06/09/2012 04:03 EDT | Updated 08/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Montreal Grand Prix: Protesters And Police Scuffle Amid Formula One Festivities


MONTREAL - Droves of tourists will be returning from Montreal's Grand Prix weekend with unconventional vacation videos that include rowdy and occasionally violent street scenes.

There were scuffles between police and protesters Saturday night. Four police cruisers were vandalized, blasts of tear gas and pepper spray were fired, and at least 28 people were arrested.

A taxi driver could also face charges for fleeing the scene after police say he got out of his cab to argue with a crowd of protesters and it rolled down a hill, injuring three people.

Many of those scenes transpired just metres away from a huge, ongoing party on Crescent Street for the weekend's Formula One car-race festivities — considered the biggest annual tourist event in Canada.

Each incident was accompanied by the flashing lights of people snapping photos and gathering video.

One man stepped from the sidelines Saturday night to pose for a picture in front a protester who was being arrested.

"Welcome to Montreal," said another man, who appeared to be a local, to sarcastic cheers.

The Grand Prix race has become a lightning rod for demonstrations against capitalism in general and student tuition fee increases in particular.

Lisa Kaltsis, a Montreal-area woman attending the Grand Prix party, was watching as police charged a group of protesters.

"This is not about school any more,'' she said. "I don't even call them protests, I call them anarchy.''

The daily protests in Montreal over tuition fee increases have become a source of fascination for some of the thousands of tourists in the city for the four-day Grand Prix event.

Over the past few days, visitors to the city have been witness to a march of near naked protesters, crowds of people banging on pots and pans, and lines of riot police facing off against angry demonstrators hurling obscenities.

Even the uneventful protests have kept tourists riveted.

"It's like a movie,'' one man said earlier Saturday, as he watched a line of riot police block off a street in Old Montreal.

While local businesses have complained the protests are hurting their bottom line, many tourists said they had barely noticed the demonstrations at all.

"I think the police have been well organized,'' said Dragan Mlikota, visiting from Chicago for the race.

On Saturday, a feminist group staged a peaceful afternoon demonstration.

The group was protesting against what they called the sexual exploitation of women at the Grand Prix. More than a hundred people marched through the streets, stopping at hotels they accused of being complicit in sex tourism.

"What we want to do is shine a light on what we don't see in terms of sex tourism in the city,'' said Amelie Tremblay, a Montreal student. "There is an immense pressure on sex workers during the Grand Prix.''

For the most part, though, the protesters were drowned out Saturday by a sea of visitors wandering through Montreal's downtown shopping district.

The Saturday afternoon Grand Prix qualifying session at the Gilles-Villeneuve race track took place under tight security.

Police seized firecrackers from one person outside the race track, who was ticketed under a municipal bylaw.

The international hacking group Anonymous also leaked more information Saturday about race-ticket buyers. The group made a similar breach late last month.

There has been a heightened police presence on downtown streets, at the race track itself, and on the city's subway system.

There is a plan to disrupt the subway line that will take thousands of people to the race track Sunday by packing the trains with protesters.

Steven Marshall, a visitor from Toronto who was at the track on Saturday, said the protests may be inconvenient but it's a way to make a point.

"As long as nobody is getting hurt and as long as the demonstrations remain peaceful, I have the belief that people should be able to assemble and make their voices heard,'' he said, adding however that the subway system should be off limits.

"Listen, I don't think anybody should be able to stop public transit because you are not really speaking to the people who are doing anything against you.''

Mlikota, who paid about $50,000 to complete his Master's degree in the United States, said he had no problem with the fight against tuition increases, but felt protesting the race weekend made no sense.

"That's a mistake,'' he said. "Doesn't the Grand Prix bring in a lot of revenue that could help pay for tuition?''

Sunday's Formula One Grand Prix race, and the events leading up to it, traditionally mark the beginning of Montreal's festival season.

The high-spending Grand Prix crowd can bring in as much as $100 million for the local economy. The federal, provincial and municipal government provide $15 million annually to bring the race to the city.

- with files from Peter Rakobowchuk

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