The peppery smell of tear gas is unique. I imagine it would be quite pleasant if you were standing far enough away from it, but up close, it was pure poison. On Sunday evening in Montreal you had to sprint to escape it—leaving those caught in it's clouds to splutter and weep on the streets.
The protest in Montreal last night was held in order to seek justice for George Floyd, an African-American man who was murdered by white police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, just one week ago. It was organized by Justice for Victims of Police Killings.
The message to gather was spread via social media. On the Facebook invitation, the event organizers noted that this protest was also for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Torontonian women who died May 27. The police reported that she fell from her 24th story balcony. Korchinski-Paquet's neighbours suggested foul play, and she has now become a rallying cry for the anti-racism movement and the advocacy to end police brutality in Canada.
The official protest was peaceful, kicking off at 5 p.m. in front of police headquarters on St. Urbain. There was a great deal of emotion, but it was displayed elegantly and with passion by demonstrators. Thousands of protestors of all ages and ethnicities, both English and French, gathered before police HQ, chanting slogans and holding periodic moments of silence in honour of the victims.
It was only two hours before the atmosphere on the streets became tense. As police vans moved through the crowd, they were rocked from side to side by protestors, while masked demonstrators turned vandals tagged anarchist symbols on the side of the vehicle. This restlessness only grew worse when hundreds of protesters began to confront a line of riot police who were blocking off a street.
Though many sympathetic Twitter users have suggested that the violence was started by the police, this was more of a wish. Police did not start the violence, and the statements that they did are patently untrue.
The aggression was instigated by a small crew of three masked, white men. Their first act, to unleash a storm of violence, was one of infrastructural vandalism. They untied the metal knots on a fence that divided police from the protestors.
As soon as the fence fell, protestors began to throw water bottles, firecrackers, and stones at the police. It only took three individuals with intention to cause mayhem to open the flood gates to violence.
A line of police officers knelt on the ground before the crowd. When the second line of police officers began to kneel, the crowd roared—believing that they were showing their support to the movement.
What the crowd didn't realize was that the police had only kneeled in order to don their gas masks. Tear gas canisters were unleashed on the crowd. Within a few short moments, this tear gas, and its pungent smell, had engulfed the public square. The clouds of gas that hindered visibility were punctuated only by flash bombs.
The crowd ran. In their retreat, they ran across the square to a tight street where they began to construct a barricade. Constructed from materials found next to a construction site, these white protesters crouched down behind it to await whatever came next. Anarcho-Communist symbols were sewn on their sleeves.
A fire truck momentarily broke the stand off. As it drove down the street, it was unable to move past protestor-erected barricades and the demonstrators who were still hurling objects into the street. After some backlash from bystanders, they dismantled their blockade, allowing the vehicle to drive on.
This moment of humanity, however, was soon cut short when a group of men jumped onto the back of the truck, hindering its further progress.
Pundits and commentators (usually conservative) have expressed confusion over these protests in Toronto and Montreal. The Canadian police, they argue, bear no responsibility for the systematic racism found within the American police. George Floyd died in Minnesota, after all.
Advocates for the activists argue that the racism found in America is also present in Canada, noting the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet as poof of these claims. Yet, as of writing this, it remains entirely unclear whether the police murdered Korchinski-Paquet, let alone a racially motivated murder.
In contrast, George Floyd was clearly murdered. The officer that killed him, and those who stood by as he was being killed, deserve to be charged and tried for their crimes. These officers and their willing disregard for human life are emblematic of America's diseased police force.
In Canada, this case is yet to be made in the death of Korchinski-Paquet, and although it is legitimate to protest in solidarity with our neighbours to the south, it is not acceptable for white antifa members to throw stones at black, Montreal cops in the name of racial equality.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of all this. Demonstrators have already organized another round of protests. This summer could prove to be devastating for Montreal: unprecedented unemployment combined with racial tension could make this the perfect storm.
What is clear, however, is that the lockdown is well and truly over, with Dr. Theresa Tam helpfully telling Canadians that protesting is perfectly healthy, so long as they do not yell.
The front cover of the Journal de Montreal, which showed thieves looting local shops, reveals the full extent of the damage: a triumph of social justice hijacked by a small group of thugs.
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who took time last week to speak about racism in Canada, spoke out against the violence on display in Montreal last night, as peaceful protestors gave way to violent rioters gave way to looting and property destruction. Canadians have a right to protest, Trudeau said, but true social justice can never be achieved through violence.