In order to fully understand the underlying issues in a conflict such as the Montreal student protests, we must examine the dynamics of power that were present and how those influenced the way that the protests were policed. In doing this, we must also examine how a shift to a neo-liberal state has caused a transfer of responsibilization to individual actors of the state. Overall, we must understand how the state and agents of the state use tactics to ‘create order’ and how doing so works to criminalize dissent. Hall et al. (1978), the authors argue that crime itself is not something that exists but is rather something that is created by the way that it is labeled (Hall et al. 1978, 182). The most important factor in defining crime is to examine the response to the ‘criminal act’ by state agents such as legislators and police. An act of wearing ‘head gear’ and masks, which was previously not thought to have been a problem that warranted legislation, suddenly became an issue during the protests. Following the protests, a bylaw named P-6 was passed which prohibited protestors from wearing masks or covering their faces in any other way (CTV News, 2013). Here we can see that the state has an active role in categorizing dissent as criminal through the way that it responds to it, such as prohibiting specific clothing or action from the protestors (Hall et al. 1978 , 185).
At the time of the protest, Bill 78 was also introduced which prohibited students from protesting at the institutions where they attend school. These laws were passed under the guise of ‘order’ and ‘community safety’, but act as a way to suppress individual liberties of freedom of speech by constricting what people can wear and where they are allowed to voice their opinions. Nikolas Rose also argues that laws which are passed on the part of the state as a form of ‘crime control’ have less to do with control of crime and have more to do with regulating what is deemed the ‘appropriate’ moral order by the government. Through these measures unequal power relations are secured where the state retains power at the top and through its institutional agents and therefore suppresses the peoples right to speak out against them (Rose 2000, 321). In the same sense, we must also question the way that this protest was presented by the government. While this started as a protest against rising tuition fees, it turned into students protesting against state suppression due to the tactics which the police used, the laws that were created to suppress their freedom of speech and the way that both the media and the provincial government undermined the message of their protests.
Power dynamics in terms of the state and state agents are important to analyze in the Montreal protests because they can help us to analyze and understand why the police employed the tactics which they did in order to ‘control’ the protestors. During the protests police were present in riot gear and “on hand to control the crowds, mainly using riot shields” (CBC, 2012). In a situation like this, by appearing in riot gear the police present themselves in a way where they are clearly in power over those who are protesting. Noakes, Klocke and Gillham argue that there are certain characteristics that the police use in order to identify contained vs. transgressive groups, and many of the factors are the age group of the protestors and what the topic of their protest is about (Noakes et al. 2005, 240). Thus, the way that these students were dealt with was automatically through ‘hard’ policing strategies even before ‘protest transgressions’ started. Noakes, Klocke and Gillham argue that these labeling strategies used by the state to differentiate contained versus transgressive protests may be backfiring because police expectations of transgressions may end up being self-fulfilling prophecies (Noakes et al. 2005, 248). Additionally, this protest demonstrates that when protestors are faced with hard pushback from the police tensions rise from both sides.
In understanding how the state works to criminalize dissent practices, we can examine how a shift to a neo-liberal state responsibilizes the individuals who choose to participate in acts of dissent with their own safety and security. Rose argues that “criminal is [portrayed] as a rational agent who chooses crime in the light of a calculus of potential benefits and costs” (Rose 2000, 322). Thus, when the students that were participating in the process were pepper sprayed, corralled, and arrested the state can justify those actions not only for the safety of the ‘good’ citizen but also as a consequence of taking part in a ‘rebellious protest’ where laws which are implemented by the state, such as Bill 78 and P6, are not followed. Tactics, such as previously mapping out routes are another form of self-responsibilization where individual actors must take it upon themselves to inform the state where they will be voicing their opinions. As soon as these rules are not followed, similarly to how the protestors in the Montreal protests transgressed these boundaries, then it is much easier for the state to take upon tougher measures to contain the crowds. By examining power relations, policing practices, and responsibilization in a neo-liberal state, this critical review serves as a way to understand how the state and state agencies worked to criminalize the Montreal protests and those who participated within them.
CBC News ,(2012). “Gatineau student protest leads to 151 arrests.” CBC News Montreal, Apr 19. Retrieved December 6, 2014 from (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/gatineau-student-protest-leads-to-151-arrests-1.1169938).
CTV News, (2013) “City council votes for status quo on controversial protest bylaw P6.” CTV News Montreal, April 24. Retrieved October 10, 2014 from (http://montreal.ctvnews.ca/city-council-votes-for-status-quo-on-controversial-protest-bylaw-p6-1.1251309)
Hall, Stuart, Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John N. Clarke, and Brian Roberts. 1978. “Crime, Law and the State.” Pp. 181-217 in Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan.
Noakes, John A., Brian V. Klocke and Patrick F. Gillham. 2005. “Whose Streets? Police and Protester Struggles over Space in Washington, DC, 29-30 September 2001.” Policing & Society 15(3):235-54.
Rose, Nikolas. 2000. “Government and Control.” British Journal of Criminology 40:321-39.