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An Account of Nov. 10: Riot Police On McGill Campus

Posted by Jer / November 16, 2011

Riot Police on CampusBy now you've probably seen the image above plastered in your facebook feeds, your campus dailies, or your other local news sources. You may have even seen it on the t-shirts of activists, protesters or those who stand in solidarity against what happened on McGill's campus last week, where riot police were called in to break up a demonstration/occupation and otherwise peaceful protest. The image is so virally affecting because of the power disparity between the two sides. The police with their hard armour, helmets and shields look ready to take out a herd of rhinos. The students look ready to take out library books. Power favours those with the means to enforce it.

The clash is old news now and we apologize for not getting information out sooner (such is the downfall of a volunteer-run blog with limited resources). But we're grateful that one of our readers, Amy, was brave and kind enough to give us her first-hand account of the events of that day (such is the joy of a volunteer-run blog with committed readers). While we're sensitive to the fact that differences of opinions exist, and that the administrators likely had a different perspective of the events of Nov. 10, no reading of the situation should have led to such a display of intimidation and violence by people in positions of authority on a university campus (or on any other public grounds in our fair city). We share Amy's account here in full, and in support those who were hurt and terrified last Thursday. Ongoing coverage of the after-effects can be found here and here

At first, my friend Vivian was a little startled by the loudness of my voice. "Education is a right! We will not give up the fight!" I turned to her and smiled. "I'ma lose my voice today." For the next chant, though, she was just as loud, and as the march of McGill and Concordia students wound its way towards Berri, our voices became bolder, louder, and, eventually, Frencher.

Like about 25,000 others, she and I took to the streets on November 10th to protest the provincial government's decision to raise university tuition, which most estimates suggest will prevent 7,000 students from attending university. The mood was high despite the rain, the students noisy and creative, and the SPVM remarkably restrained. As the march came to its ending point (Charest's office, conveniently across the street from McGill's Roddick Gates), a girl shouted that some students had occupied the fifth floor of McGill's James Administration building . "They need help!"

I was all hopped up on democracy at this point. "I could be help," I thought, and trotted towards James with some friends.
By the time we reached the building, a banner the occupiers had hung out the window had been cut down. Two security guards glared at us from the front door, and another at the side entrance. Students more diplomatic than I tried to reason with the guards, asking them to allow two students, then one student, then just a camera to be sent up to the occupiers. One student clutched a phone to his ear, an occupier on the other end, and shouted: "They're beating them in there!" Security didn't budge, didn't blink. I asked a guard at the side door about the alleged attacks inside. "That's not true," he told me. "Your friend doesn't know what he's talking about."

It got dark fast on November 10th. Someone yelled that the police were coming, and a human chain started to form around the building. There weren't nearly enough of us, so cheers went up when a contingent of students from the march arrived to help out. I linked arms with an UQAM and a McGill student, but broke the chain when a few of us noticed an administrator getting ready to leave from the side door.

Doors are remarkably easy to hold open when you're all hopped up on democracy, even if two security guards are doing their damnedest to slam them shut.

About fifteen students streamed into James' second floor lobby and, greeted with another pair of guards blocking further occupation, sat down. Outside it got darker, and more confused. Inside was fluorescently lit, but just as confused. A rotating shift held the door to the outside open, but the guards outside stood to block our exit (did we want to exit?) On hearing the police had arrived, two McGill students, one a friend of mine, forced their way out and past the guards. I watched from the door as a cop grabbed his collar and threw him to the concrete, and then I was shoved back into the building by the slamming door. The rest of us blinked at the other lobby-occupiers: generally francophone, generally with covered faces and the legal know-how of seasoned activists. "UQÀM students", we guessed in whispers, impressed.

In an email to the entire McGill community , Principal Heather Munroe-Blum wrote: "As a protest grew outside the building, apparently encouraged by social media messages from the protesters within, all exits to the building were effectively blocked by protesters." The former point is both true and lucky (although before this email I've never seen cell phones referred to as 'social media'); the latter is categorically false. Many students ran towards the lobby windows and doors after hearing screams from outside; security took advantage of this to squish the group into the lobby's foyer, shut off at both ends by several guards. A classmate was getting updates from the outside on his phone, said loudly, "TEAR GAS?" The UQÀM students nodded in grim non-surprise. I pushed myself against the window and watched as fifty riot police marched across campus to join their colleagues, who were already hard at work breaking the chain of students by what Principal Munroe-Blum referred to in that same email as, "the usual means." For Vivian, this meant two rounds of pepper-spray and one of tear gas. For my friend Salar, this meant becoming more well acquainted with the concrete courtyard outside of James than ever before, with a faceful of pepper-spray whenever he managed to get back up. And for another friend, it meant being put in handcuffs after an officer slammed his bicycle into students so hard that his back wheel came off, which my friend subsequently picked up and threw away from the melee.

These are some of the tamer stories from November 10th. Students at a rally this past Monday described being hit in the face with batons, being thrown against doorframes and prevented from getting medical attention for their burning eyes. After negotiating with the fifth-floor occupiers, the security guards, and one police officer, we walked out of the building and into the dark and the rain. No names taken, no charges pressed, but still, it wasn't just the lingering pepper-spray fumes that made me want to puke.

Shaky on the bus ride home, I realized I hadn't lost my voice. I called Viv. She had.

Midnight Poutine would like to sincerely thank Amy for contributing this post.

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