This is a personal account of the student "riot" that was the first event of the longest and largest student movement in Canadian (and possibly North-American) history to receive any international coverage, as far as I am aware. I wrote this the same night that it happened, and have decided to post this finally. It is a bit late, however I feel it is a good place to start talking about what is going on now in Quebec.
Here's an example of the international coverage.
I hope to continue reporting what I encounter first hand in Montreal, as we enter the 14th week of the strike.
April 25th, 2012
Anger is the mood today. After ten (or maybe eleven?) weeks of strike, there have been two days of negotiations. Less, even. Today, they were called off as the CLASSE has been excluded. FEUQ and FECQ withdraw in protest and tension escalates.
I attend a 2pm march starting at Berri Metro station - Parc Emilie-Gamelin. Weather is sunny, mood is still light. Determined though. Not too many cop cars, we move quickly. Car and bus drivers honk their horns. Are they in support, or do they want us to get out of their way? Either way, the crowd cheers as if its the former.
We walk through the plateau, near where I live. We pass McGill's New Residence hall. The bus driver and passengers wave, a McGill student thrusts his middle finger out his window. The crowd boos and an angry student in front of me shouts “Descende!” I have to say I take some satisfaction at this scene.
The march ends (after some zigzags) in front of Charest's office. Riot police are lined up inside, but their presence is small. An announcement, and the crowd breaks up.
That evening, at 6:30, I attend a discussion on May 1968 (in Paris) and how it relates. The conversation seems slow (stuffy, maybe) at times, but goes interesting places. The parallels between then and now are striking, or seem to be, but I try not to see too much into it because I fear that I am being overly romantic. A comrade, a journalist for The Link, leaves early to get to the demo this evening. I leave as well, with the other planning to attend and me not quite sure if I will.
It must be around 9pm, and I have decided. I am walking through the dark with thousands of strangers, and the mood is energized but its angrier and more forceful. People are chanting anticapitalist slogans and cheering with overt hostility, although it still feels very positive. The tone seems to be “we are still here”, at least for the moment.
We walk quickly and move from Berri to Guy in what seems like minutes. We keep running into people we know, surprising for an impromptu manifestation – at night, no less. The crowd is huge as well, over 10,000 I feel. The mood is – this is a better word – fierce. We pass some banks with smashed or damaged windows, but see no violence yet.
The march loops down to Rue Ste-Catherine and begins walking back towards UQAM. Around Peel, however, something begins to happen. A loud, deep noise and suddenly – what is that? Grey smoke hangs over the front of the demo. Another bang, and the next block too. Then I see people moving, and see the white helmets of the riot squad, finally showing an appearance. We are still four or five blocks back, but people start moving. Then I see a line – 20, 30, maybe more – riot cops moving up from a side street. And moving fast.
The first trace of tear gas, but I am fine. It irritates but doesn't do much more. A cross section of the march is pushed up a block but regroups on Sherbrooke. What to do now? We start walking back again, towards Berri. Much smaller now, but still resolute. I feel angry, frustrated at having no recourse but to run. It feels good that we have kept some part of the march together though.
Disorganization – traffic is not stopped and some drivers don't want to give way. Tension and frustration are building on all sides, but especially among us. We don't know what's going on, can't tell what happened to the other thousands of students. Halfway down Sherbrooke we turn back, after some stumbling around, and return the way we came. Then we see another crowd – another section of the march – and begin running to join them. Was this a plan? I can't say for sure.
Bigger and stronger, and more confident, we continue back (again) on Sherbrooke towards St-Denis and Berri. A solitary cop car speeds onto the pavement and up a side street, nearly hitting several people. I guess they know where we are now? Soon the helicopter finds us again. But there are more of us now, so I don't pay it much attention.
Walking down St-Denis – at the foot I look back and see a picturesque scene. A crowd of faces, a sea of red squares. Behind them the festive blue and red flashing lights of an escort of cop cars. The trees along the street are lit with strings of lights and the cafes beckon to people with flashy signs. Looks pretty, I have to say.
Running into trouble though. Cops showing up more, we don't know where to go. We finally decide to continue to Rene-Leveque, and turn there before a line of yellow-vested police. Some people throw rocks and glass bottles (maybe?). The police stand there stoically, for the moment. At the next intersection we see a line of cops in the distance. But there are lights down each of the side streets too. Where can we go? The have hemmed us in.
The cops behind are charging. Frustrated, angry, with no where else to go, people begin running towards the cops in front. I am amazed and a little frightened, but I start running too. It is not just anything though, this is a charge of its own. People are yelling, screaming. But we don't know what to do – indeed, what do you do? The cops don't flinch, and we do. The charge falters twenty feet before the police line. Oh no, runs the collective thought.
Some duck down a side street, but that exit is cut off. I run back, but don't want to get caught in a bottleneck. I am separated from my friend as I duck into a door alcove with some other students. Now I finally learn what tear gas feels like. A canister explodes maybe ten feet away, and now I am running because I don't care about a bottle neck anymore. My eyes are burning and I can't catch my breath though I am breathing through my scarf. Infuriated, with eyes streaming but mostly just trying to get out of the way of the shields and batons, I make my way down the hill and out of the nearby vicinity.
Slowly, very slowly, I make my way back home. Small groups of people wearing red squares are huddling in the nearby streets. Cop cars and vans are everywhere. I feel almost ashamed. I was dispersed so easily...