For weeks, protesters have been promising to disrupt the Montreal Formula One Grand Prix, which is perhaps the biggest annual tourist event in Canada.
Police immediately made clear, as the event was just getting underway Thursday, how determined they were to keep that from happening.
The riot squad moved in and cornered protesters so quickly that the first Grand Prix-related demonstration had barely begun and protesters were already being rounded up, with some of them being arrested.
A group of protesters, many of them masked or wearing black, had been approaching the site of a cocktail party kicking off four days of car-racing festivities.
Police swept in and surrounded them, through the controversial tactic known as kettling, just as protesters reached a barrier about 100 metres from the party.
They made sure media were kept far away from the scene. Reporters were warned that if they remained with protesters inside the kettle they would be arrested. One journalist was grabbed by the arm and moved away from the crowd of demonstrators.
“Why are we being held here? Did we do anything wrong?” one woman yelled at police. The officers did not reply.
Police moved through the crowd of kettled protesters to conduct searches. They confiscated light bulbs filled with paint. About 20 people were arrested.
Within an hour the kettle was lifted, protesters cheered, and protesters continued marching toward another downtown area.
The Grand Prix race usually attracts 300,000 people — many of them wealthy tourists.
This year’s event has become the temporary epicentre of a months-long student uprising, which began as a battle over tuition fees but has evolved into a broader ideological struggle.
One-third of the province’s post-secondary students have walked out on their classes and Montreal has been the site of daily, occasionally turbulent, street demonstrations.
Now protesters, some of them opposed to tuition hikes and others opposed more generally to the practices of global capitalism, hope to thwart the car race and related parties that attract droves of big-spending jet-set visitors.
A cocktail party opening the event Thursday was being targeted by one hardcore protest group, which invited people to “disrupt” the event.
While people chanted and protested outside, guests at the exclusive garden party chatted and dined on champagne and oysters.
Among those attending the party were F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone and Michael Fortier, his co-president for the event who is also a businessman and former minister in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet. Drivers and team owners were also on the guest list, as was Canadian-born former F1 champ Jacques Villeneuve.
Asked what message he had for the students, Villeneuve said: “Go back to school.” The famous driver then delivered a lengthy castigation of protests that he called an embarrassment to Canada, especially to Quebec, and he said they could chase away tourists and wealthy taxpayers.
Ecclestone, the wealthy F1 impresario, seemed nonplussed by the protests. He said the circuit is used to dealing with demonstrations. As for the Quebec students, he said they had less to complain about than British students who have been protesting skyrocketing fees.
He did offer protesters one piece of advice: steer clear of the track. “It would be terrible if somebody got killed like that, you know, running across the track,” he said.
CLAC, an anti-capitalist group, has promised that over the weekend it will repeatedly target Crescent Street, which is traditionally the most active bar and restaurant strip during race week.
The party street hosted some unusual and turbulent scenes Thursday.
After protesters finally left the kettle they marched right up to the street made famous for its bars, luxury sports cars and dance-club crowd. When they arrived, they were blocked by a line of riot police protecting the street.
For a moment, two disparate worlds collided as red-square-wearing protesters and photo-snapping race fans exchanged distant glances — some of them curious, some puzzled and some hostile — from opposite ends of the police line.
One race fan heckled the protesters: “Get a life!” Some of the more even-tempered folks in the Crescent Street crowd sought to debate politics with the protesters — one of whom replied: “We’re not going to convince you, and you’re not going to convince us.”
There was a brief but boisterous standoff on the party strip. Some protesters tossed objects at police. Police immediately responded with blasts of pepper spray and by shoving away or arresting members of the crowd. One man was dragged across an intersection.
The most hectic of all weekend events could occur Sunday — on race day.
The CLAC group has encouraged people to pack the subway line that leads to the small island where the race track is located, in an attempt to slow down the transit system. The subway is usually the easiest way for most race enthusiasts to get to the race.
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