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Vincent Marissal 14 June 2012
I was talking to Carl Vallée, press attaché for Stephen Harper, in the hall of the Hilton Bonaventure, where Harper had just given a speech, when an officer of the Montreal City Police (Service de police de la ville de Montréal, SPVM) swept in, huge sunglasses covering half his face, chewing gum in his mouth, a day-glo green bib over his back and his baton almost dragging on the floor because of his diminutive stature.
We’ve almost become accustomed, in Montreal, to seeing cops everywhere, but the scene, with business folk in suits in the hall and hotel guests in swimsuits lounging beside the pool seemed, nonetheless, a bit surreal.
A few minutes later, I heard the same officer say to a hotel guest, in front of the elevator: “There aren’t many of them [the protestors in front of the hotel] but they are there, stuck to the asphalt, and there is no way of getting them off.”
I immediately saw an image in my mind of someone trying to scrape a steak off a frying pan, screaming with rage.
It’s true that on that Monday afternoon, the protesters “stuck to the asphalt” in front of the Hilton were not numerous, but the police were omnipresent. And, just like their colleague in the Ray-Ban aviators, the police seem to have reached their upper limit of exasperation.
One can understand why. After all, as their spokesman Ian Lafrenière said to me yesterday, no police force in North America has been subjected to this level of protesting for such a long period. “The police did not ask for this crisis, and they too are keen to get their lives back. For us, this is like Groundhog Day,” said Lafrenière, who himself seems ready for a break.
In this climate of permanent tension, it is inevitable that the generally recognized best police practices will not always be followed, that there will be hiccups, or that things will even completely get out of hand, as numerous videos and photos have shown. As our colleagues at Le Devoir have shown, in their report last weekend, there has also been the targeting of people wearing the red square.
On the subject of police excesses, Ian Lafrenière admits that things have not always been done as they should be, and that the language used by the police is not always adequate. He adds, though, that the social media spread rumors rapidly, which sometimes become urban legends, and that the SPVM is too busy trying to deal with the daily management of the demonstrations to be able to conduct internal investigations into the actions of its agents.
That the cops have their hands full: sure. That all kinds of stories circulate on Twitter: OK. That we are living through an unprecedented crisis: indeed. But a great deal of sober people — a group that I would claim to be part of — are now asking themselves some serious questions, after reading certain accounts, seeing certain videos and photos, and given the alarming number of arrests, and some of the responses of the authorities. The people who give accounts of being brutalized, with their bruises to show for it, are not all fantasists who crave attention. The same goes for the numerous cases of citizens arrested on arbitrary grounds and treated like bandits. The same goes for the people arrested pre-emptively and then released without being charged. Not to speak of the young protestors who were seriously injured in Montreal and Victoriaville. Several weeks later, we still do not really know what happened.
The distrust felt by many people towards the police forces is not only legitimate, but it has been exacerbated by a very particular phenomenon: it is the police who investigate the police, and we know that the police are not experts in transparency or self-criticism. It was easy enough to change the assignment of the officer number 728, because she was filmed pepper-spraying a little too generously a calm and inoffensive demonstrator, but what about the less well documented cases, the cases that have not been on Youtube? Fourteen-year old children arrested and held for hours without their parents being told? Young people insulted, manhandled, handcuffed and kept in the sun for hours?
Who, by the way, can hold to account the head of the SPVM (Marc Parent) when he misleads the population (and the provincial and city governments as well) with erroneous statements? On Monday, M. Parent held a press conference to say that some of the people pre-emptively arrested over the weekend posed a threat to the running of the Grand Prix. The next day, his own subalterns contradicted him: in fact, it was more like a matter of a few harmless onlookers.
In the interval, premier Charest and mayor Tremblay both affirmed that the SPVM had done an exemplary job. On what basis? On the basis of reports from the police, who act as both the judge and the accused, of course.
Many people (and I am one) are calling for an independent inquiry into police practices during this conflict. Nobody in the SPVM would be opposed to this, Ian Lafrenière believes, because this would allow many things to be explained and clarified.
In Quebec City, the party Québec Solidaire has formally demanded [an independent inquiry], and among the Parti Québecois the idea is circulating.
“We need to have a reflection, in the light of what we have lived through these last few months”, says the Member of the National [Provincial] Assembly, Stéphane Bergeron. “On hears all kinds of things, notably of police officers who are hiding their badge numbers. I fear that there might be an excess of confidence, and a feeling that they can act with impunity, among the police — to whom the government have given extraordinary powers — and this will lead to things getting out of control. Already, we have seen flagrant violations of fundamental rights.”
At this time, the climate is too tense to analyze the work of the police. But unless you think that the events of the last few months are just an unimportant “human interest story” (“faits divers”), it will be necessary, at some point, to start such an investigation. And to do it properly. Not just by asking the police to investigate the police.
Translated from the original French by Translating the printemps érable.
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