MONTREAL - A march to mark an anniversary in Quebec's protest movement was swiftly broken up Friday by a police force that has shown increasing strictness in applying municipal bylaws.
Several hundred protesters had gathered to mark the event on a cold, grey afternoon — which was a far cry from a year earlier when, on a scorching summer-like day, tens of thousands of students staged a huge and memorable march.
The police response was also different this March 22.
Officers quickly jumped in to break up the event, detaining more than 200 people and ticketing them for municipal infractions such as marching against traffic.
Several groups of protesters were also subjected to kettles, the controversial crowd-control tactic in which people are penned into a confined space.
"The right to free speech exists and people have the right to protest," said police Sgt. Jean-Bruno Latour.
"But every demonstration must happen in an orderly way, with respect for all citizens."
Several bystanders complained that they were kettled simply for being near the protesters. Those in the kettle included a number of journalists, as well as the unofficial mascot of Montreal's protest movement: a man in a panda costume, now locally famous as "Anarchopanda."
There are still frequent protests against the three-per-cent-a-year tuition hikes imposed by the new Parti Quebecois government.
However, the size and intensity of the demonstrations is nowhere near the events of last year — when a number of faculties were shut down while students fought a plan to nearly double tuition.
The biggest protests were held on the 22nd of each month, with the one in March being perhaps the most memorable.
Police have recently begun signalling recently a declining tolerance for the protests, and a willingness to move in faster to break them up.
Last week, for instance, officers stopped the city's annual anti-police brutality march just as it was getting underway.
Last year, police routinely faced accusations of overzealousness from protesters — but in most cases the marches were at least underway, and police invariably intervened after a few tossed objects were seen flying out from the crowd.
Friday's protest organizers issued a statement dencouncing what they called increasingly systemic repression. They called it unacceptable that police are now dispersing crowds even before they start protesting.
"Hundreds of images and testimonials to police brutality, as well as cruel and degrading treatment of people who've been arrested, are now circulating on social media," said Stephanie Turcot, one spokeswoman for the group.
"It's time to start being concerned about it, and to stop it."
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