Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Militarization of Montreal's Metro System: Now We Get Cops With Tasers...

Over the years i have seen quite a bit of violence against youth, and most specifically against Black youth, dished out by the security guards who patrol the Montreal metro system.

It generally starts with someone being boisterous - once, for instance, a young Black guy happily shouted "Jah live!" to passersby on christmas eve - when a duo of guards will approach, aggressively demanding that the "suspect" give their name, empty their pockets, etc. If the "suspect" doesn't do exactly what they're told quickly enough, the guards will start getting physical, any resistance or even flinching on the part of their victim being an excuse for them to escalate matters.

In the case of the young Black guy on christmas eve, he didn't resist physically so the guards waited for the police to arrive... the kid was then taken out of villa maria station and made to lie down in the snow; when he protested he was pushed down and a cop sat on him for fifteen minutes as several other Black people tried to get their badge numbers.

Lying face down in the snow for fifteen minutes in subzero temperatures... and this was a kid who was not resisting.

Another time, on St Patrick's Day, me and my partner saw a (white) guy beaten on the ground for ten minutes by two guards - all because he was too drunk to know to stay down. Not that he was fighting, he was just crying and begging them to leave him alone as he kept on trying to get away. A crowd formed and everybody was yelling at the guards to stop, so much so that one of them completely lost it and took out his club and started whacking the guy on the head before charging into the onlookers.

When the cops arrived they arrested the drunk guy and also at least one of the people in the crowd just because they had been amongst those shouting at the guards to calm down, that they didn't need to be so violent.

Not that it normally gets to that point. More usual would be the times that someone is "merely" pinned to a wall, frisked as roughly as possible, and then taken away to wait for the cops to come and arrest them on some bogus charge.

Of course there is also that "other kind" of violence the guards excel at. Like the dynamic duo that several of us noticed, who would always hit on young women who were taking the metro. Chat them up, smiling and smooth as rotten tofu, ask them for their number, etc. Did they get many dates this way? What happened to women who said no? What do you think would happen if she told one of these pricks to fuck off? She's going to see these guys again - she has to take the metro to school or work, and they will be there...

The case of Alain Jean-Pierre, the metro guard who recruited young women into the sex trade - and then stole all of their earnings - was the tip of a sexist iceberg that the city of Montreal has no intention of dealing with. Can't deal with really, as sexual harassment of women is one of its wink-nod pitches to that male tourist market it caters to - so why the fuck should it deprive its male pigs the same benefit?

Race, class and age are the main factors motivating harassment and then violence from the security guards. This is even more clear that in many other situations as the public transport system is already disproportionately used by people with less money and less social power. (For a sideways snapshot of class, just ride the metro for a day and see who is riding with you - compare this to who you see driving the cars above... for some of these numbers see the survey results on page 7 of the STM's 2005 annual report...)

Indeed, the transit system is a microcosm of the economy it serves. Whereas women represent an absolute majority of those who use public transit, and the system is disproportionately used by people of colour, the STM's workforce in 80% male and over 90% white. (see that 2005 annual report page 29) Which of course all fits in, given the fact that the STM workforce is heavily unionized and that exclusion from unionized jobs has been identified as one of the factors driving the new cycle of "racial segmentation" (i.e. racism) in the canadian economy...

As security guards patrolling these areas come under less scrutiny than "real cops", and these areas are subject to a more arbitrary and less regulated level of control, practices like racial and class profiling are highly prevalent, and nobody even pretends different. The high level of surveillance in these areas - almost all of which are saturated with close circuit video cameras - encourages the trend already noted by academic John Fiske, who has explained that such surveillance "draws lines that Blacks cannot cross and Whites cannot see." Or that poor people cannot cross, and middle class people cannot see...

These tendencies are reinforced by the fact that the metro guards do not only chance upon their victims, but are also called by STM employees to deal with suspicious or "troublesome" people... and as we have already seen, these STM employees are far more likely to be white and male than the people who use the system. As certain groups are disproportionately targeted (i.e. check out Atwater or Villa Maria metro stations about the time school gets out and see the connection between Black teenagers and the guards' intimidation tactics) they will be disproportionately found to be doing "something" wrong, and it all becomes one big "beat up the Black kids" positive-feedback-loop...

It's a bad situation, and of course people have no choice, no way of extricating themselves from it. As three different factors combine, it will most likely get worse.

First off, there is an ongoing trend to make "public" space into "controlled" space. The zoning of different places where people hang out and socialize as "parks" means that suddenly there is a curfew there, that special rules apply as to what people can or cannot do. One of the major campaigns around police harassment of punks in the 90s specifically hinged on such zoning issues, as does the recent ban on dogs from two downtown parks, a transparent move against the street people who hang out there with their companions.

Another example is the relocation of various businesses within malls and shopping centres like montreal's touristy "underground city". This means that to go to a movie, to get a meal or to go to certain government offices means moving through areas where security guards can enforce make-believe rules and there is not even a pretense of anyone having any "rights", because when you are there you are on someone's private property.

