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By Rima Elkouri, published in La Presse, May 30, 2012
“It’s really the nightstick blow that started it all.”
The man who is talking to me in a hoarse voice is named Olivier Roy. He’s 31. Ski goggles are sitting on his table. He’s visibly exhausted. Visibly indignant.
By day, Olivier Roy is a philosophy teacher at CÉGEP de Terrebonne. By night, for more than a month, he has demonstrated against police brutality. He has participated in some thirty marches. He was still out there Tuesday night.
Olivier tells me, almost shyly, that he recently had to buy these ski goggles. Not for skiing, you understand. Neither for confronting the police—that’s not at all his style. But just to be able to demonstrate peacefully without worrying about his eyes. For more than a month, he’s felt too much pepper. He’s seen too many plastic bullets fired, too many concussion grenades that can blind a person. After his marathon of demonstrations, he has arrived at the sad conclusion that a citizen who wishes to protest needs two things; ski goggles and a camera.
It’s a strange time, when the most pacifistic philosophy teachers buy ski goggles or dress up as pandas to demonstrate. It’s a sad time when we place a higher priority on broken windows than we do on the young victims of brutality.
Olivier is no hothead. He’s a calm and composed teacher. He wrote a Master’s thesis about Michel Foucault. He has a great passion for Greek philosophy.
He’s no hothead, no, but the student strike that grew into this conflict radicalized him the same way it has radicalized so many people. At the beginning, he was a Sunday protestor. He only participated in marches on major occasions. Everything changed a month ago, during a peaceful night protest he attended with his girlfriend. That night, he tasted the medicine of the riot squad.
“Move! Move! Move!” shouted the police. “But the only way to move was to trample my girlfriend,” he says. Around him, there was no violence except that of the police. He received the first blows of a nightstick in his side. This was his baptism, he says.
That night, Olivier saw for the first time a concussion grenade explode over his head. He smelled tear gas. He saw people panicking around him. He was afraid. “What shocked and surprised me so enormously is that they didn’t give us any time to disperse.”
Faced with this excessive and unjustified use of force, the young teacher understood that he was left with only one possibility: to continue to march, if only to avoid giving in to fear.
As a result, he’s in the street every night. Four or five hours on foot every time. Between 15 and 20km, at a quick pace, in “occasionally terrorizing” circumstances. Not because of demonstrators, he stresses, but because of the unpredictable behaviour of police officers who prey on young people who are, for the vast majority, “guilty” only of wanting to be heard.
“As a teacher, I can’t tolerate this. My job is to love these kids. We’re treating them as though they were enemy soldiers. There is no sense in it. The management of the crisis by the police forces, first by the SPVM and then the SQ that arrives as reinforcements, is completely absurd.”
The din of the casseroles has changed the game. Police are less present, calmer, and more polite in these demonstrations against the Loi Speciale (78) which bring the average Joe and Jane out with their pots and pans. For the first time, police officers have treated him with respect, saying “please” and “thank you” while giving their orders. Before, it was insolence and a nightstick… A good thing that reveals another, less cheerful, truth, says the teacher. When the police considered this nothing more than a problem related to the young, they didn’t find it at all serious to beat and pepper-spray people without reason. [translator’s note: original text refers to the use of the respectful address “vous” and the informal, familiar address “tu” in French, which doesn’t translate at all, unfortunately.]
This conflict has divested Olivier of any confidence he could have had in our public institutions. The institutions that have given more to the theatre and to corporatism than to the search for truth, justice, and the common good, he says. The result is that the conflict has created a movement of anarchists.
However, the disillusionment has also given rise to a new hope: the impression of a slightly better understanding of the democratic ideal. “Contrary to what people say, these students are, in this moment, giving all of us a lesson in democracy. It’s not enough to build consent to power—which is what those who claim to “represent” and “protect” us do with so much unhealthy determination and intelligence. Participation in power involves a hyperactive exercise in citizenship.” [translator’s note: this was a particularly tough one, and I’m not sure I got it quite right, so please advise if you have a correction.]
The philosophy teacher with his ski goggles also retains the lesson in courage he was given by the students. “To stand up, night after night, out of pure conviction, even as they deploy paramilitary force to silence and break you, even if all this is terribly frightening and bad,” is more than nothing.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
*Translating the printemps érable is a volunteer collective attempting to balance the English media’s extremely poor coverage of the student conflict in Québec by translating media that has been published in French into English. These are amateur translations; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may still leave something to be desired. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.