Friday, July 30, 2010

Montebello: What Really Happened

Montebello: What Really Happened
From: Martin Schoots-McAlpineAugust 23, 2007
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I arrived in Montebello on Monday morning, to protest the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). I had left from London the Saturday prior, travelling by carpool with other activists. None of us had any experience with protests of this intensity or magnitude. Long before we reached the town limits we had been exposed to a non-stop campaign of disinformation; the residents of Montebello didn't want us there, they were closing businesses, there was only going to be a few hundred people protesting, etc. . Nothing I had seen or heard prepared me for the surprise that awaited me.
We hadn't even reached the town yet when the police presence became noticeable. After passing through two police checkpoints, we drove through Papineauville. In this small Quebec town, around 6km east of Montebello, the police were guarding a boarded up McDonald's restaurant. This blatant display of the corporate-state alliance came as a shock even to the seasoned activists within our ranks. In total we were told that around 3000 police were present, including police from the Quebec Provincial Police, Ontario Provincial Police, York Region Municipal Police, Peel Region Municipal Police, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
We continued our drive through Papineauville, and the police presence only became stronger. Police were now standing ever 10m along the side of highway 148, heading towards Montebello. As soon as the 3m high security fence surrounding Chateau Montebello, the posh resort where the secret meeting was taking place, came into view our car was stopped along with two school buses filled with protesters. Eventually we were allowed to continue into the town.
Protesters had congregated near the independent media centre around 600m down the street from the front gates of the Chateau. The town itself was quite beautiful; a quaint yet picturesque Quebec resort town. It seemed on odd setting for another battle in the war against globalisation, but it was here that the ruling classes had decided to hold their meeting and it was here that we would give them a showdown.
After parking our car on a side street, we managed to join the parade to the front gates of the Chateau Montebello. We grabbed goggles to protect against teargas, bandannas to protect our identities, distributed first-aid supplies amongst our group, and picked up our drums. Marching, we flew our upside-down Camerica flag emblazoned with the slogan "UNITED WE FALL", all the while keeping a steady march beat.
The parade was impressive in-and-of-itself. Over 10 000 activists and Montebello residents filled the streets. We came from a variety of causes; there were anarchists, communists, environmentalists, LGBT activists, and other progressives of all sorts. Despite our differences we were able to stand united against secret, anti-democratic deals, corporate power, and most of all the SPP.
Making our way through the crowd, me and my group came to be near the front where the police were blocking the march from making it to the gates of the Chateau. Initially the baton-wielding police were in a loose formation but upon seeing the sheer mass of our movement they consolidated their lines across all four lanes of highway. All the while we continued to drum, and the protest remained peaceful.
It wasn't long before the police, clad in olive and from the Surete du Quebec (Quebec Provincial Police), began pushing against the crowd. I managed to get to the front to help hold our line and put my bucket drum between myself and the officer in front of me. I asked questions such as "Why are you doing this to us?", "What have we done that warrants this?", and "Aren't you concerned about what's going on inside of the closed-door meetings?". The only reply I garnered was "Go back!" and a baton to the jaw.
Unfortunately not all were as lucky when it came to this direct confrontation with the police. Kevin Lomack, trade-unionist and member of the Council of Canadians from London, was pulled into the police lines and arrested for peacefully resisting the police advancement. Witnesses of his arrest confirm that he was not violent towards the police in any manner. It gradually became clearer and clearer that the police weren't discerning between violence and non-violence and had already decided that all of us were their enemies.
Realizing that we were fighting a losing battle trying to push the police back, those of us in the middle of the highway near the median opted for an impromptu sit-in. Following calls of "Sit down!" and "Assi!", the other protesters near the front followed suit. The police remained violent towards the protesters, kneeing several in the head. They were however unable to move us and we actually managed to move our line forward, inching ahead as the police shifted members on and off the line.
Word then began spreading that a group of anarchists had just left from the Montebello train station and were heading towards the front to attempt to push through the police line. The police heard as well, and the latest shift wore gas masks to prepare for the tear-gas onslaught. Many of us sitting down scrambled to cover our own bandannas in vinegar to avoid the pain of being gassed. Despite the continued police presence and instigation cries of "Peaceful protest!" rang out above the crowd. Our intentions were clear.
