It’s been a tough week for the student movement in Quebec. A fractious congress that resulted in the resignation and firing of the entire executive of the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, the largest student federation in the province, led into a week where schools already on strike have struggled to win votes to maintain that strike, and few if any new schools have joined them. Facing a growing consensus that the strike should be postponed until the fall in order to join public sector unions in a common front, striking students are vulnerable.
Small in number, confined to a few Montreal campuses and now with renewed violence from a police force that has stooped to new lows of brutality this spring, Quebec’s student strikers needed a win.
Today, on the campus of the Université du Québec à Montréal, facing a court order demanding that classes be held and the threat of expulsion issued by their administration, hundreds of students turned up to disrupt classes and enforce their democratically voted strike mandate.
In response, the university administration called in the Montreal police, who arrived in full riot gear with pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and batons at the ready. Paradoxically enough, their stated role there was to ensure that classes could occur as scheduled.
The students were shortly boxed in and it was clearly about to get very, very ugly. There were numerous reports of police violence on social media, and the bulk of the reported 22 arrests happened as riot police swept onto campus. Students then set up barricades, and police formed a line and prepared to move in.
Then a funny thing happened. A single man, a prof in a paperboy cap, walked out into the no man’s land between the lines and gestured to police that he was staying there. As students thunderously chanted “les profs! avec nous! les profs! avec nous!” a second prof came forward, and then a third, and in moments a line of professors had formed, linking arms and standing between students and police.
For those unfamiliar with Quebec, it is worth noting that there was precious little guarantee this gambit would work. Police truncheons have been indiscriminate on the streets this spring, and teachers have suffered from police brutality too, including a case where a police dog mauled a teacher in Quebec City. But on this day the zeal of the police quickly melted under the withering gaze and moral authority of a line of middle-aged educators.
Only minutes before contemplating a grizzly last stand, students cheered uproariously from behind the line of teachers as police withdrew from the university shortly after four in the afternoon.
As university security forces fell back, profs asked students to remain in place while they sent a delegation to the police station to demand the release of the 22 arrested students.
“We are going to see the students who were arrested to see if there’s anything we can do,” one prof was quoted as saying on Twitter. “Stay here, stay cool.”
As a group of profs went to the police station to negotiate the release of their students (who were freed shortly thereafter on a promise to appear in court), remaining students and faculty proceeded to hold an impromptu sit-in in the university’s largest common area, which was still ongoing as of this writing.
The demands put forward by these students and professors reportedly include an end to all political expulsions, a lifting of the injunction mandating access to classes and no more cops on campus, and they have announced their intention to stay for some time, making calls over social media for supplies and reinforcements.
For weeks now, police brutality has been tolerated, in some cases actively encouraged, in the media of this province. Talk radio hosts and tabloid columnists, peeved by traffic interruptions, call for blood. One applauded the actions of a police dog who bit a father of two in Quebec City, exclaiming on-air that “the police dog deserves a good Gaines-Burger!”
It has been a troubling time for anyone who frowns upon the casual use of violence on young people, especially youth guilty of little more than expressing their opinions, and it has often seemed our response to this spasm of indiscriminate brutality has been a collective shrug.
Into this abyss of indifference stepped a couple dozen university professors who drew a line, both figuratively and literally, and demanded an end to the indiscriminate violence being inflicted upon their students. Somehow, up to this point, the well-documented abuses of Quebec police had escaped the gaze of our collective moral rebuke. The police, as Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has written, take their cues from us, and so far we have given them license to run wild.
Today, if only for today, that lawless ride came to a screeching halt at the feet of a line of university professors. Either you beat us all, or you beat none of us, they dared the line of stone-faced officers, and it was the police who blinked.
No matter what happens next, these profs should rightly be celebrated. As the faculty of Quebec so often do, they defused tension, kept everyone calm, risked themselves to protect their students and ultimately went down to the police station to demand the release of those arrested, believing the arrests to be illegitimate. What more could we ask of educators?
Quebec, or at least that part thereof that doesn’t think austerity is awesome, needed a hero. In the triumphant return of 18-year-old Naomie Tremblay-Trudeau to the streets four days after being shot in the face with a gas canister, they found their first. Here, in the halls of UQAM, they may have found several dozen more.