‘The presence of riot police on our campus is shocking’
A sit-in by McGill university students ends with police using pepper spray, tear gas, and physical force
McGill Daily (McGill University)
MONTREAL (CUP) –– Over 100 riot police stormed McGill campus on the evening of the Nov. 10 tuition fee protests, forcefully dispersing student demonstrators that had gathered in front of the James Administration building. Pepper spray, tear gas, and physical force were used by police against demonstrators who were protesting the detainment and violence allegedly used by McGill Security against a group of McGill students who had occupied Principal Heather Munroe-Blum’s office earlier in the day.
Thirteen McGill students claim to have been assaulted by McGill Security while they occupied the fifth floor of the James Administration building for almost two hours on Thursday afternoon. The sit-in coincided with a 30,000 person-strong demonstration against tuition hikes in the province.
At 4:05 p.m., a group of approximately 50 students entered McGill campus after news of the occupation in James Administration reached the demonstrators.
Farid Attar Rifai, president of the Association of McGill University Support Employees, was one of the first people on the scene.
“I saw security … were rushing towards the James building, so I knew [the students] were already inside at that point,” Attar Rifai said.
He explained that, upon his arrival, all entrances to the building were locked and security guards were positioned outside.
Some of the demonstrators took a megaphone back to the Roddick Gates, where they encouraged others to join them. “We’re in McGill, we need more people,” screamed one demonstrator. The crowd outside of James Administration grew to around 200 people.
Reports of violence used against the occupiers by McGill Security reached those outside through text messages and phone calls. Demonstrators proceeded to form a human chain around the building, demanding entrance.
At roughly 4:50 p.m., four Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) officers approached the building from the Milton Gates and entered James Administration through a back door, where students attempted to block them.
“When we heard the cops were coming … we decided to delay them so people inside could have time to negotiate,” Attar Rifai said.
Student life and learning deputy provost Morton Mendelson confirmed that he had been inside the James Administration throughout the demonstration.
“There were four police who came to survey the situation,” he said. “They at no time interacted with the people upstairs.”
Mendelson noted he did not know who had called the police officers. According to Mendelson, McGill Security is “mandated, or certainly allowed, to call the police when they feel that there is a threat to people or a threat to property … but I don’t know what triggered the decision to do that.”
Moments after the four police officers arrived, around 20 students entered through a side door for a peaceful sit-in on the second floor, with McGill Security supervising.
Just before 5 p.m., 20 police on bicycles approached James Administration from the Milton Gates. The officers spoke with McGill Security, but did not take action immediately.
Officers lined up, using their bicycles as barricades against the demonstrators. Some swung their bikes at the demonstrators who were attempting to push the police off campus.
A brief confrontation took place between demonstrators and police. Demonstrators pushed police back while officers dodged items, including sticks and water bottles, thrown by the crowd. The officers rode away, to the cheering of students.
Shortly after 5 p.m., about 40 riot police entered the campus through the Milton Gates, beating their shields with batons. Police pushed the crowd towards the Arts and Ferrier buildings. Demonstrators were pepper sprayed after pushing back against the police lines in front of James Administration.
“The university did not call the riot squad. I can tell you that, unequivocally,” Mendelson said. “I know that the police who were here called in [the riot squad]. [The four police officers] looked out the window, and they saw the crowd was growing – there were conversations, things seemed to be getting more heated. I don’t know why, what factored into their decision.”
Jean-Pierre Brabant, a member of the SPVM’s public relations team, declined to answer questions as to whether the riot police had authorization to enter McGill campus.
A second wave of over 50 riot police surrounded demonstrators on all sides. At this point, students taking part in the sit-in on the first floor of James Administration exited the building.
One demonstrator who was trying to cross police lines on the west side of James Administration was picked up, dragged, and thrown to the ground. Police formed a line and began forcibly pushing demonstrators down the steps, towards the Milton Gates at the edge of campus.
Dozens of demonstrators were pepper sprayed by officers while others carried water to those who had been blinded by the spray.
Gregory Mikkelson, an associate professor in the environment and philosophy departments, was on his way to pick up his children from daycare. While leaving campus, he noticed the protest outside of James Administration and stopped to observe.
“Three Montreal riot police came at me, clubbed me in the ribs and stomach with a baton, knocked me over – I don’t know if it was a club that knocked me over or one of them pushing me, you know, it all happened so fast – I popped right back up and they pepper sprayed me in the face,” Mikkelson said.
“After I was attacked, my first thought was to check with the person I had been talking with shortly before that and see if he had witnessed it, and ask him if I could get his information so I could corroborate if necessary.”
McGill student Anna Hermanson was involved in the demonstration and explained that police were “actively pushing” student protesters.
“We decided to let go of one another and put our hands up, and say, ‘We’re standing here peacefully, this is our campus, we have a right to be here. Please’ – I’m sobbing at this point … asking, ‘Why are you doing this, we’re students, we can be here, we’re protesting peacefully, please don’t come forward,’” she said.
Fleeing protesters were unable to enter McGill buildings, which had been locked. McGill’s emergency alert system was not activated.
Mendelson spoke to the activation procedure of the system, which is controlled by McGill Security.
“The emergency alert system would go out to all the members of the community, and there’s a trade-off whether or not that would have calmed the situation or fuelled the situation,” he explained.
Once protesters had been pushed off campus onto nearby Milton Street, police shut down the intersection at Milton and University Streets, while demonstrators lingered in the road. Shortly after, tear gas was deployed. The police proceeded to charge towards remaining demonstrators, breaking up the crowd.
McGill student Zoe Pepper-Cunningham, who had been walking through campus with her bicycle and was not involved in the demonstration, explained she was pushed to the ground by police in the intersection.
“I couldn’t run really because I had my bike, so while they were charging, they just pushed me down onto my bike and pinned me on the ground. It was kind of blurry for me, but I felt kicking and hitting and they threw my bike – which is now broken, pretty badly – and dragged me by my arms,” she said.
Four arrests were reported from Thursday’s demonstration, two of which have been confirmed to be McGill students. Students Alex Briggs and Ariel Prado were arrested, separately, near James Administration. Both were released late Thursday evening, although Briggs has a pending court date.
Immediately after the demonstration outside James Administration broke up, McGill student groups, including the Students’ Society of McGill University, the Quebec Public Interest Research Group, and McGill University First Aid Service, began mobilizing to offer support to demonstrators who had been affected.
Students at the fifth-floor sit-in inside the James Administration building were eventually escorted out of the building by two Montreal police officers. According to the students involved, the police were only involved “peripherally” during the occupation, and while administrators first said students wouldn’t be allowed to leave the building without non-academic probation or charges, the two parties agreed to the students’ release in a second round of negotiations, under the conditions that there would be no arrests, charges, disciplinary action, or names taken.
According to Mendelson, talks between the two parties concluded in less than five minutes, after administrators had consulted with each other and the Montreal police, and subsequently accepted the students’ terms. The students on the second floor negotiated with a member of McGill Security and a Montreal police officer. One student occupying the second floor said later that the sit-in was non-violent.
Munroe-Blum released a statement Nov. 11, indicating that McGill Dean of Law Daniel Jutras has been asked to conduct an independent investigation of the events of Nov. 10, to be completed by Dec. 15. The McGill principal added she was not on campus to witness the events firsthand on Nov. 10, and emphasized. “The presence of the riot squad, which dispersed the protesters by its usual means, was entirely directed by the Montreal police service.”
“The presence of riot police on our campus is shocking.”
With files from Henry Gass, Queen Arsem-O’Malley, Anthony Lecossois and Emma Godmere