Police at city hall on Monday. Photo by Jacques Nadeau
This Le Devoir photograph from the out-of-control demonstration at Montreal city hall on Monday has become an iconic image for a police contingent that was seemingly oblivious to the chaos going on around them. It shows four Montreal police officers ignoring a masked protester who is calmly posting stickers on a city hall window just behind them.
I’m not sure what anyone expected the cops to do, however. Perhaps spoiled by the hundreds of petty arrests by police during the events of the 2012 Maple Spring, some people think the offender should have been Tased, tackled and ticketed for putting a sticker on a window. Or for wearing a bandana over his face.
Ignoring the insignificant offence going on behind them was precisely what police should have been doing, but ignoring the elephants charging through the halls of Hôtel de Ville? Well, that’s a much different matter.
The finger-pointing has already begun, with police chief Marc Parent vowing to get to the bottom of it and the police union blaming SPVM brass for turning down the initial request for officers on scene to intervene. That doesn’t bode well for Parent’s special investigative team, which, if the union is right, may have to indict their own bosses.
Or investigators may find evidence to support the more popular theory that rank-and-file officers turned a blind eye because they are part of the same union coalition battling Bill 3. Images of police exchanging handshakes with protesters inside city hall certainly helped anchor that image as they were repeated over and over in TV news loops.
The truth is no doubt a mix of the two. The police union wasn’t calling the shots, however, when the supervisors on scene made the bizarre call to allow 250 protesters to enter the building for the public question period. Perhaps the firefighters union, which organized the protest, had promised its members would play nice once they were inside. But this dumb-ass move is the equivalent of pulling the Trojan Horse inside the gate after verifying it was full of angry men.
In Parent’s news conference Tuesday, he acknowledged the mistake. “Outside you were able to feel the tension and also the atmosphere. So we should have changed our strategy to let people in, because we let 250 people get in and then it’s very hard when they are inside, it’s very hard to push them out after they are in.”
I didn’t go to the Nicolet police academy or anything, but I assume they’d cover that in basic training. “Rule one for keeping people out: Don’t let them in.”
“Deux poids, deux mesures.” That expression was bandied about a lot by Parent and reporters on Tuesday. The inference was that there was a double-standard for dealing with Monday’s protesters because they were fighting for the same pension cause as SPVM officers.
If we compare the treatment to student protests, for example, the difference could hardly be clearer. There were no riot squad contingents lying in wait, no kettling, no pepper spray, no mass arrests. No arrests, period. The thugs walked in, ransacked, and walked out.
Blue-collar union president Michel Parent denied there was a double standard or that the unions had an informal deal with police. He told La Presse he believes student protesters “would also have been able to get into city hall to throw papers around.”
Not unless they were disguised as city workers, I suspect.
The irony in all this is that the Montreal police force — and its union colleagues — now find their cause clouded by this isolated incidence of violence.
That sounds a lot like what happened to the students that police rounded up two years earlier for doing nothing more than marching. Most of the violence during the Maple Spring was committed on students, not by them, yet it’s a stink that clings like pepper-spray to this day.
That’s why it’s surprising to hear former Montreal union leader Jean Lapierre, who led the blue-collar workers for 18 turbulent years, brandish the image of greater violence to come, as if that’s the key to reaching an agreement over Bill 3.
If we learned anything this week, it’s that violence doesn’t help win causes, it helps alienate allies.
If union leaders can’t engage in better anger management over pension reform, maybe they should think about retiring now. ■