the unknown side of what's bumpin' in the trucks

What to make of the Montreal North riots?

In posse on 2008/08/13 at 4:43 pm

by Christopher DeWolf

Montreal is no stranger to riots. Over the course of its history, it has seen political riots, sports riots, nationalist riots and punk riots. From 1844 to 1849, Montreal was the capital of a united Canada, but imperial authorities stripped it of that status after rioters (most of them conservatives angry over the supposedly light punishment given to the 1838/39 rebels) trashed and burned down the colonial parliament. A little over a century later, Montrealers angry over the suspension of Maurice Richard left Ste. Catherine St. in tatters; the Richard Riot, as it was known, signalled the dawn of the nationalist era in Quebec life and politics. More recently, hockey fans and hooligans smashed windows and burned cars downtown after the Canadiens won the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

So what about Sunday night’s riot in Montreal North, then? It isn’t the first time mobs of angry people have burned cars and looted shops, but somehow it seems distinct from Montreal’s other riots. Maybe it’s the undercurrent of racial tension that seemed to run through the destruction. All riots start with a public united by a sense of injustice; in this case, it was frustration and anger directed against a police force and municipal authorities that seem to treat Montreal’s minorities — and in particular, blacks, Latinos and Arabs — with contempt, suspicion and, at times, violence.

Saturday’s police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, Fredy Villanueva, seemed all too familiar to those Montrealers who still remember other incidents in which a police officer, for reasons that are never made clear, has killed a man of colour. Most recently, in 2005, Mohamed Anas Bennis was shot when he passed by an unrelated police investigation in Côte des Neiges. (Police claim that Bennis stabbed an officer, but evidence of this has never been made public.) All told, an average of 20 civilians die every year in police custody, many of them in rather shady circumstances. Whether police behaviour in these instances was justified or not, the reticence of the police to fully explain them has angered many Montrealers. Combined with the often-strained everyday interactions between police and people in neighbourhoods like Montreal North, it creates a toxic atmosphere that can easily ignite.

The Montreal North riot has provoked inevitable comparisons with similar riots in Paris and Los Angeles. In both cases, it was a police action that provoked intense violence, vandalism and looting; the comparison becomes a bit strained when you realize that what happened in Montreal North was far less severe than the complete breakdown of civil order that took place, over the course of several days, in Paris’ northern suburbs and central Los Angeles. Still, it’s clear that there is a problem in Montreal, and the first step is to figure out how things went so wrong in the first place. That means looking closely at why Fredy Villaneuva ended up dead on Saturday, but it also means addressing the much broader social and economic problems that plague many of Montreal’s minority communities.

There is plenty of history to learn from. Studies of many American cities point to poor community-police relations, political exclusion, housing, rapid demographic change and unemployment and poverty as the chief causes behind the 1960s race riots. All of these factors are present in neighbourhoods like Montreal North, a traditionally working-class suburb that has seen a large influx of immigrants from Haiti and Latin America over the past two decades. In the past, Montreal North was notoriously corrupt, and relations between police and the community have always been tense, even before the growth of its non-white and immigrant populations. These days, it is plagued by street gangs that have had great success in recruiting young men who face dire prospects in schools and the job market. Police will have a hard time preventing recruitment when they have such little credibility.

Montreal would seem to have its work cut out for it, but in reality it is doing very little to solve any of these problems. In yesterday’s Gazette, columnist Henry Aubin excoriated the municipal and provincial governments for ignoring the appallingly high unemployment rate among young Montrealers born in Latin American and the Caribbean, and for having such a flimsy record of minority hiring. Just 5.6 percent of Montreal’s police officers and 0.5 percent of its firefighters are non-white. Moreover, the city and province seem reluctant to establish an impartial panel to look into Villanueva’s death, choosing instead to put Quebec’s public security ministry in charge of investigating the shooting.

All riots start for a reason. Beneath the surface of empty violence and opportunistic looting, there is always something more substantial, a deeper problem. Left alone, it will continue to fester, and I wouldn’t want to wait to see what happens if that remains the case.

via Spacing Montreal


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