Last Thursday, a police officer from the Service de police de la ville de Québec (SPVQ) shot 18-year-old Noémie Trudeau-Tremblay in the face with a tear gas canister at point-blank range. The images of the assault that circulated were qualified as “shocking” and “troubling” by Quebec’s Liberal minister of public safety and provoked a wave of indignation across social networks. Beyond the anger that the event produced, one thing is obvious: Quebec has a serious police brutality problem. However, the roots of the issue go deeper than just police training and culture. In order to grasp this phenomenon, one must also question the reigning climate in our public spaces. Whose voices are on the minds of the police officers when they so viciously attack protesters?
The day following the incident, one of the capital city’s radio hosts affirmed, “as a taxpayer,” being “very proud of the work of the police officers yesterday.” A few days earlier, a headline in the Journal de Québec touted “The Québec City method,” praising the efficiency of the previous day’s police intervention, which saw nearly 250 protesters surrounded and then arrested under a mere municipal by-law. That same day, a host from another radio station in the capital congratulated the police dog that seriously bit a protester: “The police dog deserves a good Gaines-Burger!” he exclaimed on-air.
These questionable statements are the climax of the dangerous rhetorical escalation we have been witnessing since the beginning of the student mobilization a week ago. The airwaves of the capital region carry the message that it is imperative that “the Quebec government request the enforcement of the War Measures Act and that the army take over Quebec.” On the same station a few days prior, it was declared that “the government should pass an anticipatory special law. To warn people that if there are troublemakers, we’ll get them right away. We’ll shoot on sight if necessary!”
These incendiary statements are just the trash-media version of the broader offensive we’re currently witnessing. In his latest column, even journalist Mathieu Bock-Côté, who isn’t sympathetic to student strikers, worried whether the intensifying “vicious comments” aimed at them could even be described as a spreading “hatred of students.” A quick glance at social media confirms that it’s a real phenomenon: there are calls for violence, even for the murder of students, aplenty. Is it possible that this climate could influence the work of police officers?
In my book Tenir Tête I quoted philosophy professor Christian Nadeau, who speaks of the emergence, in the spring of 2012, of a phenomenon of media brutality directed towards students. Incendiary columns and statements progressively ostracized, cursed, ridiculed and scorned the young demonstrators, stripping them of their rights as citizens and political actors. That phenomenon is being reproduced in front of our eyes today, with renewed speed and redoubled venom.
Now, faced with an enemy who has been symbolically criminalized, only one approach is possible: total war. When a social group is isolated and ostracized in this way it is no surprise that the police feel more empowered to deal with them violently. Police officers don’t live in a bubble: they are exposed to the same media messages as the rest of the population. The officers of the SPVQ are no exception. They heard, along with many others, the calls to violence from the hosts of talk radio. What state of mind do you imagine that puts them in, when it comes time to don their armour?
Beyond police culture
Much has been reported in recent years on the recurring problem of racial, social and political profiling by the police forces of Quebec. This phenomenon is explained, correctly, as a result of deficient police training, or of the institutional culture (of racism, sexism, homophobia, negative prejudices towards activists, etc.) dominant in most police forces. Those are, without doubt, real causes of this problem. But I fear that we are forgetting that below the problems of our police culture, lies the more fundamental problem of our public space. If certain categories of the population are targeted for police violence (students, homeless, visible minorities, etc.) it is because the authors of that violence have been given the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the political class or public opinion will forgive them in advance for their excesses, and secretly rejoice to see them.
The excerpts quoted above demonstrate that some commentators and hosts have become little more than agent provocateurs. The only difference being that here it is not the police infiltrating and provoking protesters to throw a few rocks. This time, it is the opinion makers who, by their excesses of language, participate in the radicalization of police violence. When you hear every morning (and who knows what they listen to in the offices of the SPVQ, but we can guess) on the radio that you need to “beat up” this “gang of morons” who protest, this will necessarily be reflected in the work done by police on the ground. This much should be obvious.
In 2012, the consequences were tragic: two students lost their sight in one eye. This time, how bad will it get? I shudder to think.