A philosophy professor and his ski goggles

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Rima Elkouri, La Presse

“It’s really being hit with that baton that changed everything.”

This man with the hoarse voice is Olivier Roy. He’s 31 years old. There are ski goggles on the table in front of him. He is visibly exhausted. Visibly outraged.

By day, Olivier Roy teaches philosophy at Cégep de Terrebonne. By night, for a month now, he has been demonstrating against police brutality. He’s been in around thirty marches. He was out again on Tuesday night.

Olivier tells me, almost shyly, that he recently felt the need to buy ski goggles. Not for skiing, you may have guessed, nor in order to confront police, which is not his style. Just to demonstrate peacefully without fearing for his eyes. For the past month he has breathed in too much tear gas, seen too many plastic bullets fired, had too many potentially blinding noise bombs explode nearby. After his recent marathon of demonstrations, Olivier has come to the sad conclusion that any citizen wanting to demonstrate peacefully needs two things: ski goggles and a camera.

Strange time we live in, when the most peaceful of philosophy professors are buying ski goggles in May or dressing up as pandas to attend demonstrations. A sad time we live in when we worry more about a few smashed windows than the young victims of police brutality.

He’s no hothead, but this student strike has definitely radicalized Olivier as it has many others. At first he was a sort of “Sunday driver” when it came to demonstrations, only attending the larger marches. But everything changed a month ago, during a peaceful night demo he attended with his girlfriend. That night, he got a bitter dose of the riot squad’s medicine.

“Move! Move! Move!” yelled the police. “But the only way to move would have been to trample my girlfriend,” says Roy. No violence around him besides that of the police. He was hit in the ribs with a baton for the first time. It was his baptism, he says.

That night, Olivier saw a noise bomb explode over his head for the first time. He smelled tear gas. He saw people panic around him. He felt afraid. “What shocked and surprised me the most was that we weren’t given time to disperse.”

Faced with this excessive and unjustified use of force, the young professor saw no other option than to keep protesting, to refuse to give in to these scare tactics.

And so he’s out in the streets every night. Four to five hours of marching each time, 15 to 20 km, at a fast pace, in circumstances that are “sometimes terrifying.” Not because of other demonstrators, he clarifies, but because of the unpredictable behaviour of police who target youth “guilty” only, for the most part, of trying to make their voices heard.

“As a teacher, I can’t allow it to happen. My job is to love this youth. They’re being attacked as though they were enemy soldiers. It doesn’t make sense. The way the police have handled this crisis, both the SPVM and the SQ who’ve been called in as backup, has been completely absurd.”

The nightly pots and pans demonstrations have changed the game. Police are less present at these protests against the new special law (78), they remain calmer and are more polite when dealing with the “regular folks” who attend with their pots and pans. In one of these neighbourhood demonstrations, Olivier was spoken to with respect by police, heard “please” and “thank-you” from them for the first time when given an order. Before he’d only heard “hey you!” and gotten a baton to the ribs as a thank-you. A good thing, he says, but one that makes obvious something troubling, as well. When the police were only dealing with “kids,” they didn’t think anything of beating and gassing them for no reason.

This conflict has made Olivier lose the little faith he still had in our public institutions. Institutions that have resorted to media spectacles and corporatism, he says, rather than aspiring to truth, justice, and the common good. The result: this conflict has caused many to move towards anarchism.

But from the disillusionment has also been born a new hope. The hope that the democratic ideal is being better understood. “Contrary to what people are saying, the students are being role models of democratic participation! It’s not enough, they’re saying, to manufacture consent to power—something those who claim to “represent” and “protect” us have cunningly been trying to do with an unhealthy zeal—but it is rather the participation in the power of the democracy that students are experimenting with through their intense participation as citizens.”

This ski-goggle donning teacher has also been inspired by the courage the students have taught him to have. “To remain standing, night after night, through pure conviction, as paramilitary forces are deployed to silence and break you, even if it is incredibly frightening and dangerous,” is something else to see.