Last night marked a turning point in the Quebec student conflict, as police arrested over 500 protesters. This is the largest number of arrests made since the start of the conflict, which dates back to February. The police have come under constant attack for being heavy handed in their approach, most often through their employment of tear gas; however, last night they used a different approach. It's called kettling.
Think of it as the police equivalent of a border collie rounding up sheep.
Essentially, kettling is a method used by the police to surround the protesters and then cut off any exit points, forcing protesters into a quarantined area. It is widely employed in Europe, so one could make the argument that the protesting students have finally gotten a taste of the European model they have been clamouring for.
However, that would be pedantic and patronizing. This is Canada; (regardless of what some of the protest signs and slogans may say) so let us resort to Canadian examples.
During the G20 summit in Toronto in 2010, the police used kettling to round up protesters on 10 different occasions. There were widespread allegations of police brutality and misconduct, and a recent report by the Ontario police watchdog as well as another report by the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, has condemned the use of kettling by police. The most obvious reason being that it gratuitously forces innocent bystanders to be confined to an area, and prevents them from exiting should they choose to do so.
In fact, according to an interview with Ian McPhail, vice-chair and interim chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, kettling is against RCMP policy. Of course, the Montreal Police and the Quebec Provincial Police are not the RCMP, but it would only seem logical if they had a similar policy. After all, how can the police expect blameless civilians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time from leaving the scene if they are shepherded into a makeshift corral?
There is, of course, the other side to this situation: considering what the police are faced with night after night, what else do we expect them to do? Kettling is a non-violent means to curtail protesters into an area, facilitating arrests without further disrupting a larger area of the city than necessary.
The protest last night was declared illegal, after projectiles and non-authorized routes were taken, and yet the protesters insisted on marching, true to their battle cries of not backing down. Is it then not fair to expect arrest once you are knowingly breaking the law? Is that not the underlying goal of some of these protests as they assertively and openly defy the law?
Now, considering the past behaviour of Montreal police and their penchant for racial profiling, (this does not seem to trouble the majority of white protesters, mind you) and police brutality, I am not going to defend them or their tactics.
Having said that, in taking into account the past practice of protesters, hurling Molotov cocktails, bricks, and other projectiles at the police, I cannot defend them or their strategy either. I can, however, condemn a practice that relegates guiltless onlookers to nothing more than the cattle they are treated as.