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Stories from the Frontline

A personal account from the student protests in Montréal

by Jonas Bohne

Stories from the Frontline


As most of you may know, for a couple of months, students in Québec rose up against the government|s plan to triple their current tuition fees. Last Saturday the government admitted, for the first time, that the protest is about more than only tuition fees but rather disillusionment with the entire political system.

Increasing suppression from the provincial government in form of police oppression, brutality and new laws that diminish the freedoms of speech and right of public assembly, supposedly guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms only radicalized the public resistance. One of these bills which was recently approved in the Québec parliament is Bill 78. This new law forbids protests on and around any education institutions and organizers are required to to submit their itinerary, including route, date, time and duration, to police eight hours in advance. Most importantly, gatherings of people including 50 people or more are now illegal, which is a total infringement on people's democratic right to assemble – for anything, not just tuition fees. This particular law is only vaguely define which is why even the police admitted they would not be sure in which cases this law should apply. What about weddings or line-ups for concert tickets or street festivals for instance? Lastly, organizers as well as student associations are held accountable for all actions any demonstrating participant may do with fines up to 125,000$.

That was the situation I found myself in when I traveled to Montréal last weekend since I could not be in my hometown Franfurt where 40,000 people protested against the European financial sytsem in the so-called `Blockupy` protests.

As with every reactionary law such as Bill 78, it only radicalizes a movement further. Instead of being intimidated, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people are demonstrating in the streets every single night with growing numbers. When I joined Saturday, the protest was already declared illegal and the police attempted to prevent participants from joining the march. Nevertheless the streets were filled not only with students but elderly people, middle class people, families, mothers with children and immigrants, all enraged yet peaceful. When the march reached McGill University the police, as promised, tried to violently disperse the protest.

The state took off its mask and showed itself for what it is: a police state in favour of an illegitimate government. The police presence was absurd: Masses of riot and city cops patrolled the streets, with more officers arriving in buses every 10 minutes. Mounted police, officers on bikes and a helicopter were present. Riot cops armed with rubber bullet guns and pepper spray marched down the streets banging their clubs on their shields like an army. The next night I observed and recorded police brutality wherever I found patches of the dispersed protest - it had diffused 15 minutes after its start after being declared illegal by the police.

One officer on a bike pushed the front wheel of his bike into a protester's face, pushing him down to the ground, simply because he was asking why his fellow demonstrator was unnecessarily arrested. That was circa an hour before I was beaten by riot cops myself, standing on the side of the road, trying to film police brutality and a friend of mine got arrested, being boxed in by police.

Nevertheless, the people's resistance and solidarity was striking and inspiring. More and more people join every night, many people wear the little red square as sign of solidarity with the student protests: you see red squares on pillars and lights or in windows. People built road blockades and barricades, as a sign of protest, to protect themselves from the police or to create autonomous zones. The cars turned around without any protest, many honking or raising the left fist in solidarity while driving by. Protesters opened fire hydrants and burned pylons in the streets to keep the riot cops at bay. Because of the heavy police presence, demonstrations that would in totality be many street blocks long were fragmented and decentralized into smaller groups. And I had the feeling that they still all belonged together. The Québécois have something that we still need to learn and practice: Solidarity.



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