Internet vigilante justice against the police in Montréal through social media

I hate Instagram too, but arresting someone for using it is ridiculous
I hate Instagram too, but arresting someone for using it is ridiculous

It’s hard to trust the police in Montréal these days. “Officer 728” is a household name, known for her abuse of power, which was caught on video. There was also a famous CCTV video of a prostrate man being brutally kicked repeatedly by the Montréal police. This problem isn’t restricted to Montréal either. Recently a police officer in Vancouver was caught on video punching a cyclist in the face while putting him in handcuffs.

Technology and the abuse of police power

I used to largely dismiss reports of police abuses of power. When I saw graffiti saying, “eff the police” or something to that effect, I used to chalk it up to conspiracy theorists and delinquent youths. Now that it’s all on Youtube, it’s harder to ignore the problem.

(I also used to dismiss those who spray-painted “burn the banks” in a number of parts of Montréal as conspiracy theorists, but since 2008, I can kind of see where they’re coming from.)

We’re entering into an age when abuses of power by police are being caught on tape more and more often. I don’t think that police abusing their power is a new thing, or even that the rates have changed recently. I’m of the position that it might just be more visible because of the recent development that nearly everyone is carrying around a camera in their pocket that can instantly upload video of police brutality to Youtube. The Google Glass project (and the clones that are sure to follow) may make this even more common.

This is unsettling to me, partly because it might mean that a lot of the times I dismissed claims of police abuse, I was in the wrong.

We should all be legitimately outraged by this

More importantly though, this should make us all angry because this is not how justice works in Canada. Even if the robbery suspect was completely guilty of every crime the police suspected, we don’t allow individual police officers to dole out their own personal vengeance in the form of physical beatings. We certainly don’t allow groups of police officers to do so against suspected criminals as they lie helpless in the snow, and most emphatically, there is no place in Canadian justice for criminals to be punished in this way (or any other) without due process or without even having been formally charged with a crime.

A police officer punching a restrained person is much worse than a regular citizen punching another citizen. This is because the police are, so to speak, the final guarantee that the government has power over its citizens and that there is the rule of law in a country. The most basic reason for others not to steal your stuff is that if they do, there’s a good chance that the police will come and take away their freedom in such a way that it’s not worth it for most people to engage in that behaviour. All laws largely work on the same principle. Sure, there’s other sanctions that a government can use, like taxation, but even that is underwritten by the threat of police coming and putting you in prison if you break the tax laws.

So, when a police officer physically abuses a citizen, he shakes our faith in the proper functioning of the machinery of government. This makes the issue not just one of bad PR for a particular police department, but one of general faith in our country to work in a just and equitable way. Further, if the police are vigilantes and there is no recourse, it legitimizes vigilante justice by the people against the police.

This means that when a police officer abuses his power, there must be some recourse that is transparent, timely and just. There can’t even be the appearance that the police are above the law, otherwise what you will see is ordinary citizens taking the law into their own hands to bring the police to justice, which is a very scary prospect.

Ordinary citizens are taking the law into their own hands to bring the police to justice

In response to the issues I have described above, as well as a number of much less famous examples of abuse of police power during the protests in Montréal, there has been a movement toward the use of social media to identify the police who are abusing their power. This is being done by citizens who believe that there has been abuse of power by police in Montréal, and that the normal channels of addressing these abuses have been of no avail.

They are collecting photos, videos, identification numbers, names and addresses of police officers, cataloguing their transgressions and calling for retribution.

The police are calling this “intimidation.” They are calling for it to be taken down. They’re (rightly) complaining that there is no way for a police officer who is wrongly accused in this way to clear his name, and that the police, and even some non-police are being put in danger because of this.

What needs to happen

I have not been involved in the student protests in Montréal. I have never been beaten by the police. I generally believe that if I call 911, thanks to my skin colour, it will be the “good guys” who show up at my door. That said, I can understand why someone who was abused by a police officer might be tempted to post this information out of frustration at the ineffectiveness of the official recourse against such abuse.

In some ways, the police have been implicitly training us to use these methods if we want anything to get done: Likely the police officer from Vancouver would have gotten away with punching the cyclist in the face if the cyclist’s friend hadn’t caught it on video and posted it to Youtube.

