This past Thursday night, as Montrealers gathered in the Gay Village to honour the victims of the Orlando massacre, I was around the corner at the Bell Media studios hosting a talk radio show.
It wasn’t until I got home hours later that I checked my Twitter feed and noticed that #Couillard was trending. Curious, I followed the internet trail and realized I had managed to miss the news of the night. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, invited to attend and speak at the vigil, had been attacked by Esteban Torres, a 20-year-old transgender rights activist, who moments before had also spoken at the event.
The premier’s security detail quickly rushed Torres and police officers violently escorted him away. The next day he appeared in court, where he was charged with assault with a weapon and causing a disturbance. He pleaded not guilty and was released on bail, with 19 conditions including that he stay away from Premier Couillard, refrain from taking part in any activist activity, and undergo a medical evaluation to ensure he’s not a danger to himself or others.
The “weapon” he “assaulted” the premier with? A wad of paper. A crumpled piece of paper.
As if deprived of this vital piece of information, the next day the mainstream media's headlines screamed concern and outrage. “Assault against Premier Couillard. Esteban Torres: Hate in his lungs,” read La Presse. The Montreal Gazette rushed to reassure us that Premier Couillard was “ok after the incident.” Of course he was ok. IT WAS A WAD OF PAPER.
The CBC informed us that Premier Couillard was thankful there were no serious consequences and that he was “turning the page.” How brave. Don’t let tragic events define you, Mr. Premier.
There were countless references in mainstream media to Torres being an agitated and angry man, a far left anti-capitalist activist who had managed to hijack an event meant to honour victims of homophobia and make it about him. Columnists opined on whether accessibility to politicians opens them up to more risk. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre called the incident “shameful and unacceptable,” while Pride Montreal publicly (and unnecessarily) apologized to Premier Couillard, even though Torres was never officially on their guest speakers’ list.
There is nothing unreasonable or particularly violent about the way the premier’s security detail reacted to the incident. They did their job. That very same morning, British Labour MP Jo Cox had been gunned down and murdered by a member of a far-right hate group. In Montreal, the trial of Richard Bain, the man who attempted to kill former Quebec premier Pauline Marois, is currently underway. It’s both natural and wise that they would be extra vigilant.
But charging Torres with assault with a weapon and leaving him facing possible jail time is going too far. “But what if it had been something more lethal in his hands?” some people have asked. Then we’d be having an entirely different conversation, but as it stands he threw a piece of paper. It bounced off the premier’s chest, as wads of paper are prone to do. No one was hurt. Which, by the way, is more than I can say for many students (and even journalists) during the 2012 Maple Spring protests, who were handled quite roughly by police officers at the time. Many suffered serious injuries, including a student who was hit directly in the face with a tear gas canister and another who lost an eye after being struck with a rubber bullet. Many could also argue the latest government announcement of $242 million worth of budget cuts in health care is also a form of violence, but that’s another — not entirely unrelated — conversation.
Were Torres’ actions unwarranted, inappropriate, and unbecoming at a time of mourning and solidarity? Perhaps. Was Premier Couillard necessarily the best target for this outburst? Probably not. By most accounts, Quebec’s Liberal Party has not been unresponsive to the LGBTQ community’s demands and concerns. His actions could have also, however, been the uncalculated and emotional outburst of a queer Latino man who had just watched so many from the queer and Latino community gunned down this past week, getting upset at what appeared to him to be one more politician taking the stage to score political points and pander.
You don’t have to agree with or even understand what compelled Esteban Torres to react with anger and throw that wad of paper at Premier Couillard to feel that the police and media reaction has been ridiculously over the top. One should not go to jail for throwing a piece of paper at a politician. It’s ludicrous. And calling it an “aggression” and “armed assault” diminishes the weight of those words.
An important side note: Studies show that transgender people are at a much higher risk of physical and sexual violence while incarcerated. So sending a transgender person to jail is even more potentially dangerous and damaging than it can be for cisgender people.
Earlier this year, when New Zealand politician Steven Joyce was hit squarely in the face with a pink rubber dildo by a female activist protesting the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic development minister laughed it off and no charges were laid.
This is the ideal opportunity for Premier Couillard to show compassion and common sense and demand that the charges be dropped. Showing leniency to Torres doesn’t mean we condone his actions and encourage others to do the same. It simply means that during a week where so many people paid the ultimate price for simply daring to be who they were, we recognize that there was no real threat or intent to harm here. Let’s honour them by focusing on eradicating real acts of violence — not imaginary ones.