It would seem Montreal police are taking aim at the militant edge of the Montreal left, with news this morning of an impending bylaw banning masks at demonstrations.
As i mentioned last year in my post of the Montreal hockey riots, the increasing number of security cameras and surveillance videos has allowed police – and a reactionary public – to identify almost anyone ex post facto, once the fun is over. During the riot last April, hockey fans – and some folks who were simply taking advantage of a good opportunity – specifically targeted cop cars after the game. But in the days afterwards, police obtained pictures of them from the security cameras in various stores, as well as cell phone photos sent in by passeresby, and in the weeks following many arrests were made precisely thanks to this evidence.
The police realize what a powerful tool they have, and nobody is making any bones about it, this proposed law is aimed directly at the left and anarchist scenes, with the goal of aiding in the surveillance of protesters. While it is true that a mask may be worn during confrontations with police, as a way of protecting oneself from later arrest, it can also be worn simply to protect one’s identity, keeping oneself – and by extension, the left – partially protected from the state.
It remains to be seen whether the left will be able to mount a successful challenge to this attack… one thing is for sure: if we don’t resist this attack, we’ll see similar repressive bylaws cropping up in other Canadian cities.
No more masked protesters, city saysJanuary 18, 2009
The city of Montreal says it plans to pass a bylaw forbidding people to wear masks or face coverings at public demonstrations – a bylaw that civil-rights experts say could turn out to be unconstitutional.
Montreal police have asked the city for the bylaw, saying they want to be able to identify participants in violent protests.
However, Montreal’s top elected official in charge of public security said yesterday the city will be careful to make sure the bylaw’s language isn’t vague, and that explicit exceptions are granted.
For example, protesters would be allowed to cover their faces for religious reasons, and during cold winter events, said Claude Dauphin, chairperson of the public-security committee and a member of city council’s executive committee.
Dauphin added in a telephone interview that senior brass of the Montreal police made a pitch for such a bylaw during testimony two months ago at the city’s public-security committee.
The proposed bylaw was approved in principle by the executive committee on Friday. It could be ready for submission to city council as early as Jan. 26, Dauphin said, but the actual wording hasn’t been finalized.
Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer who is an authority on civil-rights issues, said the bylaw could be ruled unconstitutional if the wording is too vague, or is seen as unreasonable.
“I do not exclude the possibility of preventing masks and disguises in certain particular circumstances, on good security grounds, case by case,” Grey said.
But a vaguely worded bylaw would not be able to withstand a serious legal challenge, he said.
Dauphin said the city is well aware that there are legal reasons to be careful with the bylaw’s wording.
He said city lawyers are studying existing bylaws prohibiting facial concealment that have been passed in Trois Rivières and Quebec City.
There are no similar bylaws in the rest of Canada, Dauphin said. In the United States, New York City has had such a ban since 1845 ; it was upheld in 2004. In Germany last year, at least four people were arrested for violating a temporary ban on face masks during the G8 summit.
Samer Majzoub, executive director of the Canadian Muslim Forum, said he is pleased to learn the new bylaw was conceived two months ago, and therefore has no apparent link with last weekend’s rally downtown against the Israeli military action in the Gaza strip.
“We have very good relations with the police and after last weekend’s rally, we asked them if they had any comments or suggestions for us, and they said no, everything was okay,” Majzoub said.
He added: “We don’t cover our faces at our demonstrations, neither the men nor women.”
However, Majzoub said he has noticed that many Quebecers have embraced the Palestinian koufieh, or scarf, as a fashion accessory; he has seen local young people on TV at public demonstrations with the koufieh covering their faces.
Dauphin said police have spoken to the city mainly about ski masks – not koufiehs – and more pointedly about the behaviour of demonstrators wearing ski masks at rallies that have been organized against alleged police brutality.
“At these events you see kids in ski masks throwing golf balls at police, or carrying big two-by-four wood sticks,” Dauphin said.
In North America and Europe, young masked demonstrators have usually been linked with the political left wing or with anarchist movements. In Quebec, masked demonstrators showed up at some Liberal Party events during last fall’s provincial election campaign.