Hypocrisy in police response damages citizens, democracy

In late August, several Montreal firefighters stormed city hall as the city council was starting its session. They then proceded to toss papers around the hall, throw water at councillors, and move through the halls with such force that Mayor Denis Coderre was ushered by security to various rooms around the hall in a bid to keep him from the protesters.

The workers were there protesting proposed changes in provincial pensions that would shift employer and worker contributions to retirement funds to a 50/50 split. The protest was officially condemned by the union representing many of the protesters, but statements from leaders also noted that the protest demonstrated the degree to which workers were angered by the proposed changes. 

In the wake of the incident, some alleged that officers on the scene refused to intervene against the protesters. Last week, police proposed criminal charges against 44 involved, and disciplinary action towards officers who did not stop the protesters.

Meanwhile, two days earlier, the Quebec superior court agreed to take a class action suit brought on behalf of protesters who said that their rights to freedom of assembly were violated during the 2011-2012 student protests. The suit cited police tactics during the protests and the P6 bylaw, which, among other controversial provisions, allowed for police to declare any protest illegal if a route was not sent to them 24 hours prior.

What’s clear is that the police responded in markedly different ways to protests that were both explicitly intended to disrupt the conduction of business. 

On the one hand, the student protests were faced with restrictive bylaws, ‘kettling’—the practice of police compressing crowds by encircling them—and mass arrests. On the other, the city council protest was met with tacit approval. 

While the police, as public sector workers certainly have a personal interest in allowing the firefighters to register their extreme displeasure with the pension adjustments through the protest, it sets a very troubling precedent for a body with the monopoly on legitimate state violence to use it so selectively, especially when it is facing condemnation for an extremely heavy-handed response towards students. 

The idea that some protests are less deserving of basic respect from police than others is one that threatens the very concept of freedom of assembly, a hallmark of a free and open society. Police are there for the benefit and protection of all members of society, not just those who share their worldview or who happen to be in the same public sector union. 

The disparity in police response also raises the question of the level of disruption that is needed for a protest to be effective in fostering social change. When it comes to getting media coverage, protests seem to need one, two, or all of three things: numbers, passion, or violence, with a particular premium on the first and third. 

The incentives for peaceful protest run up against the need for protests to be seen, to make those in power uncomfortable, and ultimately to foster change. 

To that end, the student protests, and the storming of city hall come from the same thread. Without attention, there is no movement. However, without peace, there is reduced legitimacy, which also reduces the degree to which the broader public is willing to support change. 

The balance has to be helped by the media–peaceful protests on relevant matters should be afforded the same coverage that riots are given, to shift the incentives towards peaceful protest. 

Much as there needs to be better treatment of constitutionally protected protest at the broader provincial level, there also needs to be an understanding and willingness to listen to calls for change, lest the aggrieved decide that peace is no true venue for it.

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