I then saw one of the most shocking events of the day. Several corporate-media reporters had been congregating near the front of the lines, and many were allowed through the police line in order to report from the other side. Through a gap in the police line I managed to see one reporter and camera man being told to leave, so as to allow the police to step up their violence without media coverage. The corporate reporter gladly complied.
It was shortly after the sit-in began when the anarchists finally marched to the front lines. Their coming was heralded by a massively loud car-mounted stereo-system playing inspirational music, as well as an agile protester who managed to climb a lamppost to hang a black-flag from the top. An American flag was also hung from the lamppost and burned to great cheers from the crowd. The only disappointment was that Canadian the Canadian flag wasn't burned along side.
The police then began stepping up their campaign of violence on the protesters and fired some tear-gas into a group of Marxist revolutionaries from the RCP-PRC on the other side of the median. They were dispersed, but others quickly filled their places in order to hold the line. On our side of the median police began advancing on the sitting protesters closest to the Chateau's gates. One protester grabbed onto a tree for fear of being arrested and remained there for at least two hours. His hands were severely beaten by police with batons, possibly leading to broken fingers, and he was kicked by police to the point that his legs bled. It was clear that he was in a great deal of pain but he kept holding onto the tree. To my knowledge the police were not able to arrest him that day.
Around 200m down the street, the police had split the protest in half by taking positions along the wall of an elevated graveyard at the main intersection in Montebello. This show of force isolated those of us at the front lines, and pushed thousands of protesters back towards the east end of town. I was not able to see if the police used tear-gas to disperse the crowd in this instance, but the speed at which the crowd dispersed would suggest they did.
Meanwhile, in the chaos that was unfolding at the front, I had been separated from my group. I left the sit-in and managed to find most of them supporting the protester who was still hanging onto the tree. What ensued was nothing less than incredible; amidst all the police repression the artistic spirit could not be crushed. A spontaneous jam-session that consisted of all kinds of drums, cowbells, dancing, and vocalists arose to the beat of a lone man carrying a yak-horn horn and singing "Ommmm...". This lasted for approximately two hours until one of the police officers grabbed a cow-bell from a female protester. This was met with angry cries of "MORE COW-BELL!". The cow-bell was never returned.
Once again we began to beat on our drums but this was cut short when speeches rang out from the other side of the median. In both English and French the speakers lauded the protesters and provided inspirational words. One of the speakers yelled "Today, Canadian troops continue to occupy Afghanistan so we have every right to be in their face and to confront this summit!". All of this was in spite of several canisters of an unknown white powder that police had begun firing to clear the crowd on the other side of the median.
Shortly after the speeches were finished, an elderly woman near the front of the police lines was hit in the face with a pepper-spray canister, fired at point blank range by the police. The impact and subsequent release of chemicals blinded the woman. The attack came completely unprovoked; the woman had been a peaceful protester. After six hours of peaceful protest, it was this act that led to the violence that was coming.
Following the blatant show of police brutality, several of the protesters on the other side of the median from where my group was began hurtling rocks at the police. This was not unprovoked aggression on part of the protesters; the police had been firing tear-powder canisters and pepper-spray all day. It was the police brutality displayed in firing at the elderly woman that set off a powder keg of frustrations. Violence on the part of the protesters was purely an act of self-defence.
As opposed to stopping the escalating violence the police continued on. They now began firing plastic bullets into the largely retreating crowd of protesters. One man was hit in the leg four times and was not able to walk away. The entire time the people in my section of the median had been doing nothing but playing instruments or standing. It came as a great surprise when the police advanced on us.
Our side of the median was a purely peaceful zone; nothing was thrown at the police, and we kept a distance of 1m between ourselves and the police line. This did not matter to the blue-clad members of the RCMP as they began firing tear-powder canisters into our side and advancing on us. As this continued it became impossible to stay in our area, and I was forced to flee due to the gassing.