If the police want us to use official channels to address police abuses, they have to give us reason to think that it’s better to do that than to just appeal to the Internet for justice. Politically-motivated arrests of people for posting “intimidating” things online won’t cut it.

I think we will only see a real change in public attitudes toward police brutality given the following three conditions.

  1. The official channels must be transparent. It must be clear to everyone that something is being done, and we have to see that officers who abuse their power are appropriately punished. Confidence in the relationship between the state and its citizens is what’s at stake, and so the solution must be one that publicly restores confidence.
  2. Official channels must be timely. The old adage, “justice delayed is justice denied” applies here. If citizens get impatient waiting for justice to be applied, they may be tempted to take it into their own hands.
  3. Finally, official recourse against police abuse must be just. This is where an official means of recourse against police brutality could actually outdo Internet vigilantes. Internet vigilante justice will always be faster and more transparent than anything official could ever be, but an official channel can enforce punishments fitting to the crime, and can claim legitimacy in a way that vigilantes never can.

If a police officer publicly faced criminal charges, rather than just a “paid leave of absence” followed by “counselling” and this happened in short order after an accusation of abuse, this would do a lot to restore faith in official channels. The people of Montréal might even learn that the legitimate checks and balances are preferable to pursuing vigilante justice through social media.

Good graffiti

Good graffiti
Good graffiti

Sometimes graffiti is worth looking at.

Often it’s nothing more than vandalism, but sometimes graffiti is actually good.

This is an example of some graffiti near the Costco in Montréal, and for about the last year, every time I passed it, I thought to myself, I should come back here and take some photos before something happens to prevent me.

So today, I finally did. I wanted to take the photos during the summer while it was still nice out, and I’m glad I didn’t keep forgetting about it.

The big picture
The big picture

This particular graffiti is good because of the use of vibrant colours, the cute characters, and the general overall effort that went into painting the side of that building.

It looks very attractive.

Also, I think that the fact that no one has painted over their graffiti helps.

There’s also a consistency of style across the entire wall that makes the whole composition work.

It’s just overall, a good piece of work.

Angry fish
Angry fish

I’m trying to pin down what it is that separates “good” graffiti from “bad.” I mean, the graffiti pictured to the left of this paragraph doesn’t have a lot of the qualities that the first example had.

It’s pretty much monochrome, and others have defaced it, but I like the angry fish.

I wish I could have seen it before it was painted over.

Maybe it’s that I like when graffiti has characters in it, rather than illegible words? I mean, I don’t understand what’s written in most graffiti, but when I see the angry fish, I understand, It’s an angry fish.

I have no clue what this says
I have no clue what this says

But there are some cases of incomprehensible writing that I like.

This one is also pretty good.

No idea what it says, and there’s no characters in it, but I still appreciate it.

By that I mean, if I owned a large building in a city, I don’t think I would be very upset if I came to work one morning and found something like this painted on it. (Assuming that the word, once deciphered, has a non-offensive meaning.)

I mean, it could be a lot worse. It could be spray-painted penises. There are enough of those in Montréal.

Come inside the door. We have candy.
Come inside the door. We have candy.

This graffiti is creepy. I think that’s why I like it.

Suspicious-looking bird
Suspicious-looking bird

So, so creepy. This graffiti also had a suspicious-looking bird on it.

I don’t blame the bird for being suspicious.

I’ve uploaded a few more photos to a Facebook album here. Check it out! :)

Answering my readers’ questions

Everyone gather ’round. It’s that time again! It’s time for me to answer my readers’ questions!

And by that, I mean, it’s time for me to see what strings of words people have typed into Google that brought them to my blog. Then I look through the search keywords that are (more-or-less) well-formed questions and answer them as best I can. It’s the least I could do, since they took the time to visit my site with these questions on their mind.

“Why can’t the space shuttle leave conventionally from an airport?” (July 26)

Mostly because it’s not an airplane. Those booster rockets that the space shuttle normally uses for take-off are not decorative.

“If I fired a laser beam at my hand would it come out the other side?” (Aug 4)


“How to castle in chess with friends?” (July 31, Aug 7, 14, 17)

Begin a chess game with a friend, castle normally.

“How do you move your king and castle at the same time?” (July 26)

You probably meant “How do you move your king and your rook at the same time?”

“Rook” is the name for the pieces that start at the corners of the board.

