Tension between pacifists, vandals in Quebec protests
A protester opposing student tuition fee hikes hangs messages on a line during a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, April 28, 2012. (Graham Hughes / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, April 30, 2012 6:14AM EDT
MONTREAL - A division has emerged at the student protest marches being held nightly in Montreal, with a peaceful majority denouncing a smaller group intent on committing acts of vandalism.
Scenes from the rowdy marches are stamping out the notion of Quebec's student movement as some monolith, united around identical ideals and leaders. Goals and tactics differ widely, a fact made evident in weekend confrontations over vandalism.
In recent days, the pacifists have made it known the vandals aren't welcome -- through pronouncements on social media, verbal chastising during the marches, and sometimes even by force.
"They take us hostage for their own little fun of breaking stuff," said Guillaume Lefebvre, a regular participant in the evening rallies and a geography student at a Montreal college.
He blames the violence and smashed windows on a small number of radical protesters, who have prompted what he calls an excessively aggressive reaction from police.
"The city is so big.. go somewhere else and do your own protest," Lefebvre said of the vandals.
It was clear from the chatter inside recent protests that the Quebec events now encompass a movement broader than just opposition to $325-a-year tuition hikes.
A number who marched in Montreal this week called for the resignation of Premier Jean Charest, or for a new anti-capitalist order. Some say that acts of vandalism, which many others call violence, is the only way to get their message across.
The split between the two sides was seen vividly Friday.
A struggle emerged between peaceful marchers and a group of masked protesters prone to violence, commonly known as the Black Bloc.
At one point when marchers heard the smash of the window at a Canadian Forces office, they booed angrily to decry the action.
In a remarkable scene caught on video, the masked woman in black who broke the window was shoved back by a pack of marchers as she tried to blend back into the crowd.
She screamed and swore as she was accosted by fellow protesters angered by what she had done.
"It's too bad more media didn't talk more about it," Lefebvre said of the protesters' intervention.
It's also "too bad," he said, that "protesters needed to attack people from the Black Bloc, and not the police."
Thirty-five people were arrested Friday.
A few of the marchers later implored journalists to film the non-violent demonstrators too, not just scenes of vandalism.
The same tug of war between factions was at play in the two nights that followed, during much tamer protests that saw no arrests and a smaller police presence.
With no pre-announced route to the nightly jaunt through the city, it's difficult to predict when and whether things will turn violent.
Even the decision about where to turn is being vigorously debated at intersections.
Some marchers say the trying process of collectively determining the route, street by street, is a metaphor for the student movement itself.
"It's direct democracy," said Gabriel Basetti-Benoit, a 17-year-old college student, who was trying to direct marchers onto another street.
"Maybe it can't work in a society of seven million, but it can work here."
At one point on Saturday evening, protesters opted to head the wrong way down Ste. Catherine Street, against an order from police and the calls of some protesters, snarling traffic on the main commercial artery that cuts through downtown.
But when a protester broke a glass bottle on the ground, the crowd jeered to show its displeasure. The protesters "were policing themselves," as one marcher put it at the time.
Still, not everyone in the movement is pleased with the emphasis on pacifism.
A debate raged online Sunday between students about whether violent acts were an acceptable form of protest.
One student wrote a lengthy, much-discussed letter on Facebook lamenting the growing pressure to protest peacefully, and the resulting divisions within the movement.
Alexandre Arsenault said protesters shouldn't worry about how they are depicted in the media, since they won't get fair coverage anyway.
"I am not advocating gratuitous violence, but rather self-defence," Arsenault wrote, castigating what he called the systemic violence of the government and police.
"We fight against the government! So let us stop this little popularity contest and disrupt!"
One commenter argued for a middle ground, saying vandals shouldn't target small businesses and cars of private citizens since they aren't to blame.
Another said students will lose public support if the protests end in showdowns with police and shattered glass.
"If you believe that to be against damaging public property means being against the student movement," wrote Nicolas Huberdeau, "I understand why you think the media is always against (it)."
- with files from Sidhartha Banerjee