A race riot in Canada? It might seem surprising. Not the least surprised are the upper-middle and upper classes of Quebec – for whom declining social conditions and racist police brutality are abstract concepts, rather than material reality. Montreal is a very multicultural city, with hundreds of ethnic groups and scores of languages spoken daily on the streets and in workplaces. Like France of yesteryear, or Canada as a whole, the city prides itself on its “open-mindedness” and “racial harmony,” the easy-going, festival-soaked atmosphere. “We work to live, we don’t live to work,” say Montrealers.

A race riot in Montreal? It’s been a long time coming.

Montreal’s self-image as an open-minded and cosmopolitan city is perhaps its own worst enemy. Its racism proceeds under cover, almost subconsciously, invading every corner of social life before it is acknowledged. Its poverty exists everywhere but in the minds of its politicians, who repeat comforting lies to each other in defiance of an increasingly depressed social reality.

The usual explanation for the riot is the murder of Freddy Villanueva, an 18-year-old student mechanic. But within hours of the killing, a protest march was called and the community responded. Old and young, Black, White, Latino, all were present. The police, blood still surging from their recent kill, attempted to disperse the demonstration by force. It was only then that some demonstrators responded with violence, and throughout the night stores were looted and cars set on fire.

“What happened there was absolutely unforeseeable. People in Montréal-Nord are not rebellious,” borough mayor Marcel Parent is quoted as saying after the riot.

“For two years we’ve been expecting that at any given moment, things would explode,” Harry Delva, a social worker in the neighbourhood of Montréal-Nord, told Le Journal de Montréal.

Social Conditions in Decline

Montreal is the “poverty capital of Canada” – a 2000 survey (based on 1996 census data) showed that 41% of Montrealers lived below the poverty line of $31,000 a year. This was an increase of 10% over only five years; it’s been twelve years since that census. (see Montreal “poverty capital of Canada”)

A declining birthrate among “Québecois de souche” over the past few decades has created the imperative for the capitalist class to increase immigration to Quebec. The last twenty to thirty years have seen the growth of urban ghettos for the various immigrant communities of Montreal. Along with more traditionally Québecois working-poor ghettos in the East End of Montreal, it’s in these communities, literally located on the periphery of the city, that poverty has made its mark on Montreal.

The social underpinnings that helped restrain this poverty from turning into rage – health care, education, social services – are precisely what Quebec’s capitalist class has been dismantling, step by step, in the interests of profit. When the attacks on public services and social welfare programs began, Quebec’s working class unleashed massive protests, which were then sold out at the decisive moment by the leadership of the movement.

By forestalling the confrontation in the short term, by attempting to hold back the stresses developing in Quebec society, these leaders merely prepared the way for even more violent outbursts in the long term. The effects of the decline are now catching up with a bang. We are beginning to see the first symptoms of a social malaise that up until now, we’ve been immune to. (Our Canadian Perspectives for 2008 give a fuller outline of these social processes over the last five years – including a prediction that Paris-style riots could emerge in Canada as a result).

Racism and the Police

Montréal-Nord is a tough neighbourhood. But despite its newfound reputation as “the Bronx of Montreal,” Montréal-Nord is not the poorest neighbourhood in the city, nor is it a majority-immigrant neighbourhood like some others. (News sources after the riot cite census data indicating that about 25 percent of the residents of Montréal-Nord are immigrants; about 15 percent are Black and 3.5 percent are Latino.) Similarly, neither a police killing of a minority, nor an attack on a demonstration, is anything new in Montreal. Every year, a protest is held against police brutality (called by the usual suspects’ lineup of city activists) – which always ends with the police charging and beating protesters. After a few well-thrown bottles, the crowd disperses. The police have grown accustomed to the routine, have come to rely on the use of force as sufficient to keep order.

The police were emboldened by the impunity they enjoyed after the 2005 execution-style murder of Mohammed Anas Bennis (a 25-year-old on the way to his mosque). The “reasonable accommodation” debate of 2006-7 saw a media frenzy build up against immigrants – to the advantage of right-wing party Action Democratique du Québec. (The traditional tension between Anglophones and Francophones nearly dissipated altogether, as immigrants became the new enemy.) Particularly during this time, police acted with increased aggressiveness and slovenly disrespect in their attitude towards Blacks, Arabs, Latinos, and other visible minorities.

Since the accommodation debate, racial tension has been simmering in our city, waiting for an outlet – while the police blithely continue to commit outrages that go unpunished. The pressure has been building for years.

A protest against the police – and that within hours of the killing? Not the work of trendy activists, but the community itself? Blacks and Latinos fighting back – together with Québecois protestors – when the police attack? No wonder the politicians and the chattering classes have been caught unawares.

A Political Response

No, Marxists don’t advocate the tactics of a riot to achieve their aims. But no one, not even the storeowners who were looted, blames the rioters for their actions. The problems run far deeper than a few lost dollars.

The instigator of the riots was a state structure created in the defence of the capitalist class. It is the capitalist class who keeps Haitians, Latinos, and working-poor Quebecers in a state of perpetual job insecurity, who forces them into substandard labour conditions and dilapidated infrastructure for their neighbourhoods. Employers deliberately lower wages and social conditions by maintaining a proportion of unemployed. The brunt is borne by immigrants and racial minorities.

The conscious racism of the capitalist class leads to a material creation of racial castes within the working class. This social reality inevitably imbues all members of society with psychological complexes of superiority and inferiority, some conscious, others unconscious, permeating everyday social interactions with racist poison. As long as minorities accept the subtle brainwashing of capitalist culture, the daily indignities of racist society, the exploitation and dehumanizing objectification – in other words, as long as they accept their place under capitalism – business proceeds as usual. The police in minority neighbourhoods exist to enforce and protect these social relations by terrorizing minorities and instilling in them a fear of the ruling class. But this can only go on for so long before it produces a reaction just as violent as the means that caused it.

These problems go beyond police tactics, beyond the interests of a given neighbourhood. A successful fight against the police, against the state who employs them, and against the employers whom the state represents, can and must only come from the working class as a whole: the foundation of all that lies above it. Neighbourhood organizations linked with labour unions could provide a two-pronged attack against the twin problems of racist police brutality and the working conditions that produce poverty and ghettoization. Québec solidaire, the only political party able to bring these issues to the fore, could very easily raise its profile in these neighbourhoods by helping to organize such collaboration.

The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak. The labour movement has been silent on the issue (apart from the police union!). Québec solidaire is crippled by the lack of a politically resolute centre which could break the party’s inertia. The outraged youth of Montreal’s ghettos cannot be expected to sit on their hands and wait for these fine people to get their act together. If another race riot breaks out in Montreal, it will be because once again, the leadership of the workers’ movement saw fit to withhold their participation at a critical moment. The time for organization is now.

The same dynamics – social decline, racism, and political passivity ‑ which produced the riot in Montréal-Nord ‑ exist across Montreal and across Canada. This event was only the warning shot of a far more dire crisis to come. It was a local expression of an international phenomenon which has been repeated time and time again across the urban centres of capitalist society. Race riots are merely a symptom of the diseased capitalist society. To solve these problems, the whole system must go.

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