Extreme police violence in Montpellier
By Nicole Curie
Evening of May 16th
I can't believe what I've just seen. In all the time I've heard about police violence, or seen it in films, I never imagined I'd see it first hand to the extent I did last night.
Today, 16th May is the day Sarkozy officially becomes president. There were demonstrations in every French town and city. I don't want to focus on the reasons people are against Sarkozy, or rather the politics he represents. If you do enough reading and go right to the causes of the problems in the world today, you will realize. I am not involved with any particular political group in Montpellier, but I have come to believe that all my values, such as true direct democracy, human rights, equality, a right to a environment we can live in, are completely opposed to the politics of today.
In Montpellier's central square, the Place de la Comedie, an anti-Sarkozy gathering had been announced starting 6pm. There was a loudspeaker which different people were voicing their opinions through, and people were giving out leaflets, there was also an old man playing a keyboard, singing upbeat songs with vaguely political lyrics. We made our way round town, and got back to the train station, the Gare Saint Roch, which is near the Place de la Comedie. Police were already waiting there, even though there had been no violence. A sign that even protesting is criminal? One person threw a bottle at the wall of the McDonald's on the corner. I heard a lot of people around me disagreeing with what he'd done, because that kind of act doesn't get you very far, except attract unnecessary police attention.
Back to the Place de la Comedie. About 3 people started sitting on the tram lines, blocking the tram. Someone else got a cardboard box and a wooden plank, which I think they intended to set fire to. The police were gathering. I turned around one moment and they had chased and arrested someone. During a demonstration like this, it is immediately clear that there are so many different attitudes to how you should demonstrate. Most people were standing, watching what was going on, but united with the anti-Sarkozy demo, at times many were shouting. We were just facing the police, who were waiting for anyone to remotely put a foot wrong. At this point I found out about "La BAC' (brigade anti-criminalite). They are plain-clothes policemen, who often stand within the crowd, often provoke attacks by, for example, throwing bottles. One of the arrests I saw was absolutely shocking. The uniformed police charged, while plain-clothes policemen ran from behind and arrested a man with a Mohican and baggy hoody, who had done nothing! They raced him to a police van and drove away. In all 6 or 7 people were arrested, 2 or 3 had thrown a beer bottle, or done something that could remotely be perceived as an "act of violence". This was nothing compared to the real violence I was to see an hour or so later. The demonstrators injured NO ONE. The police injured 4 people as far as I saw, but there could have been others. One homeless man was knocked off his wheelchair, and it took a good minute for the police to allow people to come to his aid. They simply wanted no one to move. An ambulance came to bandage the 3 people who had been wounded to the head.
There were so many moments when I was struck by the fact that I was surrounded by intelligent, interesting people who had gathered and were now faced with a line of armed, shielded policemen. It was one watching the other. There were about 6 or 7 times when a bottle was thrown into the large space between the demonstrators and the police. Every time this happened, shouts went up from the demonstrators around me, people annoyed by the uselessness of giving the police this excuse to be there.
The demonstrators were now left with the choice of going home, or gathering outside the main police station, a 20 minute walk away. About 30 of us started walking to the police station, me included, because I didn't agree with the arrests of those people: firstly most of them had done nothing at all (seemingly the only thing that can make you innocent during a demo), secondly because of the crimes commited by our governments and the corporations, whose victims remain repressed, ignored and suffering. If we can't openly speak out against that in a public space than it is obvious we are losing our civil liberties one by one.
When we arrived at the police station, some of the demonstrators started knocking on the windows of the station, trying to attract attention from the unlit rooms inside. At this point there were about 15 to 20 of us. The police started taking photos of all of us through the glass front of the station. This lasted quite a long time. All of the demonstrators started sitting down in front of the police station, dismayed and aware that they would not get anywhere in demanding the freedom of their friends. At one point, one of the students sat down next to me. He must have seen my slightly anxious face. “Don’t worry, the police won’t do anything to us here, we’re not doing anything wrong, they know that. It’s a public space so there’s nothing wrong with us being here.”
Two journalists from France 3 came. I wonder how they'll present the story. Two or three demonstrators started talking to the policeman who came out. They wanted the release of those who had been arrested. I was about 2 metres away from this and found it hard to understand what was being said. All of a sudden police with batons charged out, I walked quickly a few metres, scared of the sudden stampede of panicked people around me, turned around, saw they had beaten someone to the ground and were continuing to beat him while he was curled up on the ground trying to protect his face. It was absolutely shocking to see this man in his early twenties being beaten so long in such a brutal way. Everyone around was disgusted; some ran away, some shouted their disgust in solidarity.
