On Ferguson, Montréal and deadly police bullets

Last week in Montréal North, people gathered for a powerful community vigil to remember Fredy Villanueva, shot dead six years ago by Montréal police while playing dice with friends in a park.

Similar to Mike Brown, recently killed by a hail of police bullets on a roadside in Ferguson, Missouri, Villanueva was also an 18-year-old unarmed teenager killed in a brutal act of unjustifiable police violence.

Like in Ferguson, response at the grassroots level in Montréal to the Villanueva shooting was immediate. As politicians across the board appealed for quiet, youth took to the streets in Montréal North, voicing their anger and outrage toward a police killing that symbolized so much about larger patterns of unjust policing practices, rooted in persistent racial profiling and the criminalization of economically marginalized youth.

In Ferguson response to the devastating death of Mike Brown has been historic, mass community protests, nightly demonstrations and popular outrage expressed on the streets in many unmediated ways. Brutal responses from local police forces and the state has only stoked the flames of rage. Draconian moves to impose curfew, enforced by a highly militarized police force, is feeding public anger and pointing to the deeper issues of historic state violence against African-Americans that rest at the roots of the current uprising in Ferguson.

In Montréal the context is different, but the systematic inability of both the police and politicians to address the roots of popular anger against police violence is similar. Villanueva’s killing sparked protest and action that continues until today, while also propelling broader calls by community organizations for the police to sanction and halt practices of systematic racial profiling.

Similarly to Ferguson today, responses to many protests in Montréal against police brutality and killings has been more violence. While on the legal level there has generally only been attempts by police powers and municipal politicians to block legal routes to justice. Jean-Loup Lapointe, the police officer who killed Villanueva was not charged in the case and has never been forced to fully respond in public for the killing of an unarmed teenager.

Beyond Villanueva’s death, a wave of grassroots action in Montréal against police killings in recent years has been constant, a mobilization responded to by systematic attempts, via both the police and politicians, to sidestep calls for justice. Importantly like in other North American cities, police killings are generally targeting the socially and economically marginalized communities, struggling against years of systematic injustice, from First Nations, to immigrant communities.

Other Montréal police killing cases like the killing of Farshad Mohammadi, a homeless Iranian refugee, shot in the back by police inside métro Bonaventure on a cold winter day in 2012, point to this broader injustice. Mohammadi’s killing very clearly took place in a context where the need was for a psychiatric crisis team to intervene was clear, instead a couple trigger happy police officers unleashed dealy bullets, not the care that Mohammadi clearly needed. Mohammadi, a refugee from Iran, came to Canada to flee persecution only to find extreme economic marginalization and a violent end on a cold concrete floor.

Another case where Montréal police unleashed bullets in a context of a physiological crisis is the case of Jean-François Nadreau. Jean-François was killed at home during an intervention by a group of SPVM officers after his girlfriend Josiane Millette made a 911 emergency call, in response to a deepening crisis of personal depression. Police barged inside the apartment, creating a context of fear and panic that ultimately lead to another tragic civilian death in the context of social and economic marginalization.

In Montréal there is a real crisis of police killings, a violence that is alive on our streets and a reality that has never been fully addressed by both the police system and the legal system. At the receiving end of the trigger has consistently been people struggling with issues of poverty, racism, mental health, people facing systemic marginalization in our society.

What is clear today from Ferguson to Montréal is that police forces will do everything possible to build an increasingly militarized force, like a military presence on our city streets, a force that clearly has little interest in examining the systematic critiques being presented by communities protesting violent police practices.

Today in Ferguson, the ongoing uprising takes place as a moment within the historic and ongoing African-American struggle for justice, a political process that has always had little to do with politicians or presidents in the halls of power.

At the heart of this community outrage toward unjustifiable state violence is a critique of unjust systems of power, a critique that goes so much deeper than most questions that mainstream media are presenting. Reporting on police killings generally focuses on technical info around the shooting, most often from the police perspective, or works to enforce the criminalization of the shooting victim and the communities they are coming from, coverage that most certainly fails to ask the larger and more difficult questions that are driving the grassroots outrage and protest.

At the heart of the protests and movement against this state violence, seen now in Ferguson and also on the streets of Montréal North in 2008, is a fundamental questioning of the political and economic system that justifies and arms police to extremes, creating social and economic conditions where deadly violence, administered around lines of race and class, is common.

In Montréal mobilizations against this police violence, like the annual protests against police brutality in March, have similarly to Ferguson focused on rejecting a system that justifies the unjustifiable, in which unarmed teenagers or homeless refugees are killed on our city streets. A context where true justice is a distant dream, far away from the mainstream political framework, but most certainly a dream alive within the imaginations of those on the streets refusing to be silent in the face of such injustice, as seen right now in Ferguson.