Many of the retreating protesters headed towards a small creek around 100m from the gates of the Chateau in order to escape the chaos and wash their eyes out. The injuries sustained did not matter to the police present; instead they saw the congregation of wounded protesters as an easy target and fired more tear-powder into our general direction. I was helping a blinded protester from Montreal with water that I was carrying in my backpack when I had to run away because of the powder in the air.
With my eyes stinging I stumbled forward through the chaos past the main intersection. Fortunately a woman saw the pain I was in and offered lemon to rub on my eyes. I was skeptical at first but once I tried it the pain went away almost immediately. It wasn't long before I saw another protester in a great deal of pain, and so I began searching through my bag for a grapefruit that I had packed.Thankfully, despite not being a lemon, the grapefruit worked and relieved the man of the burning sensation the powder had caused.
I then began to move towards the main intersection in town handing out pieces of grapefruit to those that needed it. Even though the crowd was completely in retreat at this point the police were still firing tear-powder into the mass of people. Once I had run out of grapefruit I was on the receiving end of another tear-powder attack, and was forced to run blindly searching for a hose that a resident of Montebello was allowing us to use to clean our eyes. Thankfully a group of anarchists lit a bonfire in the middle of the street preventing the police from advancing any further.
Little did we know at the time --though it was suspected-- that agent provocateurs, in other words the "plain-clothes officers" that the police had admitted to planting with our line, had started the violence. After six hours of peaceful protest the police agents began to throw rocks at the police on the line, which resulted in the police retaliating against peaceful protesters. Indeed several times during the day police were seen hand signaling with "protesters". Other "protesters" were breaking apart the asphalt and using one of our bucket-drums in order to collect rocks and place them near the median. When one member of my group heard about this he spent several hours collecting the rocks and throwing them over a fence where they could not be used.
What finally provided the undeniable evidence that police agents were attempting to start violence occurred shortly after 3PM. Union leader Dave Coles (of the CEP) attempted to take rocks from the hands of three burly looking men dressed as anarchists. Other protesters accused them of being police, and instead of turning away the three retreated towards the police line. After one of the men conversed with police, the three were allowed through the line where they were "arrested" and brought to white vans. Later footage showed that the three men were wearing the exact same combat boots as were issued to the Quebec Provincial Police.
By the time 7PM rolled around most of the violence had ended. The police had consolidated their position near the main intersection and were now guarding a gas station. As the sun set, my group geared up for one more march through the streets. Shielding our eyes against the gleam of visors in the distance we flew our banner high (along with a newly acquired red flag) and marched towards the police while playing our drums. Upon reaching the intersection we stopped, but were eventually forced to move back due to the tear-powder that was still present in piles on the ground. As we marched through the streets residents cheered us on for showing the police that despite the fact they had won the battle, they had not yet won the war.
The tear-powder remained on the streets until around 10PM when a street-cleaner made its way through the town, making it nearly impossible for residents and pets to go about their normal lives. The police showed no remorse in firing the possibly toxic substance into residential and forested areas, most likely doing a great deal of damage to the local ecosystem. We met one man that was forced to save a dog whose owner had been arrested; the dog was tied to the gas station and had been exposed to the tear-powder for four hours. Once the man sprayed antacid solution onto the dog's face it collapsed in relief.
One of the highlights of the day occurred later on in the evening. Some of my group were walking through the street when two residents approached us with their small dog. They began to complain about the police, and welcome us to Montebello. When asked how they felt about the SPP the oldest of the two men responded "Bush, Harper... assholes! Tabernac! The cops are jerks, you guys are cool. You are most welcome here,".
Unfortunately we were unable to return to Montebello on Tuesday due to an car accident we were involved in while heading to the encampment to sleep (nobody was seriously hurt). I would like to commend the brave individuals who did return, in spite of the excruciating experiences the day before. Contrary to what the corporate media showed there were several hundred protesters within Montebello on Tuesday, and bonfires were again lit in the streets to prevent the police from advancing. But then again the corporate media coverage came as no surprise; if 10 000 can become a few hundred, and working-class resistance can become "sad", surely a few hundred with bonfires blazing was easily dismissed as nothing.

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