From #manifencours to #manifenbars: The Montreal student protests as told by Justin Ling

Justin Ling has been covering the Montreal student protests for a while — long enough to have seen the violence against journalists and to have been arrested and released (in a very public manner). What has it been like as a freelance journalist covering the protests? He gives his first-person account.

By Justin Ling 

Justin Ling has been covering the Montreal student protests for a while — long enough to have seen the violence against journalists and to have been arrested and released (in a very public manner). What has it been like as a freelance journalist covering the protests? He gives his first-person account.

By Justin Ling 

If there was one thing sincerely lacking from the 100-plus-days of general uprising in Montreal, it was drinking.

Having already been on the business-end of a police baton, a foot away from getting my head lopped off by a flying trashcan and, to much fanfare, detained and arrested by Montreal’s police (SPVM) — I needed to vent with some other journalists.

So I did what any modern journalist worth his weight in salt would do: I made a hashtag about it. #Manifenbars, a pun on the SPVM-crafted #manifencours, is a post-protest meetup for intrepid journalists tasked with following the roaming brigades of malcontents.

Ivory tower self-indulgence for the fifth estate has rarely been as important in Canada as it has been these past few weeks. Journalists have faced routine hardships on the streets of Montreal. From the outright abuse suffered by the CUTV crew to the rounding up of a gaggle of journalists in a kettle and even outright arrests, Montreal journalists have had more than blistered feet to complain about.

This past week I found myself handcuffed, sitting on the sidewalk on a residential street in the Gay Village. Waving around my semi-official press credentials elicited only blank stares and occasional instructions to shut up from police officers. My get-out-of-jail-free card came in the form of a Tweet I managed to mash out before getting carted off to a detention facility. I, luckily, was released before being sent up the river.

There’s little doubt that SPVM tactics during these protests have been reactionary. The dragnet put out there to catch vandals and criminals has netted over two thousand of arrests, including journalists, confused bystanders and peaceful protesters alike.

There’s lots of anecdotal evidence that the officers have treated press freedom like a bit of a joke. Student journalist Pierre Chauvin’s press pass actually got laughs from a few SPVM cops.

My situation — which spawned a whirlwind of press — had much to do with my method of escape, and the SPVM’s quick thinking on Twitter.

But here’s a thought: the police shouldn’t be arresting journalists.

There have been a number of us who have come out to cover these protests night-after-night, sacrificing any semblance of a normal sleep schedule and often putting ourselves at risk of injury from both sides. Early in the protests, there were reports that protesters were knocking cameras out of journalists hands. Gazette reporter Roberto Rocha tweeted that he had to deal with some thugs who weren’t crazy about being filmed.

The last thing we need is to be read the riot act.

But there’s another level to these protests that goes beyond the ability to duck. Mainstream media outlets have been challenged to shell out the overtime to get online reporters into the streets each night, and independent journalists have been pushed to churn something out other than the traditional cut-and-dried head-news that have dominated much of the strike coverage.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Not all news outlets’ online sections are created equal.

I have spent most of the protest working for OpenFile Montreal. Along with a crack team of other young journalists, we’ve published nightly coverage that has been consistent, insightful, and — if I may say — pretty damn good.

OpenFile has proved itself a strong challenger to the Montreal Gazette on the protest coverage, and has, I think, surpassed other anglophone mainstays like CTV. Hard-nosed journalism that hurls itself to the frontlines, finally, appears to be getting some recognition.

Enter CUTV.

The little campus-station-that-could has far surpassed expectations, becoming one of the staples of coverage for anyone following the strike.

Yet its in-your-face coverage (maybe bordering on overly aggressive,) coupled with a hard pro-protester editorial line have made them persona non grata amongst the police force.

I’ve seen the CUTV camera crews out every night, throwing themselves into this strike like few others have. Whether or not that’s always a good thing is still a matter of some debate. Has CUTV moved away from covering the story, and towards becoming the story?

Still, CUTV’s on-the-ground footage has, amid some snickering, been picked up by local, national and international news. It has captured images of police kettling, bonfires that plagued the Latin Quarter and instances that probably constitute undue use of force by the SPVM.

But, as is becoming a running joke, sometimes it’s better to tune in with the sound — the commentary — off.

Where to from here?

The protests have swelled and shrunk as the headlines of the day change. The outset of the strike was marked by generally favourable support, a crush of students taking to the streets and a flat-footed response by the government. The protesters squandered their moral high ground not long after, however, as Montreal’s streets began to teem with broken glass. Some departments went back to class, non-sympathetic students filed injunctions to return to their universities, and the government came down hard against the nightly protests.

And then, the government enacted Loi 78. In what is generally regarded as an act of breathtaking stupidity, Charest chucked his education minister and enacted a law that, according to many experts, is unconstitutional. The pendulum of popular support swung, and the protests swelled. On May 22, hundreds of thousands of Montrealers took to the streets to repudiate the government’s ham-fisted legislation. That night, Loi 78 was used for the first time to round up scores of people throughout the city — myself included.

And now, as I opined this week, the protests are getting boring.

Boring, as I point out, is not a bad thing. Boring is peaceful.

Maybe that peace is the result of exhaustion. There is no doubt that the overtime-plagued SPVM officers are getting worn down, and the protesters have certainly been getting their fair share of exercise. The exhaustion on both sides — and with the journalists who cover it — may be contributing to the general sense of ennui that is encroaching on the protests.

It doesn’t help that the circumstances around the movement are simmering. With closed-door sessions taking place in Quebec City, the Montreal police force taking a step back and the collective migraine of Montreal being exacerbated by the rhythmic banging of pots and pans in the night casserole protests, one wonders if the movement might begin moving a little slower.

There are fun sidebars on this story, of course. The ManifDating Twitter account that seeks to hook protesters up with like-minded red square-sporting Montrealers, the colourful cast of characters that have turned the streets into some sort of surreal zoo, and the upcoming cross-Canada solidarity pot-banging sessions that will crop up Wednesday night.

But six consecutive days of peaceful protest does not a story make. As those happy-go-lucky protesters continue to trot along through downtown each night, they may find themselves without journalistic accompaniment. With newsroom cuts to the Gazette and general malaise elsewhere, it’s no wonder.

I’m not suggesting the protesters start breaking stuff again. Try another nude protest, maybe. Or march through the Old Port and scare some tourists. Release a cover album.

Otherwise, the students' political capital in the negotiations with the Charest government might be diminished. Commanding headlines means commanding the narrative. In a society so obsessed with poll numbers, getting good press is imperative for the protesters. Falling off the front page would be devastating for the student movement.

But we need a lede, protesters.

See also: Journalists victims of police and protester violence in Montreal student demonstrations