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Stories from inside the kettle

The SPVM put on another show

by Carla Flournoy

(Guy Bourbonnais, @Boucrate)
(Guy Bourbonnais, @Boucrate)

I’m embarrassed to admit that, for the past month, I have let the circus of P-6 intimidate me out of going to protests. That ended on Friday, April 5th.

P-6 is a municipal bylaw declaring protests illegal if the route isn’t provided in advance to the police. It contains several provisions that are similar to the provincial Law 12 (or Bill 78), which was passed by the Charest government during the student strike of last spring and widely denounced in Quebec and internationally. Part of the PQ’s campaign was denouncing Law 12, and Pauline Marois repealed it almost as soon as she was elected last fall. But P-6, which was quietly amended to its current form by the municipal government last spring, remained.

It is only since the protest on March 15th that the SPVM has begun using P-6 to kettle and carry out mass arrests on anyone participating in the so-called ‘illegal’ protests (before the March 15th anti-police brutality march, the SPVM would declare protests illegal but ‘tolerate’ them unless they deemed that ‘illegal acts’ were being committed).

There are a lot of problems with P-6. It’s so broad that the SPVM could technically declare anything an illegal gathering and order its dispersal. It restricts ‘legal’ protests to those that are at convenient times and places for the SPVM and any pedestrians not interested in protesting, which effectively guts protests of any power. The enforcement of P-6 has resulted in frequent kettling, a tactic that involves essentially holding a group of people hostage for an indefinite period of time. Kettling has been historically and widely condemned, except as a “last resort”.

But more than anything, P-6 is problematic because it stops people from going out to protest. When going to a protest might mean that you end up trapped in a circle of riot police for hours and slapped with a $637 fine, lots of people might not go. And even though the ticket that you get for violating P-6 is essentially equivalent to a speeding ticket, the rigmarole you have to go through to be ticketed makes it seem enough like a criminal offense that I, among others, believed it to be one. Which, of course, is exactly the point. If people stop protesting because they think they’ll be criminally charged for doing so, P-6 will have achieved the wildest hopes and dreams of those who dreamed it up.

As I walked in circles around Place Émile-Gamelin on Friday, before the police charged the peaceful crowd of 300 into submission, I realized that I was there for two different, but related, reasons. I was there as a journalist who wanted to tell the story of participating in an ‘illegal’ protest and getting kettled. I wanted to talk about the clementine that a stranger gave to me, about people jumping to keep warm and turning it into a chant against P-6, and the warmth of the hodgepodge little community we quickly formed within the walls of riot shields. I wanted to tell a story that would dilute the fear and misinformation swirling around P-6, misinformation that had stopped me from going to any of the protests since March 15th up to that night.

But I was also there as a protester in solidarity. Strength in numbers is a principle that holds true for most social justice movements, but especially so in the context of P-6. Imagine kettling one of the student protests last spring. I felt an obligation to add whatever strength one more kettled body added to the resistance. I am physically capable of standing outside in the cold for hours, and I can risk being arrested and ticketed by the police. I went because I know that there are many people, perhaps the people who most need the right to protest, who cannot take those risks.

And it’s for this reason that, in the end, I decided not to use my press pass to get out of the kettle, mostly just because I felt weird about doing it. As a journalist who wanted to report on the protest in solidarity with it, I couldn’t justify why I should be held to a different standard than everyone else. As someone responded to a journalist tweeting at the SPVM to let him out of the kettle, “How about asking for everyone to please be released?”

One of the weirdest parts of the whole process was interacting with the police. Some of the riot cops would refuse to talk or interact with any of us, but others were polite, helpful, and even, sometimes, jovial. Being in such close contact with the SPVM officers, it was impossible not to see them as individuals and even empathize with them: it’s not like they’re having fun standing for hours outside in the cold.

But one of the other protesters said something that stuck with me. “You’re all individuals,” he told the riot cops, “and you’re individually responsible for your actions.” As the SPVM officers should be held responsible for participating in the enforcement of law P-6, those of us who can protest it should be held responsible for showing up, again and again, until it’s gone.

The audio is a montage of interviews I did on Friday, April 5th, as well as CKUT 90.3's live broadcast from Place Émile-Gamelin preceding the protest, and an interview I did with Jaggi Singh from the CLAC about P-6 and the protest on CKUT's Off the Hour on Tuesday, April 2nd.

The photo was taken by Guy Bourbonnais (@Boucrate), posted on Twitter during the protest. I got it from a compilation by Maxime Larrivée-Roy (@zmotrin).

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