Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Riot of My Own: Montreal is NOT LA... or is it?

Out of the blue, someone hit me with this last night:

"So Montreal is just like Los Angeles now."

I was stunned. I've spent six years occasionally writing about and constantly trying to come to terms with the wild and weird cultural and social discrepancies between the two countries and the two cities and this one really sandbagged me. I muttered some declarative inanity to the effect that "Trust me, Montreal is NOT LA" but now I'm wondering if I was a little too hasty in my response.

Granted, the person who hit me with this one has his own agenda. Although a genial, educated and often charming guy, he's prone to see almost everything wrong with the world in terms of race. Or the Republicans. Or anyone who views the world differently than he does.

So he took no small amount of satisfaction in tossing that little tidbit of pithiness in my face. Or at least that's the way it seemed to me.

He was referring to the recent riots in Montreal North, of course, and he seemed (to me) rather pleased about the whole thing. He knows how disheartened I am about the casual racism (or at least what I see as the casual racism) so prevalent down here, and he loves to provoke people and foster arguments. He routinely dismisses all liberals as ignorant fools, but I'm told I shouldn't take it personally. And, of course, he'll deny to the end of his days that he's racist, but he's not above tossing off the most mean-spirited sweeping generalizations and hurtful epithets about various groups without a second thought. And whatever you do don't get him started on the Jews.

If you don't know about the Montreal riots, there's a good summary on the Canadian Press site. But essentially, the riot erupted after the police shooting of an unarmed kid.

You wanna drag racism into it? The cops were white. The kid was "dusky," to use the euphemism my friend used. Had we not been in mixed company, he might have used a lot stronger word.

The rioters were a mixed lot, but given the neighbourhood, it's a safe bet that plenty of them were "dusky" as well.

The whole shooting thing is now under investigation, so some details are pretty murky, but since it's the Surete, the Quebec provincial police who investigate such shootings, don't expect much. The mutual backscratching between police forces in such investigations has been going on for years.

The Montreal police do have a history of shooting unarmed people, particularly those of the "dusky" persuasion (a memorable incident in Montreal several years ago had them killing a high school teacher). They also have a history of closing ranks after every such incident. In this case, they refused not only to name the two police officers involved (understandable), but didn't even interview them until days after the incident (which certainly ratcheted up the tensions that contributed to the riot). In fact, even two weeks later, they still haven't revealed why the two police officers approached the youth and his friends in the first place.

The police might have been totally in the right; they might have been totally in the wrong, but their secretiveness and evasiveness has once again made matters worse. And now, there's a riot to investigate as well. Once again, that sounds like LA.

Still, there are differences. The Montreal cops are almost totally white and the immigrants in Montreal North are almost all legal (actually, most of them aren't even immigrants, having been born in Canada). The dead kid, though, was an immigrant. Honduran, in fact.

God knows, there is racism in Canada (and Quebec and even Montreal), but I'd like to think most Montrealers would find the casual racism so many Los Angelenos take for granted abhorrent. Or at least I'd like to think so.

This particular riot is probably more in line with the recent ones in Paris, but once the first window is smashed, the first brick is thrown or the first cop opens fire on a crowd, all riots are the same. Stupidity is the great equalizer.

People will always riot, given the right circumstances. And some assholes (no matter what colour) will take advantage of that to let off steam, smash things or line their own pockets. I remember sitting in a sidewalk bar on Crescent Street, nursing a beer, watching a very respectable-looking middle-aged (white) lady running down the street, her arms full of designer dresses, during the 1986 Stanley Cup riot in Montreal.

Injustice, real or imagined, seems to be a common catalyst for riots, but good ol' high spirits seem to suffice as well.

The other notable riots in Montreal history generally have to do with hockey (certainly not a problem in LA), and involve mostly white people. Oh, and then there's probably the most significant one, way back in 1849 or so, when a bunch of disgruntled, anti-Democratic Scotch/Irish/Brits burned down the Parliament Buildings in Montreal.

Which is why Ottawa is the national capital. Damn whitey, always causing trouble.

Here are a few comments worth pondering...

