what many people believe was a coordinated effort.
Denise E., whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was standing with her friends earlier in the evening when she noticed a large group of people standing nearby. “All of them were covered in black, from head to toe. I noticed a few of the men had socks over their shoes and none of them had signs for the protest,” said Denise. “The group disbanded when my friends and I began taking photos of them.”
Another Twitter user zoomed in on one of Denise’s photos claiming it showed one of the men speaking into a headset.
Photographer Manoucheka Lacherie confronted three members of the black-clothed group as they tagged the side of the Ville Marie building.
“I went to take a closer look at what they were writing, and I saw they were tagging the building in Creole, a language spoken by the Black Haitian community. All three were white, and when I started taking photos, they charged at me and tried to break my camera,” Lacherie said.
Lacherie said she believes they were tagging in Creole because “they wanted it to look like Black people are the ones responsible for creating chaos and breaking the law.”
“Once hell broke loose, people of all colours were looting. But the initial agitators all looked the same,” said Verna. “There is a time and place for inciting violent protests. But not when you’re a group of anarchist white kids with absolutely no agenda. Don’t appropriate our social movement and then go back to your home in the suburbs, where you’re protected by police.”
While no group has emerged to claim leadership over the initial vandalism, the Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. has warned that Black Lives Matter protests might be infiltrated by militia groups, some of which are overtly white supremacist, to discredit the movement.
In the past the Black Bloc tactics have often appeared at protests in Montreal, with people wearing the same black disguises and functioning with a similar objective of challenging authority, capital, and property.
Montreal mayor Valerie Plante tweeted her support of protesters and said it appears much of the ransacking was not initiated by many of the demonstrators themselves.
In an even rarer move, the SPVM admitted that the protest was peaceful until the opportunistic actions of a few escalated the situation for everyone.
A 2019 study commissioned by Legault found that Black, Indigenous, and Arab Montrealers all experience system violence at the hands of police.
Ultimately, Verna and others, including the event’s organizers, say the demonstration was a success. But next time, Verna said organizers should be more explicit like they were in Toronto about who is welcome at the event beforehand.
“I don’t think any of those hundreds of white kids cared about the essence of our protest. This is what cultural appropriation looks like on a political level.”
A second demonstration in Montreal is planned for next Sunday.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to the witnesses as organizers, when if fact they were demonstrators. Language surrounding an allegation of a headset being used and the description of the Black Bloc has been changed for greater clarity.