I didn't run any further, because I almost didn't want to let myself believe it was happening, and certainly that it could get worse. More and more police started coming out of nowhere, as the demonstrators got out of the grounds of the police station, and into the road. I saw probably around thirty plain-clothes police, police in cars, police with batons. They started beating a boy I'd been walking next to the whole time. Two policemen had cornered him against a tree, and were beating him incessantly. How did they choose this random victim? This was about 50cm away from me. I tried to walk calmly, hands in pockets, there was a large police woman, baton in hand, walking a step behind me, watching what I was doing.
The boy who'd been beaten right next to me managed to stand up, and two of his friends put their arms around him, asking if he was OK. Next second there was another surge of policemen, suddenly there were 2 or 3 beating the same boy again to the ground. He'd already had a face dripping with blood from the first round, wasn't one beating enough for them?! They got his friends too, suddenly all these boys who id been walking down the road with, were being beaten to the ground with blood on their faces. Everyone was being chased, tripped and beaten to the ground. There were policemen already waiting in side streets, I caught sight of two demonstrators, curled up on a pavement, being kicked by policemen. The only thing I could think to do was gather all the calmness I had and act I imagined a passer-by would, scared, walking quickly acting "innocent". I looked around, though scared to do so just in case I caught the eye of the police. A photo at this point would have said more than any amount of words I can use, but I didn’t even have a camera with me. I realized that if I’d tried to take a photo, I would have probably spent last night in a police cell, beaten up for the first time in my life. I have never even been in a fight. I was in danger just because of my political views, and my willingness to show support to those who had been arrested for theirs. Anyone who could run quickly enough, outpacing the waiting police cars or managing to go down a side street that wasn’t blocked, was extremely lucky. None of us could possibly have imagined this treatment.
At this point I couldn't help thinking I was so glad to be a girl, if id been a boy I know they would have grabbed me, they were grabbing anyone and beating them, chasing people down the street, trapping them with cars on other streets, beating curled up students against walls, on pavements, while they were saying "look, we're doing nothing, we're going away now, let us leave". There were batons swinging right around me, but the other people there, who had friends there, and kept turning around, looking for them, made much more confused-looking, easy targets. The temptation (or the order), to use the baton seemed too strong. It was absolutely frightening, I felt that at any moment I would be grabbed and beaten. I didn't want to run because I was scared id fall over and therefore make myself an easier target (which I saw happen to many people), or wouldn't be able to run quicker than the 5 or 6 police men who were running around me, checking me out. Somehow they decided to leave me. I felt so lucky, and absolutely shaken.
Further down the road, near a tram stop, passers by were being told by own-clothes police men ‘tu degages, DEGAGES!!’ In other words, ‘You’ve seen nothing, don’t say a word.’
I made my way towards the nearest tram stop, paranoid that every car I saw or every man I walking don the street was a policeman. Looking behind me I saw battered demonstrators being dragged in the direction of the station, probably ready to be put into cells.
One man approached me at the end of the road and asked me what had just happened. He was tall and well-built, and I was still so shocked I was terrified he was a policeman, trying to figure out whether I was a passer-by or whether I’d been involved. I answered him abruptly “there were people demonstrating, then suddenly the police surged out and started beating them”. He replied simply “Don’t be too surprised, this will happen more and more often you know, with Sarkozy in power, it’ll be a dictatorship”.
I think its only when you see this thing face to face that you realize the potential of police violence. I’d only seen it on films based in Mexico, Argentina, or heard about it happening in other demos, or through people, or seen it in films like La Haine.
I visited a squat here in Montpellier, which has since been evicted. The people who lived there were protesting about the number of empty flats and houses in Montpellier, while rent is going up and the number of homeless is astounding. The squatters asked visitors to leave a contact detail, so that when police came to evict them, they could call people to be witnesses; when there are witnesses, there is hope the police will be less violent. I’ve seen for myself how true and real this is, how absolutely frightening it is and how vulnerable it makes you feel. The danger of physical violence against you makes you truly aware of your physical self. It also made me so aware of how just being against a political and economic system because of how unjust and destructive it is to the individual, to societies and the environment, is enough to make you a major police target.