In chess, “castle” is a verb. It’s the verb that means to move your rook and king at the same time, two spaces toward each other, provided that the intervening spaces are not occupied and that neither the king nor rook has been moved before in the match (and that you’re not trying to castle out of check).

“Cheat on MCAT tips?” (Aug 1) / “How to cheat the MCAT?” (July 30)

Are you really asking me to help you to cheat on the MCAT? Get out.

“Has anyone ever cheated on MCAT before?” (July 28)

No. No one in the history of mankind. No one whose motives were so pure as to aspire to medical school has ever even considered cheating to attain such a goal.

“Grammar is one of the greatest joys in life, don’t you find?” (Aug 8)

Actually, now that you mention it, grammar is the greatest joy in life.

“How to avoid getting your bike stolen [in] Montréal?” (Aug 25)

Sell bike, and buy Bixi pass with the proceeds.

“How to get your thesis bound at McGill” (July 27)

You gotta do it yourself, I’m afraid. You can get Acco-Press binders at the bookstore.

“How to take someones fortune?” (Aug 21)


“I bought wrong grammar?” (Aug 10)

You sure did.

“I might have strep throat I don’t got insurance?” (Aug 7)

That’s quite the predicament! Are you a Canadian citizen?

“Is there a Montréal métro pass for mature students?” (Aug 19)

Nope. No such thing. Once you’re 25, you pay full price, whether you’re a full-time student or not.

“What happens after you accept a TA-ship offer?” (Aug 4)

Heh … Do you really want to know?

“What is giving you the most problems with Microsoft Word?” (July 26)

Thank you for asking! Mostly crashing, interface glitches and the fact that there’s no separation between content, formatting, comments and meta-data.

“Where can i get hasperat?” (July 28)

Bajor, if you want it authentic.

But if you would make the brine for a really strong hasperat—I mean eye watering, tongue searing strong—you’d make an old man very happy.

GC [sic] Habs Go

GC Habs Go
GC Habs Go

I understand the desire to include the logo of one’s sports team of choice in the place of letters that are part of an encouragement to that team.

This only works, however, if the logo is not in fact a different letter of the alphabet than the letter it replaces.

For example, if a team’s logo was, say a stylised hockey puck, that could be used to replace the “O” in “Go [Team Name] Go!”

There’s just something unsettling about seeing the letter “O” replaced by a logo that is essentially a stylised letter “C” with a letter “H” inside it.

Stickers on the glass of a pizza place

Pizza sticker
Pizza sticker

By my house, there’s a Double Pizza, and for the last little while, there’s been a big poster in their front window advertising for cheap pizza. A couple days ago, I guess they decided that the promotion was over, and put stickers on the glass in front of the poster.

This makes me smile. I think it’s because the original numbers are clearly visible behind the stickers. It’s like they’re saying, “Yeah, prices went up. Oh well.”

Car accident

Car accident near Snowdon Station
Car accident near Snowdon Station

I promise—not all my posts from now on are going to be about traffic flow in Montréal. I just happened to surface at Snowdon Station today after my office hours on campus, and the very moment I stepped out of the station, I heard a loud bang. Looking to my right, a car had run into a big white van marked “Incendie.”

No one got hurt, but I bet that put a damper on their Robbie Burns’ Day celebrations.

Metro adventure today

Metro Adventure
Metro Adventure

It’s getting so that you can’t trust the métro any more!

I was trapped at station Lionel-Groulx for a good long time on Wednesday. Me and a few hundred people and one yelling guy. That wasn’t too bad.

Then today, just after I finished TA-ing my first conferences of the semester, a few minutes before 14h this afternoon, I transferred to the orange line at station Lionel-Groulx, and when my metro car was between Vendôme and Place St-Henri, the lights unexpectedly went out, and the train sort of coasted to a stop between the stations.

A voice over the speaker eventually informed us that we would be evacuated.

Below are a couple of videos that I recorded on my iPod. The first is a short one of us getting off the train, and the second is a longish (30 seconds) one of us walking along the métro tunnel toward Vendôme.

When I got there, I just got in a cab and went to station Snowdon, since I didn’t know what bus to take. A nice old lady shared a cab with me, and wouldn’t let me pay for it, so it didn’t cost me a thing!

According to the STM Twitter feed, service is only just now (15h10) gradually resuming.