MONTREAL - Mia Laberge and Naomie Décarie could hardly withhold their angry tears after Montreal police charged toward demonstrators Thursday and, seemingly unprovoked, fired tear gas into the crowd.
“They are operating on a strategy of fear,” said Laberge, a law student at the Université du Québec a Montréal. “We have the right to demonstrate, but as a woman, I felt threatened by them.
“These are the people who are supposed to protect us, but we’re not safe at all.”
A joint demonstration by students protesting rising tuition fees and people against police brutality began at about rush hour at Berri and Ste Catherine Sts. About 2,000 protesters headed north, then west along Sherbrooke St., but no police were visible along the route, although they were positioned on adjacent streets and in the métro.
When about six officers did appear, a few protesters started throwing rocks at them. At Aylmer and Sherbrooke Sts., police fired off two loud sound grenades, sending a panic through the crowd. Protesters ran in all directions, but riot police formed a line, and banging on their shields with their batons, marched forward, shoving demonstrators north.
Montreal police spokesman Ian Lafrenière said police had to stop the march for the safety of motorists on Sherbrooke.
“(Demonstrators) have rights but so do others,” he said, adding that police hadn’t been informed of the march’s route.
One man, trying to stop some young men from throwing rocks, was hit in the forehead with a tear-gas canister and it exploded.
Scott Weinstein, a nurse in the crowd who was providing first aid when needed, poured water over the man’s eyes, as the man screamed in anger.
“If he hadn’t been wearing ski goggles, he could have been blinded,” Weinstein said. “His hair was singed and his goggles covered in chemicals.
“I’ve never been in a demonstration ever where police threw explosives into the crowd,” said Weinstein, who says he’s been in dozens of demos. “It’s a terrible path to take because these people will lose their eyes.”
The man, who said he had a 20-month-old child, sat on the steps of an apartment building and tried to comprehend what had just happened.
“I was being peaceful and this is what they do to me?” he yelled.
The crowd then broke up into different groups, with some demonstrators, like Décarie and Laberge, deciding to leave the march.
“I feel totally traumatized by this,” Décarie said. “They’re treating us like terrorists and no one is even armed.”
Police reported more than 150 arrests, two injured police officers and a few vandalized store fronts. One police car was flipped over and smashed. Police said a second one was damaged as well.
They also reported looting at Future Shop.
On Ste. Catherine St., Tina Tsimiklis, in town from Halifax for her children’s March break, was taking photos of her sons in front of a smashed store window.
“This is pretty fricking awesome,” said 16-year-old Dimitri Tsimiklis. “Nothing ever happens like this in Halifax.”
Tina Tsimiklis said they saw protesters and police in riot gear coming along the street and, not knowing what was going on, they convinced a reluctant security guard at the Eaton’s Centre to let them in.
A young woman, who didn’t want to give her name, held a bag of ice to her right eye after a police officer whacked her with his baton.
“(Riot police) were coming towards us and my friend dropped his cellphone so I bent down to pick it up with my arms raised in the air, so one hit me in the face and my back,” she said.
Lafrenière defended the police force’s tactics, saying they had warned people ahead of time that pepper spray and tear gas would be used if necessary.
Police made the majority of the evening’s arrests in front of the Bibliothèque Nationale, on Berri St.
Weinstein said those arrested were just standing still, arms locked, in front of the library chanting.
“They were the least provocative of the whole march,” he said. “They were catchable.”
Lafrenière claimed the demonstrators “wanted to put on a show.”
“They were chasing us all night long because they wanted to get arrested,” he said.