"Montreal is rotten to the core"
-- Lord Elgin (Canadian governor, after the Montreal Parliament Buildings were burned down)

"Montreal is almost as crooked as we are."
-- Raymond Chandler, LA crime writer, in "Marlowe Takes on the Syndicate"

"Stupid nigs and stupid Beaners who should be kicked out of the country because they are all welfare suckers and are a total waste of good air. Until our politicians stop allowing uneducated people from banana Republics this is going to happen more frequently."
-- some good Montreal citizen, about the Montreal north riots

"At least nobody's dragged language into it. Yet."
-- a citizen from Westmount (formerly an Anglo enclave)

"A riot is the language of the unheard."
-- Martin Luther King

Is Montreal the same as LA? I look at the clips of the riots on UTube and read the vitriol being spewed on blogs and in letters to the editors and see the whole charade being played out and I think about how quietly smug we Canadians (including me) can be sometimes, and in my darkest moments of despair wonder if maybe, just maybe, we're not worse.

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Blogger Graham Powell said...

Dusky??? What is this, 1951?

3:36 PM, August 21, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I always planned to turn up in Canada eventually---only fifteen minutes away, but maybe not.

4:49 PM, August 21, 2008  
Blogger Kate M. said...

Actually, it was mentioned almost right away that the cops went to talk to the group of young guys because one of them was breaking his probation conditions following from a robbery conviction. This was the older brother of Fredy Villanueva, who got killed. Fredy himself had no record.

pattinase (abbott): Montreal has some of the lowest crime records of any city this size in the world. If you came here as a tourist you'd be nowhere near the area where the riot occurred, and in no danger whatsoever.

3:37 AM, August 22, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Graham: For my friend, I suspect it's always 1951.

And don't worry,Patti, Montreal's pretty safe. As Kate points out, Montreal North is pretty far off the tourist track -- it's a rough-and-tumble working class area with few tourist attractions.

And yes, Montreal is safe, but only as compared to American cities the same size. Sure, random violence is rare, but it's still a big enough city to have big city problems, and it is one of the more dangerous cities in Canada, for what that's worth. It's long-held reputation for corruption is well-earned, and it's always been a wide open city. Which makes it worth visiting, but also worth paying attention. Be smart, be safe, tip the waitress well, and don't bring your skis in July and ask where the snow is.

As for the police coming out right away with info, Kate, I've tried to piece together the info myself, and most of the early info in news stories came from sources other than the police. The police originally even refused to name the police officers involved.

This is the first time I've heard it was a parole violation. Originally the story was that the police were conducting a "routine police intervention" of a group of youths and wanted to question the older brother. When he didn't give them the answers they wanted, they started to handcuff him. The rest of the guys protested (or possibly interfered) and one of the cops, feeling threatened, opened fire. Have they mentioned what the parole violation was?

The story will sort itself out eventually, with plenty of spin from both sides (Fredy was scum/he was much beloved/the cop was racist/the shooting was justified), but I have a suspicion no cops will be punished. In the 1987 shooting of Anthony Griffin (a black teenager, also unarmed.) the cop involved eventually got a skate (they decided his gun was at fault)) but subsequent reports of widespread racism within the police, including shooting-practice targets depicting caricatures of blacks didn't do much to easy the worries of many Montrealers.

And of course it played into the noxious idea that French-Canadians in general are somehow inherently more racist than Anglos (most of the Montreal police are of course white and French-speaking, but minorities, both linguistic and racial, are notoriously under-represented).

Vive les deux solitudes.

9:44 AM, August 22, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

No, Montreal is no LA. Crime rate is still extremely low for a big city. But like any other cities, Montreal has its hot spots. Montreal North is one of them, partially because of general poverty (from White and non-White people living there). Hochelaga was a hot spot in the 90s (maybe it is still now), mainly because it was at the core of the bikers's war. Anyway, back on the riot. I was wondering when you were going to talk about it. I am somewhat skeptical about the investigation, but let's not forget that 1)the SQ and SPVM often don't get along that well. 2) we do know a bit about the circumstances of the death of Vilanueva, among other things that he resisted his brother's arrest and that he tried to strangle the partner of the policeman involved in the case. I have read a lot about the affair, and I wouldn't be surprised that the police officer was justified to shoot. It is what happened before that is more troubling: how did they handled the suspect? Could they have arrested him avoiding a confrontation with the group? I also find strange that a team made of two relatively inexperienced cops were sent in one of the most difficult neighbourhood of Montreal, where police officers are often seen as the ennemy. That was a recipe for disaster to begin with. I am skeptical about the capacitty of the SPVM's direction to handle this correctly: Yvan Delorme once worked against the organised crime and was then a competent cop, but since he got at the head of the force he was unable to control a crowd of drunken Habs's supporters and he made the most pathetic press conference after things got ugly. Can he deal with tensions between his service and the ethnic communities of Montreal-Nord and the feelings of distrust his own men have? So far he has been dismissive of the whole affair.

