MONTREAL - Montreal police are being accused of political profiling — of searching and detaining people wearing the red square, the symbol of Quebec's protest movement.
A Quebec student group is calling for an independent inquiry into police actions over last weekend's Formula One Grand Prix while also gathering details from recent weeks for a potential lawsuit.
The group, the more hardline CLASSE student association, is now gathering testimony from people who say their civil rights were violated last weekend.
Police insisted they did not specifically target red-square wearers. They said they searched people they deemed suspicious, and used preventive arrests, but they said they were acting under constitutionally reasonable grounds, out of legitimate security concerns.
Some videos have sprouted on the Internet showing heated exchanges between police and protesters — including some unusual ones of people's bags being searched.
The CLASSE group says it has received testimony from about 100 people who said they were victims of preventive detentions and political profiling. It also says there were illegal searches from police officers — a number of whom hid their ID numbers.
"What we've been seeing these last few weeks, and what we saw this weekend in particular, is really without precedent," CLASSE co-spokesman Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said Monday.
"We're talking about systematic searches in the subway and in the streets of people who were wearing the red square. It's extremely worrying for our democracy."
Police defended their work over the weekend.
They said that an event — the biggest annual tourist event in Canada — had been threatened and they did their best to protect the people there.
"We had one sole objective: to ensure the safety of people participating in that event," said Montreal police chief Marc Parent.
"Social peace was ensured Sunday."
The incident under dispute occurred during Formula One car-race events. Some anti-capitalist and student protesters had promised to disrupt the four-day festivities.
For weeks, protesters in Montreal had been chanting during nightly demonstrations how they planned to spoil "Charest's" Grand Prix. An anti-capitalist group even posted an advisory laying out its plans to fill subway cars, obstructing them so people couldn't get to Sunday's race.
But their plans were ultimately thwarted. Police were seen forcibly escorting people, notably those wearing red squares, away from the race grounds and back onto the subway.
Premier Jean Charest expressed support for the work police had done. He also used language that was uncommonly aggressive, for him, in attacking the weekend protesters.
Normally mild in his language, Charest described some of the Grand Prix protesters as, "a minority of extreme leftist groups, anarchists in certain cases," trying to cause problems. He called them extreme leftists several times Monday and saluted police.
"The security forces did a good job and when you have 100,000 people at the same site it poses a very particular security challenge," he said. "I think they did very well and so we're going to continue to do what needs to be done to make sure that people are safe."
But witnesses were painting their own portrait — one of alleged police exaggeration.
One young woman in tears said she was planning to get her ticket when she met up with a friend in front of the track Sunday. The woman, who had dyed red hair, accused the police of "profiling.'' Reporters who didn't have a Grand Prix ticket were also forced back on the subway.
There were similar anecdotes on Youtube.
One prankster shot a video of himself taunting police. He had placed a donut in a paper bag and on it he scribbled, "For you, dear pig." He then placed that inside a knapsack and went into the metro. As expected the man, who said he was wearing a red square, was pulled over by police. They searched the bag and found the donut, leading to an exchange of snarky comments.
Another man posted a video of police arresting him last weekend when he refused to let them search his bag. He said he was held for several hours and that police deleted the video on his camera. He said he managed to recover it thanks to some software.
Police said their interventions were targeted.
Parent said 50 people were prevented from taking the metro, out of 250,000 users. Masks, rocks and knives were among the objects seized by those arrested. Most of those arrested were released without charge — in some cases after being held for a number of hours.
Parent said there were 34 preventive arrests — out of 110,000 people present at the Grand Prix site, on a tiny island next to Montreal. Some were not wearing the red square, he said, while other people wearing the red square were left alone by police.
"There was no systemic searching, detentions of people based on red squares," Parent said.
"It was based on behaviour that raised questions about their presence. You will recall there were also specific threats against the event Sunday... We have a policy on profiling — whether it's social or political profiling. There is no question of accepting in Montreal."
Legal experts point out that while profiling is widely understood as an unacceptable practise, and that the Constitution forbids discrimination, proving that it has actually happened can be difficult.
Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey said the most common way to prove its occurrence is through statistical evidence. Successful legal challenges can lead to sizable damages, he added.
"The illegality of that (profiling) is patent and clear," he said. "But the difficulties in evidence are serious, and it's not easy to get around them."
Grey said that police are allowed to respond to specific threats. Montreal police defended their work by noting that activist groups had threatened to disrupt the Grand Prix.
But Grey suggested police might have been overzealous in their interpretation of the severity of the danger to the Grand Prix.
Over the last few months there have been smashed windows and vehicles, objects like rocks tossed at police, at least one Molotov cocktail thrown near a police line, countless verbal altercations, and injuries during confrontations with riot cops.
But evidence of physical violence from the protests has been rare.
"Remember there hasn't been any serious violence in Montreal — nothing that would even qualify as a major riot by world standards," Grey said.
"You cannot replace freedom by security."
Over four days of Grand Prix events, Parent said there were 130 arrests. Eight police vehicles were damaged over the weekend.
Police Police use pepper spray and fight with protesters during an arrest on St. Catharines street near the Montreal Grand Prix festival area Sunday, June 10, 2012, THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe
Police remove a person after holding him for 15 minutes after a brief confrontation in the Berri UQAM station early Sunday, June 10, 2012. Protesters declared they would disrupt the yellow subway line to the Montreal Grand Prix. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe
A Police officer searches an F1 fan at a metro station close to the venue of the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Sunday, June 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Police officers question a woman wearing a red square, the student protest symbol, at a metro station close to the venue of the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Sunday, June 10, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Demonstrators hold a sign displaying concern about sexual exploitation during a march protesting the Canadian Grand Prix auto race in Montreal, Saturday, June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Peter McCabe)
A line of Quebec riot police keep protesters away from Old Montreal on Saturday, June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Peter McCabe)
A policeman guides away a protester attempting to enter the Canadian Grand Prix auto race festival area in Montreal on Saturday, June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Peter McCabe)
Protesters advance heckle police trying to keep away from the Canadian Grand Prix auto race festival area in Montreal on Saturday, June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Peter McCabe)
A vandalized police cars is parked at the corner of Crescent Street and St. Catherine Street in Montreal after a conflict with protesters near the Canadian Grand Prix auto race festival site Saturday, June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Peter McCabe)