As a recent martyr for student journalism, I can say that getting arrested sucks.
I attended the 14th annual March Against Police Brutality on March 15 with two other Tribune photojournalists to get some shots of the inevitable violence and rioting that occurs during the event.
The protest started peacefully as the 900 attendees, clad mostly in black, expressed their discontent with police tactics. Eventually, the police blocked the path of the protest and the event turned violent. Bottles, fireworks, food, and profanities were hurled at the ever-growing number of police officers. Suddenly, all hell broke lose as riot police charged into the crowd, pushing people out of the way with their shields. As the police moved in, protesters scattered and the Tribune photo team scurried around collecting shots of the chaos. Unannounced to us, the protest has been declared an “illegal gathering,” which means that being in close proximity to the demonstration was a crime. In a matter of minutes, riot police had secured the area and anyone within this boundary was forbidden to leave. With this strategic move, the police had captured three Tribune photographers, a couple guys from the Concordia Link, high school kids, and plethora of confused hipsters. Noticeably missing from the imprisoned group were most of the anarchists carrying baseball bats, firework-wielding idiots, and beer-drinking street punks.
We were all handcuffed, patted down, searched, and identified. I was paraded past a slew of news cameras before being deposited on an STM bus with my fellow detainees. The most hilarious moment of the night came when the bus started moving and almost immediately the “stop requested” light was illuminated by one of the arrested protesters.
At the station, I was interviewed and issued a $144 fine for “participating or being present at an assembly, march, or parade that endangers the peace or the security or order in a public place.” This serious crime requires a municipal headshot in which I did the best that I could to give a big smile and pose with my hands still restrained behind my back. After being processed I was led to a different STM bus that began to drive around the empty streets of Hochelaga. Eventually the cops dropped us at random street corners in groups of four. There I was, at 11 p.m., fresh out of the Canadian legal system, with no idea where I was.
This rant has two points. First, journalists have a huge role in documenting and reporting on controversial events. Arresting student journalists creates a disincentive for campus papers to report on important community issues. The fewer papers that report, the less information will be published about the grievances that caused the protest, and the police tactics used to deal with demonstrations.
Second, mass arrests at an anti-police brutality march are not the best way to foster relations with the Montreal community. I can see why there are bylaws that make it illegal to remain in the vicinity of a dangerous situation, but I don’t think the declaration of illegality was explicit enough. If I had known it was illegal to be there, and was afforded an opportunity to leave, I probably would have left. Many people were committing crimes at the protest, but very few of them were arrested on an individual basis. Arresting 100 people makes the police department seem in control, but in reality, they managed to ticket a bunch of kids who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This year, the police started shooting violent individuals with a paintball gun to identify and arrest them later. I think this is a much more effective system to arrest dangerous protestors and should be used more in future years. This way, journalists can report, protesters can peacefully protest, and police can maintain order without arresting bystanders.
Nevertheless, I’ll be at next year’s protest – only this time, I’ll make sure I do my hair beforehand so I look great in my mugshot.