10:08 AM, August 26, 2008  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Hey, Guillaume. I'm skepticasl about the investigation too. And I know how well the SQ gets along with city cops -- I'm from Chambly, where the SQ swooped in and arrested the entire city's police force.

Maybe I missed out on some early info, but it did seem at first that the cops were vague about a lot of information -- which of course allowed the papers to be filled with info and plenty of spin from the dead kid's family and friends, plus various community leaders, protest groups, etc. And of course, the Montreal media jumped on it -- they love a good police scandal every now and then. Fortunately for them, the cops seem to always deliver.

That's what reminded me so much of LA, come to think of it. Not the city itself, but the big dick cop culture. Most police officers, here and there, are decent guys, but when one screws up, the ensuing cover-ups, botched investigations, closed ranks arrogance and whispered allegations of incompetence, racism and poor training smear the whole department.

That's gotta be the toughest cop job around: not SWAT or bomb squad, not crowd control or Internal Affairs, but community relations for the police. There's no doubt -- the police in both cities suck at PR. They stonewall, they offer no comment, and then whine about what the media has filled the vacuum with.

I don't know who has the job in Montreal now, but at one point I remember the community relations director (spin, spin, spin) they'd chosen couldn't even speak English -- not the best choice for a PR person who is the public face of a police force for a large, multicultural city with a large portion of English-speaking citizens.

I remember the 1986 Habs riot -- a downtown intersection on a Saturday night that raged for two or three hours before the cops finally showed up. Cars were overturned, firefighters were attacked, storefronts smashed... and the police excuse for not responding quicker was that "nobody called us." This was DOWNTOWN, STE. CATHERINE STREET AND CRESCENT, SATURDAY NIGHT!!!! Did half the force call in sick to catch the final game on TV?

At the time, the nearest cop shop was minutes away... hard to believe there were no patrols for hours on end. But that's easier to believe than that some cops noticed what was going on and thought it was normal weekend hijinks.

7:57 PM, August 26, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I come from Ville St-Laurent/ Cartierville, a very cosmopolitan section of Montreal. I grew up naively thinking that everywhere had such a mix of cultures, languages, and colours. I always find it painful to think about racism being alive and well here. And it is.

Leave out the whole xenophobic side of "de souche" Qu├ębecois; shooting fish in a barrel and anyway Canada can be just as bad. Sadly.

I have a buddy who lives in Ottawa and works for the federal civil service. A couple of years ago I was floored when he casually mentioned that Canadian society is definitely racist, that he lives it daily. He is of Vietnamese origin, and said that the civil service is rough for non-whites. He is a triple-threat: bilingual, a visible minority, and has a university degree. He said that many, many people feel threatened by any or all of these qualities, that they show this on a daily basis.

After he said this I asked other friends who are visible minorities if they had similar experiences, and to a one they had indeed, and felt exactly the same. This depresses me no end, so honestly I just try to put it out of my mind.

I live in a part of Quebec that has almost no non-francophone, non-white people (Matane). I teach in a high school of close to a thousand students where there are maybe 3 kids of Asian background, and they were adopted as kids from China. So I live in an extremely homogeneous region, where folks are just not exposed to other cultures. And believe me, that's a big negative.

Shit, if in Montreal people can experience the thrill of a multicultural society and still be intolerant, what hope is there?

9:03 PM, August 26, 2008  
Blogger Guillaume said...

Kevin, the head of the SPVM is now Yvan Delorme, quite a young officer (he is still in his 40s), alledgedly talented, who was successful as an undercover cop (among other things). He was promoted tin part because he was supposed to modernise the service. That said, since he got there, he failed to deal properly with a minor hockey riot. I was not refering to the 1986 riot, neither the 1993 one, but the more recent one caused by the...elimination of the Bruins by the Habs. How ridiculous was that? More ridiculous and embarrassing than the supporters was the police response, where Delorme said that his cops were in "un esprit festif" and that "nous sommes tous partisans du Canadien". Not on duty, you moron! I simply couldn't believe it. When Villanueva got shot, I was expecting some bad things happening. I don't blame the patrol cops (in this particular case, from the info we have, the shooting was justified), they do their job in a difficult neighborhood, but I do blame the high ranking officers of the SPVM, who lack transparency and firmness (towards their own men, but also towards some offenders).

2:40 AM, August 27, 2008  

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