So the problem is not limited to the metro system, and is in fact becoming more prevalent as police oppression is supplemented by layers of grey-area security guards and situations where people have no real idea what is expected of them or how the dumbfuck holding the nightstick is going to react.

Secondly, as the city has grown and the public transportation system has developed over the past hundred and forty years people's jobs, relationships and ability to participate in their own culture has become dependent on being able to take the bus (or once upon a time, the tram) or the metro to get where they are going. As many experienced a few weeks ago during the strike action by transit mechanics, many people's lives are structured around having to access the transit system. In a city where 40% of transit users do not own a car, many people - especially young people - have no choice but to take the metro, and subject themselves to the control of the metro guards.

Thirdly - and this is in fact what has prompted this posting - once an area becomes "controlled space" like the metro system, unless people resist the security apparatus will become more and more highly militarized. We see an example of this tomorrow as Montreal police will now be patrolling the metro system armed with tasers.

As i already mentioned above, incidents of security violence in the metro system normally end with the police arriving and arresting the victim. But hype around "crime" and also "terrorism" in the metro system led to the decision to have police patrol, at least initially alongside metro security guards.

When it was initially announced that Montreal police would be patrolling the metros there were some muted objections from "community spokespeople", but no mobilization or real resistance. Which is not to fault them but us - after all, that kind of thing is not the job of such "community leaders", it's the job of the radical left... or it should be!

These new police in the metro, it should be noted, were largely recruited from amongst the guards who already patrol the system. In a racist nod to the P.R. problem stemming from the pimping case of Alain Jean-Pierre (who is Black), it would seem that white guards were given preferential access to the new "higher status" police jobs. Not that a Black cop is anything but a cop, but this racial bias in hiring in certainly not likely to mitigate the problems we have already identified.

The provision of tasers to this new police section is equally worrisome. This is part of a long-term plan of supplying the weapons to all police in Montreal.

Already in 2001 SWAT teams were supplied with the electroshock weapons, then in 2004 the police operational centres were supplied ("we use them on prisoners when they get too violent," as one cop bragged the media) and as of last summer the four "intervention groups" - the ones who are in charge of attacking demonstrations and putting down acts of collective resistance - were given the weapon.

In other words, this is an ongoing trend - and this is an important moment in this trend, as tomorrow for the first time police armed with tasers will be in charge of controlling and repressing "ordinary" working class people, not demonstrators or prisoners or people involved in armed stand-offs.

Billed as "non-lethal weapons" (makes me think of "low tar cigarettes"), tasers deliver a powerful 50,000 volt electrical shock to their victim, but are not "supposed to" do any permanent injury. Despite the fact that they have been linked to two hundred deaths in North America - including several in Canada - and that "pregnant women and those with cardiovascular disease, people who are drug affected, young people, older people and those with mental illness" are all said to be at greater risk when being shocked, these weapons are fraudulently promoted as being "less lethal than guns". i say fraudulently, because they are normally not used instead of guns, but instead of other less dangerous forms of violence (i.e. fists or batons, which of course can also kill), and often even in situations where violence may otherwise have not been used at all.

Like pepper spray, tasers are used to punish people for not doing what police tell them to do quickly enough. For instance, i have seen a completely non-violent and polite handcuffed homeless man pepper sprayed merely for complaining that the police had taken his cigarette from his mouth.

This is the real reason police want so-called non-lethal weapons: they can be used to torture people. People like Stephane Datey, to give another example: last year this Quebec City university student was pepper sprayed after he had already been subdued, covered with a blanket and pinned down with a police shield. (Datey died as a result of this "non-lethal" police violence.)

In several of the examples of metro guard abuse i listed at the beginning of this posting, tasers would have most likely been used had they been available. In none of these situations were guns used (because nobody had any), yet in all of them guards were intent on inflicting maximum abuse.

Similarly, think of the situation i described a couple of weeks ago, where a thirteen year old Arab girl fell unconscious after being pepper sprayed by the cops. Had tasers been on hand she might well have been electroshocked first...

Furthermore, like pepper spray and fists, but unlike guns, use of tasers passes completely under the radar. According to police tasers were used 28 times in 2006, but nobody ever notices until someone who had been electroshocked dies - at which point suddenly the media will take notice of the "controversy" surrounding these weapons, though a coroner's inquest is normally sufficient to cover matters up.

So what to do?

i don't see any immediate prospects for stopping this. The radical left is of course isolated from the working class, and community leaders have had their five seconds of crocodile tears. The vast majority of people harassed by the metro cops will know what's what, but it's very difficult to resist physically or politically in an environment which is itself so tightly controlled in ways both physical and political.

Nevertheless, i think that there is potential to do something. People do go in and out of the metros, and those are locations where one can flier or organize. The system does have vulnerabilities - both in terms if the fares it depends on for almost half its annual budget, and in other material ways. This is an area where, especially around certain stations, there is a real and obvious combination of class, race and gender dynamics which can perhaps be teased out and turned into a tool for change.

There is room for creativity, imagination and life, even in the underground.

Let's see what happens.

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